One hundred and eighty countries. Fifteen million participants. Two hundred thousand locations. These stats represent the widespread success of Zumba, a global workout phenomenon that originated in Colombia in the early 1990s.
What’s ironic is that Zumba came to fruition by happenstance. One day, while working as a fitness instructor in Cali, Colombia, Alberto “Beto” Perez forgot the music he typically played during class. Instead of canceling, he grabbed a couple mixtapes he had in his backpack, and improvised.
“The tapes were mixes of my favorite songs — traditional Latin salsa and merengue,” recalled Perez. “They left class that day saying, ‘Let’s do the new program again tomorrow.’ And they came back to my classes, and would bring their friends.”
From there, Perez’s classes grew in popularity, so much so that in 1999 he decided to move to the United States to seek broader success. His target was Miami, which at the time was a hotbed for diversity and Latin culture. A year after making the move, Perez met Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion, who became his business partners. In 2001, the trio officially founded Zumba.
Originally, the partners thought Zumba would be a DVD business fueled by infomercials. However, it soon became clear that the company could extend its reach via a licensing program. In 2005, Zumba Academy was launched to license instructors to teach Zumba classes.
Further success snowballed from there.
In 2007, the company launched a clothing line. In 2010, a Zumba video game was released. Along the way, the company expanded its programming, launching Zumba Gold (for older adults), Zumba Kids, Aqua Zumba and more.
Almost every venture has been a hit with Zumba’s fans. Although the co-founders of Zumba thought the company would be successful, they didn’t predict this level of widespread notoriety.
“We never imagined 50 million people in 200,000 locations,” said Perlman. “[That] is more than Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Burger King combined. We didn’t even know there were so many gyms in the world. We imagined we’d have a nice DVD business, but we never pictured the dimension of the business, or the movement.”
The movement. That phrase sums up the key reason why Zumba has been able to reach such a large audience. It has become more than just a fitness program. It has become a culture, a community, a feeling, that fans around the world celebrate.
According to Perlman, this is because Zumba taps into the emotional side of its fans, something that many programs have failed to do. The company even has a name for the emotion Zumba evokes: FEJ, which stands for “freeing, electrifying joy.”
“It’s that moment 20 minutes into the class, [where] people just lose themselves in the music,” said Perlman. “They feel connected, they feel happy and they want to bring that closer to them, so they started asking us for clothing, they started asking us for accessories, music, more things that would connect them to that emotion. Because they want to get a taste of that emotion during their day — not only during their Zumba class.”
Another hallmark of Zumba has been its ability to encourage wide numbers of people to exercise. Visit ZumbaStories.com, and you’ll find countless accounts from women and men of all shapes and sizes who were able to reach their fitness and health goals through Zumba.
“Zumba always has been and always will be for everyone, including people who don’t attend gyms for conventional classes,” said Perez. “We just encourage people to move and have fun, so there’s no pressure to follow each step exactly right. It’s ‘exercise in disguise.’”
The next step for Zumba is the continuation of the movement. In April 2016 the company launched Shake, Shake, Shake, a line of vegan-based protein shakes that are sold online. This year also brings the release of STRONG by Zumba, a bootcamp-style program that is the company’s first deviation from dance-based fitness.
“The same way Zumba revolutionized cardio, we’re now trying to revolutionize bootcamp and HIIT [with STRONG by Zumba],” said Perlman. “We’re revolutionizing it the same way we did with cardio — with music and fun. We’re hiring DJs and we’re creating these awesome tracks that sync perfectly with the movements. The tests we’ve been doing here in the office have been incredible, because you feel the joy and happiness of the Zumba class, while you’re doing a tough workout.”
In many ways, Zumba’s music is the vehicle for the freeing, electrifying joy that Perlman referenced. The company has partnered with artists like Pitbull, Don Omar, Daddy Yankee and Lil Jon to develop songs that bring Zumba classes to life. And, much of the music can be purchased via Zumba.com or via iTunes, for fans who wish to listen outside the group fitness floor.
Fitness. Clothing. Music. Food. Since 2001, Zumba has evolved far beyond the workout that Perez developed on the fly in Colombia. Although Zumba’s founders never envisioned the company would be where it is today, they have accomplished what they set out to achieve in the first place — helping people move, and have fun while doing it.
“My dream was simply that I wanted everyone to be able to enjoy dance fitness — the same way that first class did back in Colombia when I forgot my music that day,” said Perez. “And that and lots more have come true. It feels so good to know that we are changing the way people live by encouraging them to live healthier and fitter lives. That, to me, is success.”