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Valerie Johnson
From left to right: Tomi Ossana, director of community engagement, Peter Adler, president of Molina Healthcare of Washington, Peter Christie representing Ballet West's I Can Do program, Sinai Pauni, and Hal Gooch, president of Molina Healthcare of Utah, at Molina Healthcare's Community Champion award ceremony on May 19.

Sinai Pauni and a host of friends and family wake up before dawn every weekday to teach a free Zumba class, and they've been doing it for five years.

Fittingly, the class, which meets at 5:30 a.m., is called Early Morning Zumba. Despite the early hour, EMZ has attracted a faithful following of students and teachers from the Glendale and Salt Lake City community.

The class began as a way for Pauni to become comfortable with teaching Zumba.

“I honestly didn't feel like I was ready for that, so I thought, 'Well, I probably need to practice, do a couple classes where I can teach for free,'” she said. “'That way if they're disappointed, it's OK. They didn't pay any money.'”

In August 2010, Pauni taught her first class in the Harold B. Lee Hall in Glendale, Kane County.

“We only had three (other) people there — me, the girl who got the gym and two other ladies," Pauni said. "That was it.”

With school starting, Pauni wasn’t sure she could continue the class.

“I asked for suggestions, and the timeframe we decided on was 5:30 because everybody felt like it's not super, super early, but it's early enough to do a one-hour workout and still get home to either go to work or get kids off to school.”

From that point, the class and the pool of instructors grew. When Pauni left town for a few days, a couple of students, Betsy Mahe Vakapuna and Beti ‘Iloa Tu’aefe, took her place teaching.

Several others soon joined Pauni in teaching EMZ.

“I didn't really start teaching until Sinai's mom told me, 'Why are you not sharing your talent? Why can't you help my daughter?'” said Satomi Biggs, who first met Pauni when they were being certified to teach Zumba.

With a new instructor came an adjustment period.

“I was the first one that was not Polynesian to help teach with them," Biggs said. "... They were not used to my styles, and I was not used to what they preferred. I learned that I need to understand who I teach.”

Through word of mouth, inviting family and friends, and using Facebook, the class grew too large for the Harold B. Lee Hall. It then outgrew a cultural hall of a local building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Currently, EMZ meets in an LDS stake center cultural hall, and it is regularly filled to capacity.

Others, such as Heamoni “Moni” Filimoeatu, have taken it upon themselves to open the building and clean it as is needed before the instructors arrive.

“We just do it like this is your home, so we come and make sure that everything looks nice and ready for them to come in,” said Filimoeatu, who is Pauni’s aunt.

EMZ is open to anyone in the community.

“It is a big family. You don't see this kind of stuff, like big family relationship, anywhere else,” said Maki Yamagata. “It's just completely different. That's why I think it attracts more people because people (are) always welcome. No matter what shape you're in, what races you're in, it doesn't matter. Once you come here, we're all the same.”

Liu Vakapuna is one of the few male instructors at EMZ.

“From a male's perspective, it's a lot harder (to come) because it's frowned upon; it's looked upon as a feminine thing to do," he said. "As you can see, we've got a lot of males here who come with their wives, and it's fun.”

Many students have made improvements and have lost weight after attending EMZ.

“Right now we do a lot of hard-core, like big movement. But if it was four years ago, if we had done that, nobody would have kept up with it,” Biggs said. “Now when we bring our old songs, we think, 'Is this too slow?'”

More importantly, EMZ promotes health and wellness through physical activity.

“There's something about Zumba where the music is fun and inspiring, and you're having fun because you're dancing, so you don't feel so much like you're working out,” said instructor Dana Rossi.

“My father died from diabetes,” said Marriam Mohi, who teaches at EMZ. That motivated her “to fight diabetes and to fight all the diseases that run in my family. All it takes is for us to move our body, keep our body moving.”

Mohi continually promotes living healthier.

“If you want to live a healthy life ... you have to move, you have to kill the calories, you have to kill the diabetes because if you don't move, you're going to die slowly," she said.

Molina Healthcare honored Pauni at the eighth annual Community Champions awards ceremony May 19 for her work in promoting physical fitness and reducing obesity. Molina Healthcare also donated a $1,000 grant to the nonprofit organization of her choice, which was Ballet West’s I Can Do program.

EMZ was also recognized by SelectHealth’s Select 25 in 2011 for promoting health and weight loss among Polynesian women. It has also participated in the annual Utah Pacific Islanders Health Week.

“There are plenty of other free classes that are offered,” Pauni said. “We're just very lucky that we've had the attention from the community and whatnot. Every day, I just keep thinking that I'm grateful for that because it was just supposed to be for practice, then a few of the friends teaching. Now it's kind of hard to just stop.”

The class meets at 961 W. Fremont Ave. in Glendale, Monday through Friday, for one hour beginning at 5:30 a.m.