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Shake, Sweat and Sizzle to Zumba, the Workout that has Taken Over the World

For weeks I watched a wide range of athletes walk into a studio at the gym for Zumba class as I ran silently on the treadmill, a very solo endeavor that left a lot of time for thinking and observing. The makeup of attendees always piqued my interest, a stream of people of all shapes, sizes, genders. After finally working up courage to walk into the brightly lit studio and take a class myself, I was greeted by half the room in pretty typical workout gear: shorts, sweats, sleeveless shirts; while the other half was made up of an array of looks: fluorescent shirts, Zumba printed pants, and a couple of people in denim, one with a flannel shirt tied around her waist. A few others had trendy flat brimmed baseball caps on. 

Zumba classes pop up in studios, in parks, or on the streets. Photo credit: @photographybysimo

The instructor, a tall, energetic woman, greeted everyone with one of the biggest smiles I’ve seen in my life; perhaps it was her sparkling white teeth that made her smile seem that much bigger? And everyone co-existed, happily chatting, waiting for the music to start. I witnessed a few people embrace before class, including the instructor who walked around the room asking who needed a hug. 


This is one of Zumba’s significant successes, among many. The way the organization creatively recruits instructors has encouraged the word-of-mouth promotion of this fitness craze. Rather than simply hiring fitness professionals, Zumba casts a wide net to attract people from all walks of life to become certified instructors. The instructor training program is open to anyone, regardless of background or fitness level, the only requirements are passion for music and movement and a willingness to learn. It’s this approach that has led to a diverse group of instructors, each bringing their own personality and style to the Zumba experience.

A recent popular recruitment tactic has been finding instructors through social media and online platforms, and the Zumba management team regularly hosts virtual auditions for new instructors. The process encourages people from all over the world to apply and opens up the Zumba community to a wider audience, creating a network of instructors from all corners. 

After a few minutes of discomfort, hoping that the instructor didn’t make it to my side of the room asking for a hug, the class finally began and the sound of Latin music blasted from the speakers. We were led through a series of steps that felt like a cross between salsa and aerobics and I found myself sweating already. And I couldn’t help but smile at the sporadic whoop! that people around the room would shout out on a whim. The energy was contagious, and it seemed that everyone was having a blast. Yes, including me. 

From the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and the streets of Tokyo, to this gym’s studio in Santa Cruz, people like me have been moving to the rhythm of the Zumba global phenomenon for decades, changing the way we exercise and socialize.The full-body workout combines cardio, strength training and dance moves, and became a popular way for people to get into shape while having, what seemed to me, the time of their lives. 

Zumba stretches across the world, like on the Zumba cruise. Photo credit: Zumba Fitness

As the story goes, Zumba originated in Colombia in the 1990s. Alberto “Beto” Perez, a Colombian dancer and choreographer, created the fitness regime when he forgot his usual music for an aerobics session and improvised with salsa and merengue music from his personal collection. The class was a hit and the seeds of Zumba were planted, eventually spreading across the globe to what it is now – with classes offered in over 200,000 locations in 180 countries. Millions of enthusiasts attend classes every week. 


Some of the moves were fast and complicated, but the instructor broke them down for us and encouraged us to keep going. That awkwardness I felt at the start of the class fully dissipated when I saw some classmates, who seemed no more rhythmically inclined than me, jump in and dance with the instructor up front. It was seeing them and their less-than-professional but truly joyful moves that allowed me to let go a bit, feeling like I was in my own little world and ultimately becoming lost in the music and the movement.

As the class came to a close we slowed down our movements and stretched. I felt a sense of accomplishment settle in, knowing that I ended up staying through an entire workout that didn’t come naturally to me (my usual move is to duck out as soon as a class hit the thirty minute mark, convincing myself that it was to be celebrated that I even made it into the class, so I could leave whenever I wanted).  

“The appeal of Zumba across the world is that it is more than just a workout – it is a community,” says Lupita Gee, a Zumba regular who has attended classes across the country. She was my neighbor at the Zumba class, where she most likely witnessed my arms flailing in directions not advised by the instructor. “That’s what you felt at the class. Encouragement, passion. Even when I’m on vacation, I’ll look for a local Zumba class to take. I love it. It brings very different people together.” 

Zumba has also created specialized programs for specific groups, such as Zumba Kids and Zumba Gold for older adults. These programs allow instructors to tailor classes to different populations and create a more inclusive environment.

Guests at a Zumba Gold class.

Reddit is full of stories about couples who met and later got engaged during Zumba class, and of people who met at Zumba class and then formed their own book club/soccer team/cooking club/insert almost any other activity here. Zumba has become a cultural leader, with its influence spreading beyond the fitness world and inspiring fashion trends, music videos, and charity events. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic the organization smartly adapted to the changing times, offering online classes and virtual events. Attendees around the world were able to stay connected and active through the community, even without the in-person classes. 

As a way for people to socialize and make new friends while staying active and healthy, part of Zumba’s popularity is its accessibility. One doesn’t need to be a trained dancer or athlete to participate in a Zumba class. The routines are designed to be easy to follow and flexible for all fitness levels, plus the music is upbeat and infectious, making it irresistable. 

After class I hung around to chat with the Zumba instructor, who I overheard was named Genevieve. She was already surrounded by a group of six other people, so I waited my turn to say my thanks and to joke about the hugging before the session. “That’s what I love about Zumba!” she said, smiling her big smile. “Gosh I love it because it’s not just a workout, it’s a party. Seeing the whole room smile and let loose on the dance floor is the reward. Those hugs set the vibe, we’re pushing out that community love. Zumba does that. It brings people together in a way that no other fitness program does.”

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