It started with VHS tapes. And now he has taken over the world.
Twenty years since its founding, Zumba has helped millions dance to a happier, fitter life, says co-founder and CEO Alberto Perlman.
Officially launched in Aventura, Florida, by Colombian dancer Alberto “Beto” Pérez, Zumba reached $ 20 million in video sales through television commercials in 2003. In 2012, the New York Times reported that Zumba it was worth $ 500 million. It now has 250 employees at Hallandale Beach, Florida headquarters.
“The stories you hear are amazing – it’s not what you hear in a normal fitness class,” Perlman said. “They are 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 could leave an abusive relationship.”
Today Zumba, the company, works by licensing its equipment to instructors who pay a monthly fee to teach classes. Perlman says the company’s fastest-growing market is in Asia, which he attributed to the region’s rising middle class. The Japanese Zumba Instagram page has about 15,000 followers.
“It’s uninterrupted in these 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 dance-fitness fashion 20 years later, how it survived the pandemic, and what the next 20 years might be like. His observations have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. How has Zumba changed over the last two decades?
A. The original Zumba class hasn’t changed that much, but what changes is the type of music we use. When we entered the scene, reggaeton didn’t exist, and as soon as we started hearing those sounds coming out of Puerto Rico, we said, “These are perfect for Zumba.” We were the first to bring reggaeton to the mainstream. As music evolves, Zumba evolves: you dance to popular music and that always makes you come back.
Q. How does Zumba compete with new exercise trends on the scene?
A. Most fitness programs usually live in the space of, “We’re better from a calorie-burning perspective or from a fitness perspective.” But if you only live in this physical space, someone will come and build a better mouse trap. Think of the Thighmaster in the 90s, or 8 minute crunches – someone will present seven-minute crunches.
Zumba is similar to yoga, as there is emotion: in yoga one thinks of a zen or flow state. In Zumba we call it FEJ: releasing electrifying joy. You get lost in the music, you have so much fun that all other thoughts are gone, you are only present in the moment.
And the other piece is the community. In yoga it is also similar: there is a pilgrimage to India or some kind of yoga shrine. At Zumba, there is a convention every year and it is a magical place. The most emotional physical community and more so Zumba is a brand forever.
Q. How important is Miami to Zumba history?
A. It is where we live. I could only have been born here because of Miami’s cultural aspect, openness to Latin music, and Latin influence. Beto’s dream of growing up in Cali was to go to Miami. Zumba started when my cousins, my mom, everyone I knew, took Beto’s class here at Adventure; back then it wasn’t even called Zumba, he called it “rhumba-cise.” At the time, something sparked the idea: and if we bring this to the world, we put it on a VHS tape (it was 2001) and teach Zumba at home via VHS. What we realized was that the community and the class were the real Zumba experience, so we started training instructors who came from all over the country and went to Miami and trained in Zumba. But Miami remains the root and culture of Zumba. Zumba is in Miami.
Q. How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect Zumba?
A. We had some pretty dark moments at first. In February 2020, as we have an operation in China, we started getting real reports of things happening and instructors shouting and saying this is serious. So we started preparing it by saying, “If you want to become an instructor, you can train online” and we created a live version of our course. In March (of 2020), when the blockades started, we told the instructors that we were going to create something so that you could teach people from home from home. And we challenged our technology team (we have over 50 developers), in 60 days, we said we needed a solution for instructors to teach digitally, pay digitally, and manage students, and they did it in 60 days.
It was amazing and amazing to see our instructors and the community migrate to the net. 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 to classes, so after the virtual moment, we started watching classes outdoors. So we had instructors giving classes in parking lots and parks, and they still are. Now we’re finally back in the exercise rooms and seeing the classes come back is an emotional thing. To be physically back in Zumba class, you sometimes see everyone crying to get back; it is very powerful.
Q. What will the next 20 years of Zumba look like?
A. We are constantly improving our technologies to make our instructors more successful. We believe that people don’t need any other screen in their life. We want them to meet in person and we don’t want humanity to lose it. Mental health has also become a big issue on how Zumba helps: We want to create more moments to help people solve any mental health issues.
We have also created a new brand, STRONG Nation. It’s a high-intensity training program, but we created a program where music is scored in training. So we create these routines, and then we create music that completely matches the routines. We want to have an epic feel, really like a bad ass. So you will see more STRONG NATION in the coming years.
We also created the Zumba music lab. It is 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 come the record labels that say they want to release our songs.
Q. What is the best way to convince someone to try Zumba?
A. Go with them. Say, “I’ll do it with you. I’ll go to the gym with you, and if you don’t laugh all the 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 shy people – they might go 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 lives start to change.