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How passion and perseverance led to the creation of the largest dance fitness phenomenon in the world.

How do you create a worldwide movement? Reflecting on more than a decade and a half of work in the dance fitness industry, Alberto Perlman, co-founder and CEO of Zumba Fitness, knows that the answer to that question is all about passion and perseverance.

He reveals, “It starts with heart, and it’s about the passion, because you have to be able to endure many rejections and failures and iterations. And the only thing that’s going to get you through is passion; otherwise you give up.”

And Perlman knows a thing or two about persevering in the face of failure. At 22 years old, Perlman was living and breathing tech, running an Internet company incubator and “on top of the world.”

“Suddenly the dot-com bubble burst, and I was unemployed. And I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says. Little did Perlman know that soon he would be managing the largest dance fitness movement in the world—thanks to a little help from his mom.

Something big

Not long after his company failed, during dinner one night, Perlman’s mother was raving about a fitness instructor at her gym and kept pressing Perlman to meet with him, suggesting that he consider starting a gym with the instructor. She said, “Beto is the best. I don’t understand why anyone hasn’t done anything with him.”

Though he knew nothing about gyms or the fitness industry, at his mother’s prompting, Perlman and Alberto “Beto” Perez met the next day over coffee, and then Perlman visited one of Perez’s classes. That’s when he realized Perez was onto something big.

“The first thing that jumped out at me was that there was a line of 120 people half an hour before the class,” says Perlman. “And I didn’t know anything about the fitness industry, but I knew that classes normally don’t have 120 people in a line out the door. Then during the class … what I saw was fitness without sacrifice. Everybody was smiling and drenched in sweat at the same time. And people were having a ball when they were doing it.”

Both Albertos didn’t have any money—an admittedly huge hurdle—but that didn’t stop them from pursuing an idea they had formed. “After the class I said, ‘What do you want to do?’” recounts Perlman. “And [Perez] said, ‘Maybe some videos.’”

With Perez on the creative side and Perlman overseeing the marketing and business development, the duo roped in a third Alberto, Alberto Aghion, a childhood friend of Perlman’s, to manage the nuts and bolts of the operations. Thus, Zumba was born.

People who care trump talent

There would have been no class—and no Zumba® worldwide—if Perez, too, had quit in the face of adversity. As a child, Perez’s family was too poor to afford dance lessons, so he taught himself. After earning a spot at a top dance academy in Colombia, Perez taught step aerobics on the side. When he forgot his music for one class, he improvised with his own Latin music tapes. The class was a hit, and Perez spent the next few years trying to get his dance workout into U.S. gyms. On his fourth trip, Perez’s program was picked up, and that’s where Perlman found him. Their first workout DVD sold more than one million copies in less than a year, and not long after they began offering Zumba instructor trainings.

Today Zumba® is a household name with classes in gyms and clubs across the country and instructive videos online and on DVD. From the onset, however, Perez and Perlman recognized that it was never about the money. “The priority is not the money. The priority is work. Let’s be honest and have passion for our work, and we will see what happens,” says Perez. “And we knew that it had to be a business, but at the same time, that wasn’t how we measured it. We measured it by how many people we were affecting. We measured it by how many people liked the class. Those were the things we cared about.”

That same pursuit of passion has spread to Zumba’s hiring process—something Perlman admits was a trial and error process for them early on. “The one thing that I look for right now is passion and people who care, because I think that people who care trump talent,” Perlman explains. “It’s more important to find somebody who’s passionate and cares deeply about the work than to find someone who has been recommended.”

Despite all their hard work and unrelenting perseverance, Perlman admits they couldn’t have pursued such a passion without a little luck: “We were very, very lucky because Latin music was starting to become really popular and accepted. There was a big emphasis on health and fitness starting the early 2000’s, and dancing became popular—‘Dancing With the Stars,’ ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’”

Perlman continues, “And the internet—I wanted to turn every single process we did into a technology, and the internet allowed us to do that, number one. And number two, people started communicating worldwide at that time with Facebook and then YouTube. So people were sharing Zumba [videos]; they were sharing gym classes. It became a way to spread throughout the world. Those things together set the stage for Zumba.”

Reconnecting music and movement

So what does the future of Zumba look like to Perlman and Perez? It’s all about evolving—pursuing relevancy, persevering in the changing landscape of fitness and paying attention to peoples’ needs.

“We developed STRONG by Zumba® because we saw there was a disconnect between music and movement in HIIT [high-intensity internal training] classes, and it didn’t make sense to us,” Perlman says. “So we want to continue being creative. We want to continue bringing things to members in gyms and class participants, and bringing happiness, and bringing fitness and health.”

Party in Pink™

The Zumba community is showing up for those affected by breast cancer—in pursuit of a cure.

The same passion that grew the Zumba program from a single class in a Miami gym to a worldwide phenomenon ripples through the Zumba community. It’s more than just a passion for dance—it’s a passion for community.

Every October, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Zumba throws a Party in Pink Zumbathon™ event to raise money for the Zumba Global Research Grant for Breast Cancer Prevention. To date, Zumba has raised more than $2 million (with a goal of $3 million since the inception of the event). This year’s theme is “friends don’t let friends fight alone,” with a focus on the Zumba community as a support system for those navigating breast cancer. All proceeds from the Zumbathon go to support finding a cure, in partnership with Susan G. Komen.

It’s not just the money that helps change the lives of people affected by breast cancer—it’s the movement itself. There are countless stories of Zumba® class members and instructors battling cancer, who credit Zumba as their source of emotional and mental strength—not to mention physical wellness.

Paula Jacobs is a Zumba instructor and breast cancer warrior and she says, “When [my class members] lifted me up, I was ready to fight and I fought. And I kicked [cancer’s] butt.” Her doctor told her the Zumba program saved her life because she was in the best shape of her life. Jacobs’ doctor added, “That prepared you for the fight.”

For more real stories from Zumba, visit zlife.zumba.com. Learn more about Party in Pink 2017 here. Visit https://www.24hourfitness.com/classes/gx24parties/ to find a Party in Pink Zumbathon at 24 Hour Fitness, or to donate to the Party in Pink 2017 campaign. 

Photo credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com
Hair and Make-up: Gina Dearing

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