Party on your feet! The story of Zumba

By Lunagiselle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65719094

When Beto Perez forgot his music tapes for an aerobics class his quick thinking led to a fitness boom now worth at least $500M.

Perez was a 16 year old instructor in Colombia and as his customers filtered in for class he realized he didn’t have his regular Top 40 tapes.

Holy instant improvisations. Beto needed a Plan B and fast.

He threw on some of his favorite tunes from his backpack and announced to his class that they were going to try something new.

Perez improvised and started to combine aerobics with some up-tempo dance moves. The clients loved it.

Zumba was born.

Combining aerobics with Latin dance and hip hop, Zumba has grown to become a worldwide fitness phenomenon.

photo credit: calafellvalo y Cursa de la Dona 2019 (195) via photopin (license)

It operates in 180 countries with an estimated 15 million weekly participants. Zumba has over 100,000 instructors across the globe, keeping people moving, sweating and most tellingly – smiling.

The basic concept of making Zumba fun is the key to its success. The music is crucial – a typical Zumba class will use a mix of merengue, salsa, hip hop and pop with all songs sharing one element.

They are very upbeat, catchy and popular. The classes are loud, loose and busy. Think more nightclub or party than a regimented aerobics class. Without the tequila shots, naturally.

The Zumba moves are easy to learn but also burn plenty of calories. Participants can move at a moderate or high level of intensity making Zumba ideal for all fitness levels.

People normally averse to exercise can not only do it but enjoy it. As participants can self-pace their ages can range from 18 to 88.

Perez grew up loving dance. As an 8 year old he was blown away by John Travolta and Grease and mimicked the moves. He started teaching dance to his friends and classmates.

At 18 he won a national Lambada contest on TV. (For those unfortunately born too late to remember, Lambada is Brazilian dance that was huge in the late 80s / early 90s. Check youtube.).

His classes proved a hit and Beto was soon teaching his new style to packed classes. He called it “rumba” – meaning “to party”.

However he had one eye firmly on teaching his classes in America and in 1999 Perez decided to chance his arm.

He moved to Florida however had no jobs lined up or any useful contacts. Added to this was that Perez could barely speak English and was hard up ordering a coffee, let alone promoting his talents and conducting fitness classes.

To say it was ambitious is a massive understatement.

Beto went door-knocking at fitness centers to try and get an audition. He took a friend to help translate but no joy.

Finally the manager of a gym in Miami decided to give him a shot: Just her and Beto in a studio, for an audition.

Perez met her on a quiet Friday afternoon, swallowing his fear and knowing this was a real opportunity. He wanted his opening track to be a winner and went for “Oye Como Va” by the mighty Santana (youtube it – it’s a toetapper).

The manager smiled. Beto started doing his stuff with his infectious enthusiasm. She loved it.

Regular customers who had been shuffling into the gym or working out saw the dancing and heard the music. They thought it was a new class and entered the studio, joining in. Clapping to each song. 5, 6 then 20 people.

The audition was only supposed to be 15 minutes but Perez danced for an hour. He was hired.

This was his first break.

One of Beto’s students was the mother of Alberto Perlman who was an entrepreneur looking for new possibilities.

Perlman was a fellow Colombian and had invested in several Latin tech companies but had to bail out after the tech bubble burst in the late 90s.

He was pondering his next move when his mother urged him to go and check out this wildly popular dance and fitness class. She thought it had serious investment potential.

Perlman shrugged and went to watch one of Beto’s classes. He had no background in the fitness industry but was intrigued by his mother’s enthusiasm.

The first thing that struck him was that everyone was smiling. They were also sweating from head to toe. This was it!

Perlman realized that Perez had the winning formula – a fitness class that people enjoyed and wanted to do.

They went into business and got to work on producing video tapes of the classes. Perlman brought in his friend Alberto Aghion (yes, that makes 3 Albertos) and with their background in direct marketing they decided to sell the videos as infomercials.

Beto could still hardly speak English so he underwent daily English lessons with his friends so he could at least explain the Zumba basics on DVDs.

The trio approached production companies but were told politely but firmly “No”. However they knew from their packed classes that this wasn’t mindless optimism so they persevered.

Finally in 2001 an informercial company in Ohio signed them up.  The DVD sales were impressive but hardly enough to retire on.

However the infomercial exposure led to their crucial breakthrough. In 2003 people who had bought the Zumba DVDs and seen the ads started calling. They not only wanted to do Zumba but teach it.

Teach it – but of course!

This would be the catalyst to take Zumba around the country and then the world.

Perez, Perlman and Aghio decided to offer instructor certification to people requesting to teach classes.

The initial instructor training was done in Miami where the trio expected around 25 hopefuls to be trained personally by Perez.

They got 150 people, raring to go.

By 2006 they had created the Zumba Instructors Network (ZIN) which enabled new instructors to be certified for $300. Instructors then paid $30 per month to become licensed to teach Zumba classes anywhere in the world.

Before long Zumba classes were in high demand worldwide. Large commercial gym chains started contacting the Zumba founders and they were able to start licensing their product throughout the lucrative North American and European markets.

Perez has his eye on Zumba reaching 25 million participants which is only a matter of time.

Beto hasn’t become consumed by the success of the business though and remains firmly focused on what has made Zumba so successful.

“Que te diviertas!” – keep it fun.

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