Zumba marks 20 years of fitness and Miami roots

Beatrice J. Doty

It started with VHS tapes. And now it’s taken over the world.

Twenty years since its founding, Zumba has helped millions dance their way into fitter, happier lives, says co-founder and CEO Alberto Perlman.

Officially launched in Aventura by Colombian dancer Alberto “Beto” Perez, Zumba reached $20 million in video sales via TV infomercials by 2003. By 2012, The New York Times reported Zumba was valued at $500 million. It now has 250 employees at its Hallandale Beach headquarters.

“The stories you hear are amazing — it’s not what you hear in a normal fitness class,” Perlman said. “It’s people who have survived an illness, or stories of people who moved to a new city and didn’t know anyone and Zumba created a community for them, or someone who was able to leave an abusive relationship.”

Today, Zumba, the business, works via licensing its material to instructors who pay a monthly fee to teach classes. Perlman says the company’s biggest growth market is in Asia, which he attributed to the region’s rising middle class. Zumba’s Japanese Instagram page has nearly 15,000 followers.

“It’s nonstop in those markets — I don’t think you’ll find a gym there that doesn’t have Zumba,” Perlman said.

The Miami Herald spoke with Perlman to learn about the evolution of the dance-fitness craze 20 years later, how it survived the pandemic, and what the next 20 years might look like. His remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.

How has Zumba changed over the past two decades?

The original Zumba class hasn’t changed that much, but what changes is the type of music we use. When we came on the scene, reggaeton did not exist, and as soon as we started hearing these sounds coming out of Puerto Rico, we said, ‘These are perfect for Zumba.’ We were the first ones to bring reggaeton into the mainstream. As music evolves, Zumba evolves — you’re dancing to popular music, and that always keeps you coming back.

Alberto Perlman.jpg
Zumba co-founder and CEO Alberto Perlman Zumba

How does Zumba compete with new exercise trends on the scene?

Most fitness programs usually live in the space of, ‘We’re better from a calorie-burn perspective, or from a fitness perspective.’ But if you only live in that physical space, someone is going to come along and will build a better mousetrap. Think about the Thighmaster in the ‘90s, or 8 Minute Abs — someone is going to come up with seven-minute abs.

Zumba is similar to yoga in that there is emotion — in yoga you think of zen or flow state. In Zumba we call it F.E.J.: freeing electrifying joy. You get lost in the music, you’re having so much fun that all other thoughts are gone, you’re just there, present in the moment.

And the other piece is the community. In yoga it’s similar as well — there’s a pilgrimage to India, or some sort of yoga shrine. In Zumba, there’s a convention every year, and it’s a magical place. Physical plus emotional plus community is why Zumba is a forever brand.

What is the significance of Miami to the Zumba story?

It’s where we live. It could have only been born here because of the cultural aspect of Miami, the openness to Latin music, Latin influence — Miami is capital of Latin America. Beto’s dream growing up in Cali was to go to Miami. Zumba started when my cousins, my mom, everyone I knew was taking Beto’s class here in Aventura — it wasn’t even called Zumba then, he called it “rhumba-cise.” At that moment something sparked the idea: What if we take this to the world, put it on a VHS tape — this was 2001 — and teach Zumba at home via VHS. What we realized is that the community and class was the true Zumba experience, so we started training instructors, who would come from all over the country and go to Miami and train in Zumba. But Miami is still the root and culture of Zumba. Zumba is Miami.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect Zumba?

We had some pretty dark moments at the beginning. In February 2020, since we have an operation in China, we started getting some real reports of things happening, and instructors calling in and saying this is serious. So we started preparing for it by saying, ‘If you want to become an instructor, you can train online,’ and we created a live-stream version of our course. Then in March, when lockdowns started, we told instructors that we were going to create something so you can teach from home to people at home. And we challenged our technology team — we have over 50 developers — we said in 60 days we need a solution for instructors to teach digitally, take payments digitally, and manage students, and they did it in 60 days.

It was incredible and amazing to see our instructors and the community migrate to online. You can see what people were saying about the classes — it was a very powerful moment to emerge as a virtual brand. But now we’re trying to get them back into classes, so after the virtual moment, we started seeing outdoor classes. So we had instructors teaching in parking lots and parks — and they still are. Now we’re finally going back into the exercise rooms, and seeing the classes come back is an emotional thing. To be physically back in the Zumba class, sometimes you see everyone crying to be back — it’s very powerful.

What will the next 20 years of Zumba look like?

We’re constantly enhancing our technologies to make our instructors more successful. We believe people don’t need another screen in their life. We want them to get together in person, and we don’t want humanity to lose that. Mental health has also come up as a big topic in how Zumba helps — we want to create more moments to help people through any mental health issues.

We’ve also created a new brand, STRONG Nation. It’s a high-intensity training program — but we created a program where the music is scored to the workout. So we create these routines, then create music that completely matches the routines. We want to have an epic feeling, really feeling like a bad-ass. So you’re going to see more STRONG Nation in the years to come.

We also created the Zumba music lab. It’s a production house where we create our own music. We’re working with some of the best writers and producers in the world, and now record labels are coming and saying they want to launch our songs.

What is the best way to convince someone to try Zumba?

Go with them. Say, ‘I’ll do it with you. I’ll go to the gym with you and if you don’t laugh the whole time and never do it again’ — you know, it’s hard not to smile when you’re in a Zumba class. And a good instructor will notice people who are shy — they might be going there and not be sure what they’re getting into. And the instructor will make them feel warm and special. And when that happens, that’s when they get hooked and their life starts to change.

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Rob Wile covers business, tech, and the economy in South Florida. He is a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and Columbia University. He grew up in Chicago.

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