News Column

Zumba on the Move in the Fitness World

Page 5 of 1

On a rooftop parking lot, with temperatures in the chilly low 50s, a crowd of all ages shimmied and shook, sweated and smiled as DJ Francis played an eclectic mix of dance music. But this wasn't just another wild South Florida party. It was a special Zumba class for charity, led last month by the creator of the global craze, Alberto "Beto" Perez.

The charismatic Colombian in cargo pants - who has become a rock star in the fitness world - climbed onto the roof of a Chevy minivan that doubled as a stage. He demonstrated salsa steps, the merengue march and many other Latin-inspired dance moves - all while also cueing the drummer and the Bongo player.

For an hour, 75 of his adoring fans - and even the minivan - moved to the beat.

"Everybody loves it; everybody has fun," Perez said while posing for pictures with his Zumba faithful, some who traveled from as far as Canada.

Two days later, Perez flew to New York to appear on the TV morning show "Live! with Kelly." "You must be so rich by now," host Kelly Ripa gushed to Perez, 41.

Perez' Zumba classes, with the motto "Ditch the Workout, Join the Party," were strictly a South Florida phenomenon 10 years ago. Today, Zumba Fitness has become the largest branded fitness program in the world, with about 12 million people taking Zumba classes weekly at 110,000 locations in at least 125 countries, according to company spokeswoman Allison Robins.

The private company won't reveal information about the company's finances or its net worth. But at a time when most of the world is struggling economically, Zumba Fitness' empire appears to be flourishing. It is doing so on the strength of a growing army of certified instructors who spread the Zumba gospel to such distant outposts as Iceland, Papua New Guinea, Nepal and even Afghanistan - at the Kabul Community Center.

Zumba instructor Liz Ramirez, a U.S. Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development, said in an email that she teaches classes in the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy Compound that was attacked in September.

"In an environment like this, Zumba has been my lifeline," Ramirez said. "It provides me with a creative outlet ... a needed balance to the challenges and demands of the workplace. The music is upbeat and the environment is supportive."

And you don't have to be in a war zone to need a stress reliever. Florida Keys attorney Dorothy Harden discovered Zumba classes two months ago and is hooked. "It feels like exercise because you are sweating, but it's so much fun you forget you're exercising," she said. "You get your inner-dance on. And now I can fit into my clothes from college."

Many fitness crazes have come and gone: barefoot running, hula hooping, Nordic tracks and strip aerobics, once a favorite of Carmen Electra. Staying power is tough in the ever-evolving fitness industry. John Figarelli, founder of the National Fitness Hall of Fame Museum and author of The History of Fitness: Fads, Gimmicks and Gadgets, said: "I think the owners of Zumba did a great job of getting it going from a business standpoint."

Zumba Fitness does not charge gyms to carry its classes. Instead, it trains instructors and gives them the license and use of the trademark if they join the Zumba Instructor Network.

"We're helping the instructors to become entrepreneurs and make a living out of it," said company co-founder Alberto Aghion, a Florida International University alum who last year entered the school's Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame.

It's a sound strategy, said Figarelli, whose book covers 100 years of working out, from 1900 to 2000. "Most group exercise instructors will just go with the next popular class. But if Zumba is your business, instructors will stay with that."

Ensuring instructors are successful has become the company's main mission. "We have three people who all they do is call up gyms all day and try to find instructors employment," said company co-founder Alberto Perlman.

The company has made Zumba instructors easy to find, with a worldwide listing that includes all of their network instructors' classes regularly updated on the company's website. Instructors also receive new music and choreography about every two months. The music department now creates music just for Zumba classes, with original songs that include Zumbalicious, Que Te Mueve and Caipirinha, which was a No. 1 song in Israel.

Zumba Fitness makes its money on its instructors academy, instructors courses, monthly fee for instructors in their network and on all its brand merchandise. The company has built its own line of hip, colorful clothing and footwear, workout DVDS, two video games, original music and a lifestyle magazine, Z-Life.

The first Zumba Fitness video game came out in 2010 and was a big success, selling more than four million copies - and outperforming Harry Potter's new video game. "One headline said, 'Harry Potter and magic can't vanquish Zumba,' " Perlman said.

International music stars Pitbull and Wyclef Jean have seen the value of the Zumba loyalists and their love of music. Both performed at Zumba's national convention last year in Orlando, where 7,000 instructors from around the world congregated.

This was not the business model when Zumba Fitness was founded in Aventura, Fla., in 2001 by the "three Albertos" - creator Perez and boyhood friends Perlman and Aghion, both entrepreneurs in their mid-20s and natives of Colombia. The trio's original plan was simple: produce VHS workout tapes of Perez' popular South Florida classes to sell around the country on infomercials.

The story of Zumba Fitness predates even those humble plans, dating back to 1986 - in the slums of Cali, Colombia. And it's a story that includes rejection, a mother's prodding, the dot-com bubble burst, a Baywatch babe, some tiny fibs, John Travolta and even Tony the Tiger.

Perez fell in love with dancing at age 7 by watching a VHS tape of the 1978 movie Grease, starring Travolta. At age 16, he was teaching aerobics classes for $1 an hour. One day, he forgot his prepared music. All he had in his backpack was a cassette tape of merengue and salsa music he recorded off the radio.

His morning class was full of moms who had dropped their kids off at school. "I can't say, 'Hey sorry, I forgot my music'," Perez said. "I say to the people: 'I have a new class I prepared for a long time.' It was not true. I improvised for one hour."

The moms loved the dancing exercise. Perez turned it into a regular class in Cali. He soon moved to the Colombian capital of Bogota, where he continued those classes and became a choreographer for Sony Music and Shakira.

In 1999, Perez came to the United States for the first time. He pounded the pavement on South Beach, going from gym to gym. Nobody was interested in this new dance exercise class by a guy who couldn't speak English.

Perez returned to Colombia but didn't give up. On his fourth trip to Miami he landed a job at the swanky Williams Island Spa where several Colombians lived. Some had even taken classes with him in Bogota.

Within a year, Perez was in demand, teaching 22 classes all over South Florida. At the same time, Perlman and Aghion were looking for a new business venture after the dot-com bubble burst, which led to the demise of their Internet company Spydre Labs, an incubator for Internet companies related to Latin America.

Enter Raquel Perlman. While Alberto Perlman was telling his mom about how badly he was feeling for laying off people, she was telling him about how happy she was taking Perez' classes that were then called Rumbacize.

"You should meet Beto and maybe start a gym together," she told her son. "He's the talk of Aventura."

Perlman, now 35 and the company's CEO, resisted at first. But after more of mom's prodding, Perlman called Perez and they met at a Starbucks. Perez told Perlman to attend a class to understand why people loved it.

Perlman watched a class and was reminded of people having fun at a night club, but without the drinking and pickup lines.

"Beto, have you heard of Billy Blanks' Tae Bo? Why don't we do VHS tapes and sell them on television?" Perlman said he told Perez.

Aghion, now 36 and the company's president, joined the venture. Their first stumbling block came when they went to trademark Rumbacize, a play off Jazzercise and rumba, which means to party in Spanish. They discovered Rumbacize had been covertly registered by the owner of a fitness club where Perez taught classes. So the three Albertos went to a Houston's restaurant in North Miami Beach and brainstormed.

"Bumba. Cumba. We said everything trying to find something that rhymed with Rumba," Perlman recalled. "Wumba. That sounded like something for pregnancy."

They were getting nervous. Nothing sounded right.

"Then we got to Zumba," Perlman said. "That's it. We were excited."

In August 2001, the trio founded Zumba Fitness. "We were known as the worst dancers in our class," Perlman said about himself and Alghion. "And we still can't dance."

They started with about $4,000 - their entire combined savings - and ran the new enterprise out of the garage of Aghion's Aventura home.

To create a demonstration video to show investors, the three stayed up all night laying down boards to create a dance floor on the beach outside a Sunny Isles hotel. About 200 of Perez' students paid $20 each for the class, raising another $4,000.

The video went well. Investors lined up. Then the terrorist strikes of 9/11 occurred and the investors pulled out, Perlman said.

The project seemed dead until Perez' gym contacts led to a meeting with an Ohio company called Fitness Quest, which sold Total Gyms. Perlman was leery that a Latin-based video would go over well in America's heartland, but he put on a suit and made the trip.

Fitness Quest's CEO looked at the tape. Perlman said his reaction was: "If I get to meet the blond standing next to Beto, I'll do the deal."

But there was one more thing. Could Perez speak English? At the time, he could not. But Perez told Perlman to tell them he could. When the Fitness Quest executives met Perez, he told each one: "Nice to meet you. I'm sorry. I need to go."

Perez' plan worked. Fitness Quest produced four Zumba videos and a 30-minute infomercial with Baywatch babe Donna D'Errico as the hostess. She asked Perez: "What kind of muscles do you get?" It took Perez 18 takes to correctly say: "Long, lean looking muscles."

When the infomercial began running on TV, people rang the call center in Ohio to buy the videos. But a few also called to inquire how to become Zumba instructors. Those callers were forwarded to Zumba's office - at Aghion's home. After a few 2 a.m. wakeups, Aghion realized there was another business opportunity.

A two-day Zumba training was held at a South Florida Radisson Hotel. About 150 people showed up, paying $300 each. The fitness manual was a bunch of arrows that attempted to show Perez' moves. "It was horrible," Perlman admitted.

While using the profits of one training session to pay for the next session, a Miami-based advertising agent for Kellogg's called in 2003. The wife of then CEO Carlos Gutierrez was a Zumba fanatic and she thought it was the perfect activity to get the Hispanic market to exercise and get involved with the Special K brand.

Kellogg's put Zumba Fitness on its cereal box. Over three years, the companies held publicity stops at nine of the largest Hispanic cities in the United States. Perez led classes with adults and kids in a hot Tony the Tiger costume.

While the campaign was a success, Zumba Fitness was still a struggling company in 2006, with just five employees. The three Albertos said they kept going because of all the stories from instructors and class participants about how Zumba changed their lives for the better.

Their perseverance and faith paid off. In 2007, when much of the U.S. and global economy was starting to tank, Zumba Fitness took off. Many laid-off workers became Zumba instructors. The company launched its international program and 24 Hour Fitness became the first big chain to embrace Zumba classes. All the other major fitness chains have since followed suit.

Zumba Fitness also has greatly benefited from Internet advertising and social media. Many people discovered Zumba via YouTube videos. Zumba Fitness started a Facebook page about a year ago and now has more than 3 million fans. Zumba is mentioned every 11 seconds in social media platforms, Robins said.

Perez travels the world with DJ Francis to teach people how to become Zumba instructors.

Zumba classes are an especially big hit in the United Kingdom. While there are only 7,000 gyms there, classes are held at 13,000 locations, including hospitals and churches.

In Prague, Perez was on a news program to talk about his training session. When he learned that one couple had delayed their wedding to take the class, Perez jokingly said he would marry them. The couple arrived in a white dress and tux.

From Malaysia, "Beto calls me and says he thinks he just taught a class of ninjas because they were wearing black outfits in the Muslim section," Perlman said.

Perez said he couldn't see their faces during the class, "but I think they were smiling."

The three Albertos all laughed at the story while seated around the large conference table inside Zumba Fitness' new headquarters at The Village at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. They now employ 217 people, nearly four times the staff it had just 18 months ago.

A tour of the new headquarters began with the technology room. "It is huge for us," said Robins, a company spokeswoman. "We're an e-commerce business."

She continued with the music department, photo and video studios, legal department, accounting offices and, of course, a workout room for Zumba classes. Another room is filled with materials and designs for cargo pants, Z-top shoes, glow belts, party packs and other Zumba signature items. The popularity of its bold and bright colored apparel was evident at the rooftop parking lot class.

Zumba Fitness' success also stems from its ability to reach all ages. A few years ago Joy Prouty, 70, a former Rockette at Radio City Music Hall in New York, suggested classes geared for her generation. The result: Zumba Gold.

Aqua Zumba, called a "pool party," Zumba Toning and Zumbatomic for Kids followed.

For the first time, Zumba made the American College of Sports Medicine's top 10 Worldwide Fitness Trends, coming in at No. 9 in the 2012 survey. It is ahead of yoga, boot camp, outdoor activities and spinning.

"Zumba is kind of interesting," said Walter R. Thompson, professor of exercise science at Georgia State University and lead author of the trend survey. "It's been on the survey list for the past three years and never got any traction. At the urging of my Zumba instructor friends I left it on the survey list and lo and behold it's No. 9."

It's not clear yet if Zumba will have a long shelf life or be added to the long list of exercise fads, Thompson said. He will follow it to see if it stays on the world trend survey list for the next few years.

"I hope it stays around," Thompson said. "It's motivating a lot of people to exercise."

That was the case for Colombian Tatiana Ward, who attended Perez's Coral Gables rooftop class with her 67-year-old aunt. Ward said she lost 40 pounds with Zumba classes and now is an instructor who owns Cumbia Fitness in Keokuk, Iowa, pop. 6,000. "We only have three Hispanics in the whole town and Zumba is still huge there," Ward said. "The Latin rhythms are new to them and hypnotic. They love it. Love the energy. People of all size and ages come and feel welcome."

The high-calorie burning classes featured many dancing styles, including the mambo, tango, reggaeton, hip-hop and belly dancing.

Zumba Fitness arrived in Japan in March 2007. Instructor Mari Furukawa said by email that it's the most popular dance program in the country now, with about 2,000 instructors. She loves that the music does the talking, with the instructors not wearing headsets and verbally cueing the next moves as is the case in most group fitness classes.

In Capetown, South Africa, Franco Human leads Zumba classes six days a week. He said the positive energy from the class allows you to forget everything about your day. "I call it the Zumba buzz," he said.

Instructors in Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and Austria, picked randomly from the list on Zumba's website, also were equally enthusiastic about teaching Zumba classes.

Mansoor Galant, also an instructor from South Africa, said Zumba is "a workout in disguise."

Princess Cruises, always looking for new activities for its passengers, now offers Zumba classes on its entire fleet of 16 ships.

"We have a lot of passenger participation," said Karen Candy, a spokeswoman for the cruise line. "Zumba is all the craze. Sometimes there are classes of more than 200."

And Zumba's popularity continues to get bigger in South Florida. Three months ago, single mom and Zumba instructor Kristine Ingold, 27, opened her own business, Ingold Studios in Key Largo. "I cater to the locals and the tourists," she said. "I get calls from people coming from Wisconsin or Chicago who want to take my classes during their vacation. They find me on Zumba.com."

The company also has used its popularity for charitable causes. Zumbathons are drawing large numbers. Margo Lucero, vice president of business development and partnerships for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, said she was "shocked" that Zumbathons in 2010 raised $500,000 for the foundation.

"Their minimum guarantee to us was $16,000," Lucero said.

In 2011, the Zumba/Komen partnership continued, with nearly 3,000 "Party in Pink" Zumbathons held in 30 countries, raising nearly $1.1 million for the research, treatment and education of breast cancer. Nearly 4,000 people crammed inside the Alexandra Palace in London for one Zumbathon in which Wyclef Jean sang Historia.

"We want to create the ultimate platform for fundraising for charities," said Perlman, who serves on the board of the Soccer for Peace Foundation.

The biggest problem for Zumba these days is counterfeiting, piracy and protecting its trademark. "We are spending seven figures on fighting this," Perlman said. "Counterfeiting is crazy. We see illegal instructors all the time."

The founders are also spending a lot of their time on "what's next" for the company. A lofty goal is to reach 100 million participants. Perlman also envisions revolutionizing fitness concerts.

Zumba Fitness participated in three concerts last year with Miami-native Pitbull during his "Euphoria Tour." The relationship began when Perez choreographed the video to Pitbull's Pause.

"Imagine a concert where you can participate and be part of the show," Perlman said, "and where you can do something good for yourself."

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