CNN — Ashlee Tomsche walked into the rec center with trepidation. Images of six-pack abs and neon sports bras from the Zumba infomercials she had watched flashed through her mind.
I'm going to look like a complete fool, she thought.
With her head down, she walked into the aerobics room and took a spot in the back. She was 21 and weighed 331 pounds.
Zumba is a Latin-inspired dance fitness class that blends booty shaking with international music and an intense calorie burn. Since the company launched in 2001, Zumba classes have spread to 14 million people in 150 countries, according to Zumba.com.
Tomsche's first class was hard. She had to stop several times to catch her breath. But she came back the next day. And then again the next. A year later, she had dropped 123 pounds, six dress sizes and more than 10 inches from her waist.
"It's just crazy," the Arkansas City, Kansas, resident says. "We're having too much fun."
Tomsche was an overweight child, but it wasn't until her best friend committed suicide when she was 16 that she started packing on the pounds.
"It really hit me hard, and I turned to food for comfort," she remembers. "It was always there."
She indulged in chips and ice cream, and drank soda by the gallon. She would eat an entire pizza by herself in one sitting. Every time she binged on junk food, she felt sick and swore she'd never do it again. But overeating had already taken its toll.
She didn't go out because she wasn't confident in her body. Instead she came home right after work to snack in front of the TV. Once in a while she would hit the gym to walk on the treadmill, but it bored her more than empowering her.
"I knew I needed to lose weight, but I never knew where to start," she says. "I would try something for a few months and give up."
Then she found Zumba.
Instructor Maria Venegas remembers when Tomsche first tried her Zumba class. Tomsche wore baggy clothing and seemed unsure in her body.
"She would go and sit down about a third (of the) way into class," Venegas says. "But she would get right back up and continue to do what she could."
Venegas teaches seven Zumba classes a week in Arkansas City in addition to working as an office manager and professional photographer.
"I used to think it was my kids that kept me young," the single mother of two says. "But it has been my venture to become a Zumba instructor that has (been) the fountain of youth, for myself and many others."
Venegas creates her own routines, incorporating music from popular artists such as Michael Jackson and Ne-Yo into her classes. In a typical hourlong class, participants burn between 300 and 650 calories.
"Every class is always different," Tomsche says. "I'm addicted."
Tomsche loves Zumba so much she didn't even realize at first she was losing weight. But after four months, she had dropped 20 pounds and was getting compliments from her classmates. The attention encouraged her to keep going.
"Now (she) walks in with a big smile ... shoulders back and head up high," Venegas says.
Small town, big inspiration
Tomsche tracks her daily calories on the MyFitnessPal app and drinks protein shakes for breakfast. Giving up junk food has been hard, but she splurges occasionally on thin-crust pizza or Nutella on whole wheat waffles.
Tomsche does Zumba five to six times a week and tries to stay active the rest of the day. Her hard work has paid off -- she weighs 208 pounds and wears a size 14 pants.
"The simplest things in life have become easier," Tomsche wrote in a CNN iReport submission. "I don't feel like I can't breathe when I bend over to tie my shoes. I'm not out of breath when I walk up and down the halls at work, and even sleeping is easier since I don't have all that excess weight pressing down on me."
Venegas offered to do a professional photo shoot with Tomsche in January, and they posted the pictures online. Venegas' Zumba classes quickly filled up. She says Tomsche has inspired their small community.
Tomsche is just happy she's gotten her smile back.
"I never thought coming from a town of 12,000 (people) that I would be an inspiration for anyone," she says. "It's just given me so much confidence in myself."
Her advice for others who are struggling to lose weight? Find a workout that you love.
"It can be done," she says simply.
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By Jacque Wilson