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.