A quinceañera celebration is momentous for any 15-year-old Latina, marking her passage from girlhood to womanhood. For Briana Calixto, it truly was the start of a life transformation, but not in the way she expected.

It all began with the dress fitting. Five months before her quinceañera in March 2014, Calixto found a dress that fit perfectly. Then two months before the big day, she went back for another fitting.

“I tried it on, and it didn’t want to zip,” recalls Calixto. “They had to put in a corset.”

When she got dressed on the day of her quinceañera, the corset wouldn’t close. Calixto made the best of it and enjoyed her party anyway. Her mother, however, grew concerned.

“My mom said, ‘Hey, you are gaining too much weight. You have to start going to the gym,’” Calixto recalls.

Her mother got a family membership to the Watts Family Maryvale YMCA near their home and registered Calixto for Zumba classes. At first, she hated it.

“I would cry from anxiety,” recalls Calixto. “I would stand in the back of the room very stiff and just move my arms a little. I was mad that my mom forced me to be in the class. It was horrible.”

For about six months, Calixto made excuses to miss class as much as she could. When her mom forced her to go, it put her in a bad mood.

Eventually, though, she started noticing changes in her body and how her clothes fit.

“After about six to eight months, I started noticing how much water I was drinking because of all the movement I was doing in class compared to when I did nothing at all,” says Calixto. “And my shirts were not as tight. That’s when I started thinking, ‘Maybe it does work.’”

THE STUDENT BECOMES THE TEACHER

Calixto also took note of how the other students interacted with each other and with the instructor. As a shy teenager, she had always struggled to make new friends.

“I think that is the thing that made me want to push myself more,” says Calixto. “I wanted to be part of their little group.”

Eventually Calixto was taking Zumba classes at the Y five days a week. Over time she moved from the back of the room to the middle and then up front.

After she turned 18, she started lifting weights too. She ended up losing about 40 pounds, which drew the attention of her classmates and instructors.

“My body changed drastically,” says Calixto. “People started giving me compliments. The instructors even told me I danced really good.”

In fact, instructors started telling Calixto she was so good she should get certified to teach Zumba. Although she resisted at first, thinking she didn’t have the stamina, eventually she agreed to volunteer as an instructor for a class nobody else was available to teach.

Now, that shy, anxious, reluctant 15-year-old in the back of the class has transformed into a 20-year-old certified Zumba and Strength-Train Together instructor leading the class.

In that role, she is always on the lookout for students in the back of the room who might need extra encouragement and attention, like she did. For example, she has one extremely shy, self-conscious student.

“Come forward. It’s okay,” Calixto told the girl one day. “No one is really looking at your dancing. They are looking at themselves or at me. Just focus on what you’re doing. You are going to see a great difference in your dancing skills and your health if you keep at it.”

PAYING IT FORWARD

Of course, Calixto was speaking from experience. She credits the Y not only with her improved dancing moves and weight loss but also with her enhanced social skills and healthy attitude.

“Going to the Y has improved my social skills drastically,” says Calixto. “I feel I am able to talk to people now.

“My lifestyle has also changed. I am not just eating chips on the weekend. I’m actually watching what I’m eating because the Y has made me aware of my health, not just how I look physically but also how I am inside.”

While Calixto teaches fitness classes two days a week at the Maryvale Y, she also studies computer engineering and cybersecurity part-time at Phoenix College. She has ambitions of working for Microsoft or Apple one day.

But she also wants to continue her career in health and fitness at the Maryvale YMCA. She hopes to become the facility’s first personal trainer.

“This is the Y that I have grown up with and that has changed me,” says Calixto. “I want to stay here as long as possible and continue the tradition of impacting girls the way I was impacted.”