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Alberto Perez started as a street performer then became an aerobics teacher in Colombia, teaching the wives of businessmen how to dance in nightclubs in California.
Today, he stands at the centre of the Zumba exercise craze, having helped transform Zumba Fitness, a private company, into a growing fitness empire with heavyweight investor backing.
“I’m not a businessman, but I knew this had the potential to be something special,” said Perez, who with two Colombian associates started the Miami-based company.
Zumba, a Latin dance-inspired aerobic workout, has exploded from a Miami gym phenomenon to an infomercial and DVD smash hit, to a global craze with about 12 million people taking classes every week in at least 125 countries. Zumba Fitness is the largest branded fitness programme in the world.
Started on a shoestring budget in a Miami garage nearly 11 years ago, Zumba Fitness has more than 200 employees, and two New York investment companies are betting the craze has staying power.
What began as a company focused on fitness has evolved into a lifestyle and entertainment brand combining e-commerce, apparel and music, and a sought-after outlet for stars such as hip hop artists Pitbull and Wyclef Jean and reggaeton singer Don Omar, who have turned to Zumba to promote their music.
Zumba got its start by chance in the 1980s. Perez, who is known as Beto, was a street performer and salsa and merengue nightclub dancer known for his boyish model looks and muscular physique.
One day, the owner of a nearby gym asked Perez to stand in for an injured aerobics teacher. He agreed, but didn’t mention he had never done aerobics and rushed out and bought a copy of Jane Fonda’s Workout Book.
Months later, getting ready for a class, Perez forgot his aerobics music. Instead, he put on his own merengue and salsa tapes and improvised dance moves for a workout.
It proved to be a hit and he quickly developed a loyal following. He then moved to Bogota, where he briefly worked as a choreographer with pop star Shakira.
In 1999, Perez went to Miami. He spoke no English but hoped to make a breakthrough with his new dance exercise class.
He struggled before building up a large, adoring fan base of mostly Colombian expatriate women, including the mother of Alberto Perlman.
Perlman was a technology entrepreneur at the time, but lost his job in the dot-com bust two years later.
He co-founded Zumba Fitness and is now its chief executive.
“My mom had been taking his (Perez’s) classes for years,” he said. “She would tell me about this amazing class, but I never paid attention. When the bubble burst, I went to have dinner at her house and she kept saying: ‘Talk to Beto, maybe you guys could start a gym’.
“I said I’d meet him, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with him,” Perlman recalled.
But after he watched a class, he came up with the idea for a fitness video he hoped would be a success.
The men sought for a name for the exercise. They first came up with the Spanish word rumba, but realised it was already trademarked.
“We just went through the alphabet to see what rhymes with rumba,” Perlman said. “We settled on Zumba. It was perfect.”
The company’s priority is to grow the instructor and student base, with a goal of reaching 100 million students, more than eight times the current number.
The company has also launched a line of brightly coloured Zumba clothing, Zumba footwear, and a magazine called ZLife, all from its Miami office.
But it’s also focused on developing TV shows, pushing into global markets, particularly Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, and exploiting a new business opportunity – fitness concerts.
“I see Zumba Fitness also as an entertainment brand,” Perlman said. “It’s becoming a music, TV and concert platform.”
Fitness fads rise and fall, but two prominent investment companies have made bets that Zumba Fitness will avoid going the way of workout has-beens such as Jazzercise, Thighmaster and the Ab Rocket.
Two New York investment companies, Insight Venture Partners and The Raine Group, have invested in the company.
Perlman said Zumba Fitness hoped to draw on the companies for media, entertainment and technology resources.
“Once Zumba gained exposure on infomercials, fans started asking for more. The company began receiving calls from people, saying: ‘I want to be a Zumba instructor’,” said Perlman.
By 2005, the company decided to develop the global instructor network and Zumba took off. The instructors each pay $30 (R254) a month to receive regular instalments of new music and exercise steps.
The network has turned Zumba instructors in the US and the rest of the world into entrepreneurs.
And the company has turned live concerts into fitness experiences where concert-goers follow Zumba instructors on stage while artists perform.
“My dream is to see fitness concerts all over the world, travelling shows, permanent shows in Las Vegas,” Perlman said. “The artists love it, too, because it’s a new way of selling their music.”
Perez, the chief creative officer, said Zumba’s explosive popularity was rooted in its simplicity.
“Over the years, fitness became too complicated and difficult,” he said. “The industry turned egocentric with an emphasis on instructors doing the exercises. They forgot about normal people – mothers, grandmothers and the housewives who want to stay in shape and have some fun.” – Reuters