So what is Zumba’s secret? “It’s inclusive and it’s fun,” says 25-year-old Laura, a trainee solicitor. “It doesn’t matter if you can dance or not. Nobody is judging you.”
I’ve been to a lot of dance classes over the years and it’s true that Zumba is uniquely unintimidating. Street dancing is brilliant but the moves are hard. The Latin dances, in which you’re aiming for heat and sensuality, can be excruciatingly embarrassing to mess up. Anyone, regardless of age, fitness or natural rhythm, can handle a Zumba class. “Even my mum does it,” says Laura. “She loves it.”
Zumba Fitness actually makes little money from the classes. The profit comes instead from the video games, DVDs and clothing – and the instructors. They pay around £190 for training and £20 a month to Zumba Fitness thereafter. In exchange, they get music, choreography – from Zumbatomic for children to Aqua Zumba, “the pool party” – and access to what Perlman calls “an internal Facebook where instructors mentor each other”.
Most Zumba practitioners are female, more markedly in Britain (98 per cent) than anywhere else. (In Latin America, where men grow up dancing, it is more like 75 per cent). Perlman hopes to redress the balance, possibly by creating a toning-focused variation for men.
But he has more ambitious projects, which include a Zumba record label. He was recently approached by the hip-hop artist Pitbull. “He said to us, 'You have 14 million people taking classes every week. You guys are like a radio station.’” Pitbull and Wyclef Jean, among other artists, have since debuted singles via the Zumba network, prompting the music industry magazine, Billboard, to call Zumba “the next major music platform”.
Maybe the Zumba fanatics are right: it isn’t just a dance.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Zumba. It is the world’s biggest branded fitness programme and it is probably happening at a gym or community centre near you. Founded in 2001 in Miami by three Albertos – Perez, Perlman and Aghion – it has 14 million weekly participants in more than 150 countries.
“It would be quicker to tell you the countries we’re not in,” says Alberto Perlman, the CEO of Zumba Fitness (pronounced “zoomba”). He takes a sip of mineral water and settles into an armchair in a London hotel. “We’re not in North Korea, Iran or Cuba. We’re in Antarctica, though. We had a class there with four people, with some penguins in the back.” He laughs the easy laugh of a 35-year-old multi-millionaire.
Perlman is here to open Zumba’s first office outside of America. The UK is the company’s second-biggest market, with 1.2 million people practising its mix of aerobics and dance steps. He hopes to quadruple that number and there’s every reason to expect he’ll do it. In American culture, Zumba is so ingrained it was a plot point in a recent Desperate Housewives episode. Michelle Obama has held a class on the White House lawn. They even have Zumba classes at the Pentagon. (They probably don’t wear the tasselled Zumba cargo pants and neon string vests at that one. The branded clothing, incidentally, is a £60 million business in itself).