Colour and movement are the hallmarks of Zumba fitness classes. Photo: Gary Schafer
When you think about Zumba, you imagine people wearing brightly coloured cargo pants and pumping their fists.
But Zumba isn't just a dance fitness craze — it's an entire franchise that turns dance instructors into entrepreneurs selling apparel and CDs, and has resulted in it becoming the largest fitness brand in the world.
It began a decade ago when Alberto Perlman launched Zumba with the intention of selling the classes as VHS tapes on late-night infomercials.
Zumba founders (from left) Alberto Aghion, Alberto Perlman and Beto Perez.
Even before that, though, the seed was sown back in 1986 when a Colombian aerobics instructor left his music at home. Alberto "Beto" Perez had to use whatever he had, which happened to be a fun dance mix incorporating a variety of dance moves, including hip-hop, salsa, martial arts and even Bollywood style. It was a huge hit with his students.
In 2001, he moved to the US and continued to teach. The same year, soon-to-be Zumba founder Alberto Perlman heard about Beto's classes from his mother.
"I go to my mom's house for dinner and she was talking about her dancing class," Perlman says. "She said it was the only thing she'd ever done that didn't feel like exercising."
Perlman became intrigued when his mother told him that the instructor had a way of integrating "the Saturday night feel" into an exercise class.
After a visit to the class, 25-year-old Perlman was convinced he needed to "take this to more people".
When Perlman visited his first Zumba class, it wasn't called Zumba yet and there were "120 people packed in like sardines", he told inc.com.
Perlman thought he and his childhood friend Alberto Aghion could start a company that provided infomercials, and that Zumba could be their first featured product. "We never thought it was going to become what it did become," Perlman says.
The pair teamed up with Perez to create a demo tape and license the brand to sell on infomercials. It wasn't long before people from all over the country started calling the call centre — which mostly went directly to Aghion's cell phone at the time — to inquire about getting more involved with Zumba.
And they didn't just want the tapes; they wanted to go to a class or become an instructor.
"[Aghion] called me the next day and said, 'There might be a bigger business here'."
Perlman, Aghion and Perez decided to turn every instructor into an entrepreneur. Given the popularity of their line of taped Zumba workouts, they created a training course called the "Zumba Academy" in Miami in 2003.
"We thought 20 people would show up," Perlman says. "We got 150 people." Within two years, the Zumba Academy had trained around 700 new instructors — and turned them into entrepreneurs.
Once certified, the instructors could teach their own classes, plus sell Zumba attire and CDs to their students.
"Well, we thought these people needed some sort of career, so for $30 per month, they could get their career in a box."
Zumba is different than any other aerobic workouts, Perlman insists. "It's the only real fitness program where most people taking it are not taking it for the fitness benefits. They're taking it for the happiness and joy that they feel while they're doing it, and the fitness is just a result of this.
"We know so many people who have gone off their depression medications because of Zumba. A person that is depressed and on Prozac ... this is one hour when they're not on their meds. If you have breast cancer, it's one hour when you don't remember that you have it."
According to Perlman, participants are burning around 750 calories (3138 kilojoules) in a class.
Zumba is trying to win over children as well, aiming to become part of the solution to a child obesity epidemic in the US.
"Kids don't want to run — they want to do something that's fun," he says. "Some kids want to do sports, but the ones that are bad at it, they don't want to do it, so we want to create something fun for them."
Before Zumba became mainstream, Perlman was rejected by big gym chains when he approached them about Zumba classes. "They wouldn't hire our instructors for many years," Perlman says.
So Zumba was taught at smaller gyms and dance studios, but within three years of launching, the same big gyms that rejected Perlman were calling to ask how they could get involved.
"Don't listen to the big corporations or the big business people — listen to the consumers," he says. "If you know your product is good and consumers like your product, it doesn't matter what anyone else says."
Perlman expects Zumba to reach 25 million students within the next few years. Currently, 14 million people take Zumba classes every week in 150 countries and at 140,000 locations.