A seriously bemused crew of soldiers stands atop a military vehicle in an empty parking lot, looking like they’ve been ordered to guard a litter of kittens. It’s cold this morning at El Paso’s Fort Bliss Army installation, but the surreal nature of what’s taking place behind this security team renders the December chill irrelevant: There’s a makeshift stage where two women in up-to-there shorts and not-ahell-of-a-lot up top are gyrating alongside Beto Perez, a 41-year-old exposed nerve clad in camo pants, a black tank top, and a Zumba
wristband. What the hell is this all about?

What it is, is a Zumba master class for an audience of approximately 350 military personnel. The crowd is predominantly women—ecstatic women—but there are a surprising number of guys here, too, with most dressed and acting as though they just wandered off the basketball court into a feverish sea of estrogen. It’s loud here. Loud enough to make you think there’s something to this Zumba stuff, because when Perez does just about anything—walks onstage, thrusts his hips, or hoists his shirt above the etched topography
of his abs—women seem to lose it.

Perez is the inventor of Zumba—a fitness phenomenon that has made him both a Jeopardy question and the face of the largest dance-fitness company in the world. Heavy on Latin moves like salsa, meringue, and samba, Zumba’s dance-as-exercise philosophy has spread to more than 125 countries. From the Czech Republic to Japan—where Perez has just come from teaching master classes— there’s likely a session being taught no more than five minutes from where you’re reading this.

As Perez readied himself at Fort Bliss with longtime instructorpartners Melissa Chiz and Betsy Dopico, women happily hovered outside his dressing room. Some even managed to score photos with the object of their affection, gleefully chattering with the Colombianborn Perez in his native Spanish. The man’s charisma is evident even offstage, as is his physicality. Short and muscular, he moves with obvious confidence. When an employee begins to introduce him to a woman he’d just met, he says, “Oh yes, we are friends from way
back.” The band of his underwear reads “sexy bastard.”

It’s a short walk from dressing room to parking lot, but he’s approached by admirers the whole way. On a military base. “Take a picture with my mother,” someone says. “She’s a cancer survivor.” Perez obliges. As he takes the stage with Chiz and Dopico, the scene looks more like a Tom Jones concert than a staged workout. The women in the crowd wear T-shirts from various local Zumba studios. Some sport homemade shirts with personal messages for Perez. Once the music starts, he plays to the ladies—then eventually, with the help of the women onstage, to the men. At one point, he stage slaps one of the women on the ass. Chiz and Dopico shake and crouch, and now it’s the men’s turn to cheer appreciatively. Perez wants to get more men into Zumba. He thinks they’ll love it. They certainly love his dancers here on post.

The men at Fort Bliss seem game. Some dance like pros, clearly familiar with the class and its steps. Others show a natural attraction to the music, rambunctiously grooving through moves evocative of junior high dances. Still others—military men, it should be noted, accustomed to a certain command of their movements—sway like newborn colts. That’s fine, as far as Perez is concerned. There’s no wrong way to do it. “We respect your feeling, how you hear the music, and how you dance,” he says in moderately accented English. Everyone has an internal beat. Zumba simply helps people find it.

Perez saw Grease for the first time when he was 7, and it started him dancing. Every night in his hometown of Cali, Colombia, he and his friends would breakdance in the streets. He idolized Michael Jackson as a teenager, devouring American pop and hip-hop, and this American influence is evident in his Zumba class soundtracks, which deftly meld Latin dance tracks with the likes of Wyclef, who recorded a songespecially for Zumba.

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Zumba was an accident. At 16, working as a fitness instructor in Cali, Perez arrived late to class one day without his aerobics music. “I always have this problem,” he says. Scrambling, he grabbed the tapes in his backpack—his favorite salsa and meringue— and hit play, improvising the class around his music and drawing on dance moves he favored in clubs and on the streets. Today’s Zumba classes remain faithful to that first incarnation, albeit with cleaner technique and specific fitness goals. “In the ’80s, the fitness world and the dance world were separate,” says Perez. “I think I was a visionary, because now everything is dancing in the fitness world. You see hip-hop, belly dancing, Dancing with the Stars, all these things. I was in the fitness world, but it’s my job. The dance world is for fun, because I danced in the clubs and I would breakdance with my friends.”

In 1999, Perez moved to Miami and continued teaching there. Two years later, his creation attracted the attention of local entrepreneurs Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion. The three rechristened the system Zumba (in Colombia it went by “rumba,” a word Perez likens to “party,” but which didn’t quite catch on in Miami). Zumba’s evolution was organic, with DVD’s coming first, followed by scads of people asking how they could teach classes themselves. Perez and his partners created a teacher training program, including a menu of music and choreography from which instructors could build classes. Today, there’s aquatic Zumba,

Zumba for seniors and children, and Zumba video games. You can buy Zumba music on iTunes, and the company claims more than 10 million DVDs sold, along with 12 million weekly class participants in 110,000 locations. There’s even a signature Zumba apparel line.

“It’s sincerity,” Perez says of his success. “We never started this company thinking of money. I know it sounds like, ‘Oh yeah, right,’ but we don’t do anything fast. We need to wait for the right moment, wait for the right people, wait for everything. The company is step by step.”

This step-by-step approach also applies to his instructors, who create their own classes with Zumba music, incorporating their own choreography as they see fit. Perez doesn’t care if students move exactly the way he does, as long as they have fun. “It’s like a philosophy, a lifestyle,” he says. “Pilates, yoga, Zumba—it’s a new generation in the fitness world. You know, more happiness, more relaxed. Not stressful. Not ‘no pain, no gain.’ In the end, when I take my picture with people, it’s not, ‘Beto, I lost weight.’ It’s ‘Beto, you changed my life.’”    

As for Zumba’s international appeal, Perez says the dance fills a sort of spiritual void. “These countries have everything, but they don’t have this spicy thing,” he says. “Finally, somebody tells them, ‘Hey, listen, you don’t need to be Latin. We will teach you how.’ And people discover this new world, this passion. It’s crazy.” Students in Japan and China are especially reverential, calling him “master.” “I feel like a sensei, you know? Like Yoda, you know, from the Star Wars?”             

To the blare of Daddy Yankee’s “El Jefe,” Perez crows to his audience: “Jefe! The boss!” The women, well, it’s easy by now to guess how they respond. Somewhere along the way, however, the fatigue-clad security detail have started cracking smiles, too. Maybe it happened when some of the kids in the audience started busting moves. Or maybe the thaw came when Perez asked some women to take the stage—a request resulting in a surge of Beatlemania proportions, followed by squeals of, “I touched him!” Perez then calls some men onstage. “I ain’t got a dancing bone in my body,” says one to another as they shimmy forward toward the crowd, their arms outstretched. On the edge of the fray, a few soldiers—members of the post’s soccer team, whose coach told them about the class—take a break. “It’s a full-body workout,” says SPC Scott Delano. “It takes a lot more coordination than soccer practice,” adds SPC John Dutton. And then there are the odds: “We were told the girls outnumber the guys,” Sgt. Juan Roman says with a wink.                                      

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Perez says most men feel strange at first because Zumba is essentially aerobics class, and 95% women. Things, however, eventually change. “You’re at the gym with 50 women and you’re the only man inside? You will be the king!” he says, laughing. “All the women love you because you have the personality to go in this class, and you make a lot of friends, and you will see how the concept changes. Because it’s a typical macho, no? ‘Oh no, I don’t do this. I don’t shake my booty.’ But, all the women love when the men move in the class.” They’re apparently already convinced of this in Mexico and China, where numbers of male participants are significantly higher.

The Zumba difference, Perez says, is perspective— shifting the focus away from sixpack abs and prestige training. “We try to teach instructors about the ego. The ego needs to go down.” Zumba, he explains, was never meant to be a tool for exercise addicts. Rather, it’s for the masses who drag themselves, rep by boring rep, through their gym routines. “Nobody in the fitness industry thinks about these people,” he says. “Always they think about the performance or the good bodies or the competition. I want to create something else.”

What Perez has created is a legitimate empire that keeps him travelling constantly. When he’s home in Miami, however—Zumba’s headquarters—he goes to the office every day and still teaches, three days a week, in the same dance studio he’s used for years. He also spends much of his time working out with personal trainer J Regal—under whose tutelage he’s bulked up considerably. Perez trains every day, beginning with 25 minutes of abs, then alternating focus on the various parts of his upper body (Zumba classes take care of his legs). He consumes a disciplined diet of lean meat, seafood, and vegetables, and loves chicken soup—so much so that some Zumba instructors will greet him at the airport with it.

Class is over, which means Perez’s staff is charged with funneling the camera-wielding, endorphin-spiked crowd into an orderly photo-op line. Perez has a smile for everyone. “I don’t want to try to lose my mind, like an idol or something like that,” he says. The idea is to preserve Zumba’s original spirit and integrity, even as the brand expands into new collections, videos, and tours. His latest obsession is music. Zumba has more than 300 original songs, with Perez heavily involved in their production. Wyclef and Pitbull have lent tracks and music videos— in which Perez appears—and both have performed alongside him at arena-sized Zumba classes.

Perez relishes all the facets of his booming business, often switching from marketing to teaching to producing in the course of a day. “Every day is different,” he says, “and I love it, because I feel like a warrior, like a gladiator. Every day I have a new challenge.”