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.