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Crazy Happy Zumba

Is the world’s biggest fitness brand even a fitness brand at all?

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It's a beautiful January morning in the Bahamas, but no one is here for vacation: they're here to work. Shrieks abound as Beto Perez takes the stage for his morning master class. He's 45 but in the way Jennifer Lawrence is 25, where you're not quite sure you agree. He has the build of a former pro-wrestler who could hop back into the ring at any moment, and a wardrobe full of trucker hats, which he actually pulls off.

Beto is the Colombian-born founder of Zumba, and he's leading hundreds of us in salsa movements on the inaugural Zumba Cruise. You've probably never heard of him. You probably think his world is weird, if you happen to know anything about his world at all. But here, at this floating fiesta filled with instructors who have devoted their lives to spreading his gospel? He's a fitness god with the bank account to prove it.

To grasp the true enormity of Zumba, read this next sentence slowly: each week, there are 15 million participants taking classes in 200,000 locations spread across 180 countries. That's insane. There are Zumba videos featuring celebrity musicians; there are music videos featuring Zumba celebrities. There are countless Zumba DVDs and video games for sale, there are Zumba conventions and charity concerts to attend, there are impressive future Zumba ventures that I won't mention because surely some confidentiality agreement was breached during my interview with Beto.

Beto Perez leads a class on the inaugural Zumba Cruise.

Suffice to say, Zumba is the largest branded fitness program on the planet. It employs 250 full-time employees at its Florida headquarters and has trained one zillion instructors, a figure I made up because this number is not made public, likely in an effort to not dissuade new instructors from joining an already substantial cohort.

As a privately-held company, Zumba also remains tight-lipped about how much it's worth, but if it's not already a billion-dollar company, it will be soon. CEO Alberto Perlman claimed Zumba's revenue to be in the "nine figures" in 2012; since then, global weekly attendance has increased by one million participants.

With a reach like that, it's no surprise people scream and salsa without any regard for the boiling hot Caribbean sun, all in the name of Zumba. Beto glides through the audience, welcoming sweaty hugs and selfies without judgement. He stands surrounded by people who have aligned their careers, their lives, with this.

But somewhere between dictating movements and riling up the crowd, something happens. His lucky pants, a pair of white cargos with a lime green belt which he wore to the first Zumba instructor convention in 2008, rips down the back. For someone with less charisma, it would be embarrassing — for Beto, though, it's part of the fun.

I invited her because of course I invited my mom to accompany me on a Zumba cruise. Who else would I bring?

I need to acknowledge here, up top, that there is a long tradition of cruise stunt journalism. I love Max Silvestri's stint aboard the Top Chef cruise so much that I would have asked it to be my Valentine if I could. You can read about the Paula Deen cruise, and then read about it again. Or the Republican cruise. Or the Kid Rock cruise. You can even dig up David Foster Wallace's ur-cruise stunt journalism piece.

I also need to acknowledge that I am not a cruise person, nor am I a Zumba person. A year or two of fitness writing has led me here, to a cruise ship heading towards a private Haitian beach operated by Royal Caribbean, filled with the most enthusiastic people I've ever met and more MC Hammer pants than I care to remember. The only time I've taken a Zumba class in recent memory is once pre-cruise for context, and then once after while poorly adjusting to a Zumba-less lifestyle.

I am to spend five days on assignment, trapped in an 150-square-foot room draped with sweaty leggings alongside my mother. She incessantly demands praise for how great she's become at ass-shaking (for the record: terrifyingly good). I joke just as frequently about tossing her overboard. I invited her because of course I invited my mom to accompany me on a Zumba cruise. Who else would I bring?

To understand the Zumba Cruise, you need to understand Zumba's history. Back in the '90s, Beto Perez was a professional dancer and aerobics instructor who accidentally left his class music at home one day. He improvised, making up a routine to whatever salsa and merengue tapes he had in his bag. His students went wild and a lightbulb went off.

A move from Colombia led Beto to Miami, where he continued to teach classes to committed students like the mother of Alberto Perlman, a veteran from the dot-com boom looking for his next big venture. After visiting one of Beto's classes, Perlman knew he'd found his next company, and after a rocky start (the company's initial investors pulled out after September 11th), Zumba positioned itself as a DVD exercise sold via infomercial. The discs did well, but it became clear the real money was to be made training the voracious fans who begged for instruction certification and charging them regular dues, and so Zumba pivoted.

The company refined its mission, putting less emphasis on being a fat-burning workout and more on being a "party," and instituted its current business model of a far-flung network of individual instructors. A decade later, Zumba is still run by its trio of co-founders: Alberto "Beto" Perez, who serves as chief creative officer; CEO Alberto Perlman; and president and COO Alberto Aghion. Yes, they all have the same first name.

I spend a night of the cruise at a communal table in one of the ship's dining rooms, learning what it takes to become a part of this universe over lukewarm soup and mediocre salmon fillet. Apparently anyone can be certified as a Zumba instructor. One teacher even joked that you "could be on a respirator and pass" the Basic 1 test, which is administered by a Zumba Education Specialist (ZES) after just one full day of training.

I assume this woman is being facetious. She's not. As Aghion once told Inc., "We thought, if we test them, they will fail, or we will have to lower the bar so much that it becomes kind of a joke." As long as you have the $225 to sign up for Basic 1 and have a pulse by the end of it, you'll leave a bona fide, certified Zumba instructor.

Beto explains that the company employs a teach a man to fish-style philosophy, giving instructors what they need to succeed and then sending them off into the world. If you don't make it, well, they've done their part. It's on you now. Instructors are responsible for finding and paying for class space, whether that means renting a room in a church basement or getting on the schedule at their local gym. There's a level of hustle required to earn a worthwhile wage; some hopefuls find success substituting for established instructors and building a fan base that way.

The company employs a teach a man to fish-style philosophy, giving instructors what they need to succeed and then sending them off into the world. If you don't make it, well, they've done their part. It's on you now.

Basic 1 participants have one calendar year before their certification expires, in which case they'll need to retake the training course. That is, unless they pay $34.95 each month to receive their ZIN volumes, a package of fresh choreography, music, and leadership guidance sent to every active member of ZIN, the Zumba Instructor Network, who themselves are called ZINs. (It's worth noting there is no additional fee paid to Zumba per class by instructors or gyms.) The vast majority of ZINs remain at this primary instructor level, whether they draw 150 people on Saturday mornings to a basketball court in Buffalo, New York or six friends to a rec center each month in Boise.

But for those who are interested in climbing the ranks and making this their full-time career, the next step on the Zumba ladder is becoming a Jammer, a choreography-based position that involves leading master classes as well as Jam Sessions that instructors can attend to learn new routines. Jammers also create routines for DVDs and video games, which are essentially virtual classes with an interactive component. The next goal is to audition to become a ZES, those high-level instructors who teach Basic 1 to newbies, become large-scale advisors and coaches, and sometimes even choreograph for and perform in the monthly ZIN volumes. This is also a sure-fire way to become a Z-lebrity.

A Z-lebrity is exactly what it sounds like, and the Z-lebrity network is a Bravo series just waiting to happen. There's Betsy Dopico, Beto's right-hand woman who teaches so enthusiastically, she's never not dripping in sweat. There's Gina Grant, a dancer-turned-instructor who took up Zumba while trying to lose weight after giving birth to her third child and has since become a genuine superstar. There's Loretta Bates, a dead ringer for Nicole Scherzinger with a heart of gold who travels the world teaching classes. There are plenty of others, some of whom you can spot dancing in a music video for "hot new artist" Dahrio Wonder, who happens to be married to Grant, and occasionally joins her onstage. (Cruise attendees waited in line for over an hour to take photos with the couple, and pictures could only be purchased directly from Royal Caribbean's own photographers.)

The Zumba business model is also predicated on selling stuff — a lot of stuff, this cruise included. Nearly every person on the boat is wearing a head-to-toe Zumba ensemble, down to special neon socks tucked into branded dance shoes. Zumba makes money from the self-produced music playing through the speakers, from the newly-launched Plate by Zumba nutritional program, and from the vegan protein shakes to be drank after class, which are conveniently sold by the glass on-board and by instructors, who make a commission, back home.

It is impossible to overemphasize how much Zumba clothing is worn on this cruise, or how branded the merch truly is (even the quick-dry fabric used for Zumba exercise leggings is called Z-Dri). The entire week is a marbled swirl of neon green, hot pink, and bedazzled this-or-thats. There are Zumba hats, Zumba temporary tattoos, Zumba wristbands, even Zumba jewelry. Despite being aboard an exercise cruise with thousands of people, I see the Nike swoosh but twice.

Grown women stretch before class in full neon unitards, instructors wait in line for custom omelets in black-and-white Zumba graffiti pants, and the same silver sneakers stomp across the length of the ship for days. Mesh sweatshirts, fishnet tops, and T-shirt hoodies are everywhere. The ‘80s are back in full force, at least for the duration of the current Zumba fashion season. Everything, of course, is branded with a slogan, and Crazy Happy Zumba proves to be most popular. In 2015 alone, the company sold 4 million units of Zumba Wear.

The line for the on-board Zumba shop rarely dips below an hour-long wait. Inside, it looks like a cartoonish rendering of a sample sale; the phrase "smash-grab" most accurately describes the chaos that goes down inside. Women proudly clutch overstuffed lime-colored plastic sacks full of new workout wardrobes around the boat. The apparel is sold elsewhere — online, at events, and through instructors themselves — and for relatively cheap (nothing costs more than $50), but the small discount offered on the boat and the fear of styles selling out send everyone into a frenzy.

"Who goes on a Zumba Cruise?" is the question that sent me on this assignment in the first place and the one I'm asked most often upon my return. The answer, it ends up, is everyone — provided you're a Zumba instructor. The cruise is sold out and filled to the brim with a surprisingly diverse mix of people, most of whom teach Zumba classes in some capacity.

It's some sort of miracle that Beto gets people to endlessly work out here, on a cruise ship, a vessel best known for being a hotbed of chocolate-covered, alcohol-fueled hedonism.

While Zumba is most often associated with middle-aged white women from the Midwest (shoutout to my bunkmate!), every age, race, and size of woman is represented here, along with some families and a lot more men (both instructors and not) than you'd expect. There's also an odd array of perennial cruisers who seem generally unaware of the hyper-specific situation they've put themselves in. (I later hear leftover rooms were deeply discounted by the company, and Gilt appears to have hosted a flash sale as well.)

It's some sort of miracle that Beto gets people to endlessly work out here, on a cruise ship, a vessel best known for being a hotbed of chocolate-covered, alcohol-fueled hedonism. If there is never another Zumba Cruise, it's because Royal Caribbean was bankrupted by the lack of liquor sales on this boat. Gather any other common interest group, throw ‘em on a vacation vessel, and the booze will be flowing. But here? "These Zumba people don't drink. They don't need to drink!" Beto exclaims. "That's why Zumba's so magic."

Now there is some drinking — one night I'm woken up by an argument outside our cabin; "I've trained 30 instructors, I hope you throw up!" is the only part I can hear — but for the most part, people don't actually need it. Beto is right. Everyone on-board is DTM: down to merengue. The people here are constantly moving, ceaselessly dancing. They boogie along to music on leveled decks, they bachata by the pool during their breaks between back-to-back classes. People groove on the stairs, on the lip of hot tubs, in the middle of the track, by the bar intended for poolside cocktails that mostly only sells water bottles. They are entranced.

I have never seen people behave this way without procuring an unlimited alcohol package. Even Beto was floored by their constant motion. "It's crazy sometimes, like ‘Oh my god, again?!' These people don't stop!" he says. "Sometimes they start and they don't need me. When they have the same passion, they can dance for no reason."

But then comes the hard and uncomfortable truth that for people who can't stop moving and are so dedicated to this activity that they've traveled to the Bahamas to do it, the crowd is surprisingly unfit. And remember: these people are certified fitness instructors, at least by Zumba standards. Many people take elevators between decks; those who do choose to climb the stairs do so slowly, complaining about how tiring it is. Some people are overweight, others unhealthily so. It all begs the question: how could a massive global fitness company be so successful if a notable segment of its core audience, its most dedicated fans, its instructors, never, ever get in shape?

Well, that's just it. This is not exercise, this is fitnesstainment. The goal of Zumba isn't to get back into your high school jeans or wow your significant other with your toned abs, it's to spend one hour a day feeling free, gaining confidence, becoming a better you.

By definition, Zumba is indeed a group fitness class: it promotes cardiovascular exercise through dance moves, is taught primarily in fitness studios, and utilizes warm-ups and cool-downs. But it's intended to change your spirit, not necessarily your body. As Perlman told Business Insider, "It's the only real fitness program where most people taking it are not taking it for the fitness benefits."

Look for CrossFit gear on Etsy, and you'll be bombarded with T-shirts sporting aggressive phrases like, "If I Pass Out, Please Note My Time" and "I Do Burpees For Fun"; Zumba fan gear is emblazoned with mantras like, "I Don't Sweat, I Sparkle," "This Is My Happy Hour," and "Squats, I Thought You Said Shots." SoulCycle shuts you in a fan-less room so you can feel like you've sweat everything out and Kayla's Army is collectively slaving to earn a thigh gap; Zumba just wants you to leave happier than when you walked in.

I sit with a group of Zumba instructors at the on-board Schooner Bar and listen to their stories. There's the mother-daughter duo that have made a name for themselves by teaching together, more energetically than you could ever imagine. (They invite all newcomers to the front for their first class, their passion is something unparalleled.) There's the Z-lebrity, who notes that she's barely slept at home the past few months because she's so busy meeting and teaching fellow ZINs around the world. (She too is among the most cheerful people I've met in years. I bump into her later that night and she envelops me in a hug.) There's the instructor who first took classes from his mom, went on to lose a lot of weight, and now teaches in a prime location: at the Zumba corporate offices. (He is also a delight.)

As fitness leaders, they seem well aware that people aren't exercising to their fullest.

The company does plenty of good. Zumbathons raise millions and millions of dollars for causes like breast cancer research and childhood obesity. Beto, who seems to be hiding how truly under-the-weather he is by cruise's end, perks up when he talks about his instructors. He cares so much, so deeply, it's not hard to imagine he's kept up at night wondering how to enhance their experience and improve upon what he's already built.

Zumba is also inclusive, and prides itself on being easy. Beto hated when his dance instructors growing up were constantly counting out steps — "This teacher won't shut up!" — so there's none of that. Zumb Instructors encourage doing what moves you. There's no pressure and there are no missteps. Just jump into the party and have fun!

But as fitness leaders, they seem well aware that people aren't exercising to their fullest. Zumba instructors rely heavily on hand signals and physical communication in lieu of verbal commands to students. In no less than three classes I see them use pantomime at the front of class to acknowledge and poke fun at participants who are not dancing full-out. You can absolutely get toned and lose weight while Zumba-ing, but it's shockingly easy to mark the moves, ignore your core, and fall through the cracks, all while assuming you're burning calories.

Zumba's main rhythms come from cumbia, reggaeton, merengue, and salsa. These foundational movements essentially require you to figure-eight your hips endlessly, something that doesn't click for me until weeks later, while I'm watching Zumba videos on YouTube and finally figure out how the trickiest moves actually work. Imagine stepping to the left while jutting your right hip out; it's a coordination nightmare for anyone who doesn't do this for a living, or who hasn't been explicitly taught by someone who does.

There are officially five different iterations of Zumba, three of which (Zumba Step, Aqua Zumba, and Zumba Toning) are offered on the ship, plus specially-designed classes for seniors, children, and toddlers (toddlers!). There's variation way beyond this, though, and that's a whole other can of worms.

If you're a ZIN looking to make it as a Jammer, you'll start to choreograph dances for the classes you teach. Since inventing your own dances is imperative to moving up the ranks, your class will inherently be different from another instructor's, whose will be still different from another instructor's, if she also wants to be a Jammer.

Choosing your own music and adding your own flair is part of the flexibility and freedom that Zumba instructors enjoy. "We say, ‘This is the playlist, these are the steps, these are your options, but you don't need to do it like this.' You are free to do whatever you want," says Beto. "You teach in Alaska, very different people live in Peru. You can play the same playlist, or depending on the culture, you change your playlist." One Jammer I speak with switches up his class depending on which neighborhood he's teaching in — understanding what his audience wants is what's made him such a revered instructor.

But the inventiveness Zumba prides itself on ultimately waters down any sense of cohesion and undermines the hundreds of dollars in dues all active Zumba instructors pay each year. The ZIN volumes exist to curb this issue, "but we don't have a school. Everything's by email, information, but sometimes they make mistakes. It's normal, we have a lot of people around the world," Beto continues. "Quality control is very hard. Sometimes impossible."

These different versions of Zumba are highlighted at ZinCon, the annual instructor convention in Orlando, as well as on the Zumba Cruise. In fact, it seems to be what instructors love doing most: experiencing a new spin on a technique they adore. Only, a few classes I take on the cruise are straight-up hip-hop dance classes; even with a couple salsa-inspired songs or meringue movements tossed in, they are Zumba in name only.

"Quality control is very hard. Sometimes impossible."

"If half of the class is only hip-hop, this is not Zumba. This is hip-hop class," Beto explains. "But we continue to give them information all the time to remember, ‘Guys, salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton. If you have these four rhythms in a class, good.' I only teach four steps. All my life, for 28 years, four steps. Different order, little variation, and people love it. It's working. Why do I need to complicate it?"

The success Beto's achieved from simplicity is remarkable, but if his most dedicated instructors are craving a different take — or at least movements that work with contemporary hip-hop and dance music — one can only assume students desire that complication too. In a way, it seems both ironic and prophetic that the word Zumba "means nothing."

People love to make fun of Zumba. It may be why you read this story. The thing is, Zumba Nation could care less what you think. These people have quietly carved out their own world within ours, a community cha-chaing that sees you laughing from the outside and laughs even harder back for you not knowing what you're foolishly missing out on.

You know that Geico commercial that used Zumba as its kicky punchline? A Zumba Step class I take on-board played a club remix that sampled that very phrase. These people literally made an inspirational soundtrack of their ridicule and danced along to it. Tell me when you find a better way to stick it to the haters.

On the final night of the cruise, attendees strip the boat for parts. Minutes after a banner comes down, someone can be found dragging it back to their room to hang in a studio or classroom upon their return. I see a man with cornrows obtained on a stop in a Jamaican port town happily sip a drink while clutching a massive poster of Beto.

Due to inclement weather, the send-off party is relocated indoors. At 11:30 at night, at the end of this marathon fitnesstainment bonanza, on this makeshift exercise facility floating back to Florida, hundreds of Zumba people dance insatiably. The energy is intense, and it's nearly impossible to push through the crowd to the stage where musical acts like Admiral T and Mr. Vegas are performing.

Even after five full days of non-stop workouts and slimey buffet meats in sweat-soaked clothing, the enthusiasm of the Zumba crowd doesn't wane. They're fed by this, wholly energized. There's no going to bed early and honoring the ship's early departure when they could be moving as one to the music.

Carlye Wisel is a fitness columnist and contributing writer for Racked. She is based in Los Angeles.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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