Pure Exhilaration! The Evolution of Zumba®

The powerful force of positivity through music and movement launched the three “Albertos”—founders Alberto Perez, Alberto Aghion and Alberto Perlman—into the fitness stratosphere.

by Lisa Mulcahy

It all started with a smile.

Flashback to the 1990s: Alberto “Beto” Perez, a talented dancer and fitness instructor, prepares to teach an aerobics class in Cali, Colombia. When Perez realizes the music cassette tape he usually teaches to has gone missing, he has to improvise.

“I went out to my car and grabbed the music tapes I had with me there—they were salsa and merengue,” Perez recalls. He heads back into his classroom, starts playing the tapes and gets his students moving as usual. Then something extraordinary happens—he sees one student grinning, then another, then another. Soon they’re executing the workout with pure exhilaration.

“This music changed everything. It energized everyone!” Perez enthuses. “I saw how people were smiling when they were sweating—and Zumba was born.”

And, oh, how it’s grown! Perez created an unprecedented, high-energy blend of dance and aerobics, incorporating traditional exercise staples like squats and lunges with moves from hip-hop, merengue, salsa, mambo and soca. Today, Zumba’s impact is universal—every week, classes meet in over 200,000 locations worldwide (approximately 70,000 in the U.S.), serving 15 million people in 180 countries. With its emphasis on joy and positive support from instructors and classmates, Zumba can make a convert out of almost anyone—it’s certainly one of the most successful formats to appeal to people who abhor the thought of exercise.

But that’s only a fraction of the fun: The rest resides in Zumba’s bouncy, exciting original music—produced and performed by the likes of Pitbull, Daddy Yankee and Steve Aoki. Nobody else has a class soundtrack like that.

Now, let’s take a closer look at Zumba’s history, growth and potential, as envisioned by Perez, Zumba CEO Alberto Perlman, and company president and COO Alberto Aghion.

Early Enthusiasm

Perez moved from Cali to Bogota, Colombia, taught more classes, honed his Zumba technique and attracted more fans. After moving to the U.S. in 1999, he met Perlman, a savvy entrepreneur who specialized in internet company launches. The Zumba model captivated Perlman the second he walked into one of Perez’s classes.

“The joy and smiles Beto talks about caught my eye immediately,” Perlman says. “No one was there because they felt like they had to work out. They wanted to be there. I knew this kind of enthusiasm could have a very long-lasting impact on the fitness industry—and on many people’s lives—in a positive way.”

Zumba was officially founded as a company in 2001, when Perez and Perlman teamed up with Aghion, a respected businessman and childhood friend of Perlman’s.

Their next step was selling DVDs through infomercials. “Right away, we started to see the great results Zumba had in people who had bought the DVDs,” Perlman says. “I mean, we had people telling us they lost 100 pounds, 200 pounds. I knew at that point that we were moving in the right direction.”

As successful as the DVDs were (millions have since been sold), the team was ready to progress to the next level. “We knew people were very interested in teaching Zumba, and so that started us thinking about expanding beyond the DVD success to live classes,” Perlman says. “We knew other people, more people, wanted a group experience. One of the things we’ve always had going for us is that we listen to each other; we also listen to the industry and listen to our customers. So, we started rolling this idea out, started to train instructors and started thinking about the needs of these people who were being trained.

“We wanted to do as much as we could for our instructors. So, we’d talk to each of them, ask them how we could help them with elements to market their businesses. We figured out how to create benefits worth thousands of dollars a month for our instructors, but only charge them 30 bucks a month.” Zumba instructors have the option to become ZIN™ (Zumba Instructor Network) members to gain these key benefits. Other instructor perks include live master class events, where friendly feedback and constructive new training information help teachers become even better at guiding and inspiring their classes.

Some fitness pros contend Zumba changed how group exercise is taught, another product of original thinking. “We planned how to build the technology we needed through digital experiences, new choreography and live events,” explains Perlman. “We wanted our instructors and participants to come together with us, so we could all learn together. Our most seasoned instructors get to make even more out of the live experience because they get to post their class on Zumba.com.”

The company also offers an app through which their instructors can access choreography and mix music to create playlists. Content that used to take each individual instructor hours to prepare is suddenly available instantly to all Zumba instructors. This combination of wise business assistance, new moves and efficiency helped propel Zumba’s growth 4,000% from 2007 to 2010, with an additional 750% increase in recent years.

Finding Strength in Music

Zumba’s commitment to new music sets it apart from other fitness models. “There is power in innovation,” says Perez. “As an instructor, I love to teach—I’m super-passionate, and I give that feeling to our instructors, who are also super-passionate. We give our instructors access to so many new tools. One big innovation we’ve given them has to do with music. Knowing that Zumba has 15 million people a week in classes, we really were interested in bringing new and fresh music to our customers.

“Songwriters and singers learned about what we were doing and started to call us. They wanted to be involved. Pitbull was the first artist we set out to work with. We make deals with these great artists, they create new music for us, and everything works better for everyone. The music industry is a huge platform for us, and our customers are a huge audience for the music industry.” Several Zumba-created songs subsequently became hits on the Billboard charts.

This successful merger has vast creative potential. “We want to continue to release music through Zumba, to have the artists we work with create exclusive music for our instructors. Remixes that are exclusive are extremely exciting to offer our customers. Daddy Yankee recently did an incredible song for us (“Hula Hoop”). Our instructors enjoy a certain pride factor in working with us and also in receiving these special things from us. They have special access.”

Music is also a key element pointing Zumba toward the future with its latest cutting-edge workout. “STRONG by Zumba® has become so successful,” says Perlman. “Beto took so many different classes, and he never found anything with that special high intensity, this power, that he was thinking about in terms of how great a workout could be. He said, ‘What I want to do—it doesn’t match anything that’s been done before.’ I asked him, ‘So what are you talking about exactly? What do you want to do?’ Beto proceeded to put on a beat and make this beat amazing. He started moving as he explained what he wanted to do. It was like he was training for a war—his movements were so intense, it looked like the battle from the movie 300 to me. Every movement he made matched the sound of the beat, of the music. I completely understood how exciting what he wanted to do was from watching him, and I said, let’s figure out a way to do this.

“We started working with a ninth-degree black belt who created the routine with us. At first, we would mute the music and just look at the routine without music—it was filled with jumps, kicks, squats. Then we wanted to score some music directly to the workout.”

“Before, the instructor in an exercise class would create the choreography,” Perez adds. “But when we create the routine, we can provide our instructors with the best quality, the best talent, the best music. Something strong. I want the music to be strong, the choreography to be strong. So now we have created STRONG.”

STRONG by Zumba will keep pushing the musical envelope. “We’re working with the great music producer Timbaland,” says Perlman. “And Steve Aoki—that collaboration has been amazing! Steve created a song for Strong called ‘Champion.’ It is just incredible. He put so much work into creating the song.

“Steve said that, basically, he wanted to unlearn what he knew about music to build the song in the freshest way. So, he did the workout himself and then worked on what sounded right in terms of the movements. The end result is so motivating! We already have 300,000–400,000 STRONG by Zumba members benefiting from this boot camp–style workout, to be fueled by Steve’s great song.”

For more details on STRONG by Zumba, see the Fall 2017 issue of American Fitness.

A Future Built on Smiles

    The Zumba empire keeps expanding on numerous fronts:
  • Zumba Wear, its apparel line for instructors and participants alike
  • multiple top-selling workout video games
  • Zumba Cruise, a successful tourism/fitness business (next cruise: April 8–13, 2018)

“You can’t be sad once you step onto this ship, because everywhere you go, people are dancing and smiling,” says Perlman.

But for all the growth on the business side, Zumba’s founders remain energized by a basic goal: making a difference in people’s lives. “What touches me the most about Zumba is the part that is beyond fitness,” says Perlman. “The stories of our members are what touch me. We have cancer survivors who have said, ‘My hour of Zumba is my time away from thinking about my disease.’ It’s unbelievable to know that we can bring that kind of joy to people,” Perlman says. “The Zumba Nation has no geography, either. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It’s something very empowering that we all share: music, happiness.

“Zumba is a lifestyle. Like Beto said from the beginning, seeing people smile in our classes is what matters. Zumba creates happy people, no matter what their religion, culture, language or race may be. That smile—like Zumba—is universal.”

The Perfect Pairing: AFAA-NASM & STRONG by Zumba

The relationship between AFAA and Zumba has always been mutually satisfying. They’ve shared subject matter experts and trainers for years, and AFAA now serves as the primary certification provider for Zumba instructors.

Today, Zumba is encouraging STRONG by Zumba® instructors to obtain either an AFAA Group Fitness Instructor or an NASM Personal Trainer certification to bolster their knowledge and skill set, and to ensure the safety of all participants. “The partnership started on the AFAA side, back in July 2016, between the two brands. Now it’s like we are one big family,” says Jeremy Guenther, AFAA-NASM’s director of business development. “STRONG by Zumba is not a dance-style workout [like traditional Zumba], but instead, a high-intensity workout that incorporates elements like martial arts. So, when it was launched for Zumba instructors, we started collectively asking ourselves how this great idea could benefit our members. Lots of personal trainers teach Zumba, after all. This is a strong format that can really help personal trainers in their businesses. We really want to give all of our members the opportunity to expand their education, to help ensure successful and fruitful careers.”

Instructors receive continuing education credits or CEUs for taking the STRONG by Zumba live training and for completing an accompanying e-learning course. Check the details of the specific training you’d like to pursue for up-to-date credit information. Visit zumba.com/en-US/become-a-zumba-instructor for more information on Zumba trainings.

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Mulcahey Lisa Mulcahy , Lisa Mulcahy is an internationally established health writer whose credits include the Los Angeles Times, Redbook, Glamour, Self.com, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Health, Good Housekeeping, Parade and Seventeen. She is based in New York City.

The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more