I spent a week with 8,000 worshippers of the fake, fantastical cult of zumba

Salsa, sweat, and tears.
Salsa, sweat, and tears.
Image: Jing Wei for Quartz
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Orlando, Florida

If going to church called for sweatbands instead of prayer books, salsa music in the place of scripture, and a near-insane amount of neon, it might look something like this.

Eight thousand men and women uniformly clad in blinding spandex have squeezed into a warehouse-like basement space in Orlando, seemingly drawing from supernatural energy reserves to dance their hearts out on all sides of me—fervidly yelling, cheering, following along expertly with the choreography being demonstrated by a dozen performers on the 360-degree stage in the middle of the vast room—for hours on end, with the loudest roar yet when Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee finally appears, at long last for the show’s finale, to take the mic. His first few lines of “Despacito,” 2017’s most unlikely pop sensation, are nearly drowned out by the crowd.

For this is the 10th year of the Zumba Instructors Network Convention (“It’s just ZINCON,” most everybody in attendance insists, refusing to identify with anything so corporate-sounding as to have the word “network” in it), an official gathering of 8,000 zumba instructors from around the globe in the sweltering final week of July, all of whom have convened, happily, ardently, to worship the utterly unreal.

It occupies not only Orlando’s 315,000-sq-ft Hyatt Regency but three other venues as well, including the 2.1-million-sq-ft Orange County Convention Center, which houses the convention’s crescendo: the “fitness concert,” headlined by Daddy Yankee. But all week beforehand, men and women sprint through hallways toting gold-and-black gym bags, ample sweat rolling down their cheeks, against a cacophony of mixed rhythms drifting out from the buildings’ every nook and cranny.

Zumba, for the uninitiated or the somehow completely oblivious, is a type of dance—or, as the fervent 15 million people that it draws to classes every week in 185 countries would prefer to call it, “dance fitness.”

“I was going to commit suicide, you know,” Yolie Cintron, a 54-year-old Puerto Rican woman with short cropped hair and steely eyes, tells me. She is calm but casual, unpoised, when we meet up at a diner in the middle of the Hyatt a few days into the convention, sitting down to talk over a mountain of napkins and half-toppled ketchup bottles. We have to strain to hear one another, across the mix of uptempo dance music thumping in from rooms a few feet away.

Cintron tells me about her retirement from professional dance, then the car accident that halted her career as a dental hygienist, and finally the depression into which she spiraled afterward. She tells me it was like all the hope had been drained out of her life.

As she speaks, somewhere to our left, a waitress seats half a dozen chattering women who sport tights in the same spectacular shade of canary neon; this diner operates 24 hours a day and has no windows, lit eternally by fluorescents in the ceiling, giving the odd illusion that it’s a space broken free from time. Crowds trickle in, out, unstopping.

“And then,” Cintron—whose full name is Iris Yolanda Martinez-Cintron, but she tells me at the start with a dry eyeroll that there’s no way in hell she’ll ever respond to that—continues, her mouth curving up in a sudden smile, face abruptly transformed: “Then I found zumba.”

Okay, so, what is zumba? I ask Yolie Cintron, in the timeless, sunless hotel diner. I want to know what the word means—the literal definition. Cintron stops for a minute to think it over.

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“SoulCycle gets a lot of press,” Alberto Perlman scoffs, with a dismissive jerk of the head, when we sit down together with Alberto Perez in their top-floor hotel suite in the Hyatt for an interview.

“You know how many studios they have?” Perez says, ready with the answer immediately: “Eighty. We have 200,000. We have more locations that teach zumba than McDonalds, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts combined.”

Perlman—formerly a businessman in the tech world, now CEO of Zumba Fitness LLC—first met Perez, a Colombian dancer and choreographer, in the 1990s when Perlman’s mother took an aerobics fitness classes Perez was teaching. The thirty-somethings became fast friends. One day, Perez forgot his regular music and had to make do with a random assortment of salsa and merengue, and it was then that he stumbled upon a potentially novel idea: dance instruction that didn’t have to fit into any existing performance category, but rather blended elements of various cultures into one amorphous style.

In the professional dance world—where genres are as strictly divided as scientific fields of study—such thoughts would’ve been blasphemy. In the realm of casual gym classes? Why not. It was already the hot age of buy-by-infomercial. Perlman and Perez got together with one telephone in a garage and started selling DVDs and VHS tapes of Perlman’s new blended dance style, which brought together everything from salsa to martial arts. Perez’s videos, given the mysteriously zany name “zumba,” sold and sold. People started calling, asking how they could become teachers themselves. To be the Perez for their own friends and family. And so Zumba Fitness LLC was born.

The two Albertos had tapped into a profound realization: that the 80% of the population in the world who don’t exercise would probably do it if given the proper incentive. “Cheap fun” proved a good one. In the last several decades, zumba—which is technically written with a capital “Z” given the legal trademark on the term, but we’ll refer to it lowercase here both in recognition of its sweeping cultural influence and to distinguish it from the Zumba LLC company itself—has built up mind-numbingly large appeal by selling classes not to a wealthy bodybuilding elite, but to “normal” people who simply want to be happier. Classes don’t have designated brick-and-mortar locations, instead taking place only inside existing venues like gyms and local recreational spaces.

But cheap overhead costs aren’t zumba’s secret to success. As with most other radically powerful lifestyle brands, zumba curdles itself into the mainstream by selling an image rather than a product. And that image is community.

Via an opt-in, $35-a-month members network called ZIN, Zumba LLC ropes in thousands of instructors—company executives refuse to reveal numbers, but hint that the majority people who get certified as zumba instructors choose to join it—by offering exclusive music playlists for classes, business marketing tips, close-knit Facebook groups, choreography help, round-the-clock support, and an absolute abundance of local community gatherings. Those are vital. Other fitness brands like SoulCycle and CrossFit begin with a tightly-controlled image, down to color schemes, and impose it onto obliging professional instructors; Zumba LLC sits back and lets the cult flourish on its own, as ZIN members—many of whom come into zumba as complete amateurs from office-job backgrounds—bond with one another at barbecues and dance parties, master classes and concerts. The company organizes all the events, of course, but the infectiously eager instructors are the ones who have helped the pet project grow—seemingly organically, earnestly—into a multimillion-dollar empire.

Today, Perlman and Perez are two of the “three As,” a team of three men who steer the Zumba Fitness LLC empire and—incredibly enough—are all named Alberto (the third one, Alberto Aghion, usually stays backstage handling “the finances or something,” Perez says to me with an airy wave of his hand). But even then, the two are known both across the 250-employee company and to the vast devoted network by affectionate nicknames. Perlman is “A.P.”; Perez is “Beto.” Both sound more like names of rappers than corporate executives.

“Happiness! Giving!” A.P. yelps into a microphone at ZINCON’s first-day kickoff event in the Hyatt’s most immense ballroom, half-heartedly attempting to subdue the riotous audience before him. The energy isn’t merely palpable; it bounces straight off the walls of the place, sharp and wild and uncontrollable. Thousands squeeze into the space, scrambling madly over once-tidy rows of plastic chairs to get toward the front, where A.P. steps closer to the stage’s edge—preacher to his waiting pulpit—and continues ticking off what he sees as zumba’s most precious values: “Gratitude! Community.”

And after an intentionally weighted pause: “Exercise.”

While solemnity has no place in this congregation, devotion is another thing entirely. “There’s nothing like ZINCON. You guys are our inspiration. What do you tell people who change lives for a living?” he says to the roaring crowd.

Later, during our hotel suite interview, A.P. is less animated, as if putting on such a show has drained him. He’s a bit more cynical when he says to me: “By design, for many years, we hid the company.” And: “We are like water. Zumba goes everywhere, right? It just finds every place where it can be held. The brand finds the location.”

The evidence of that insidious boom is right there, a few dozen floors below us. In its very first iteration in 2007, ZINCON drew only a crowd big enough to fill a single one of the Hyatt’s rooms. This year’s convention, having hijacked four immense venues at the heart of Orlando—already the land of make-believe, home to SeaWorld, Disney World, Disney’s Animal Park, Universal Studios Florida, Typhoon Lagoon, Magic Kingdom, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and a dozen other theme parks whose premises only get increasingly absurd from there—is a five-day show of glitter-bombed grandeur, cramming in morning-to-evening programming of zumba classes led by superstar instructors, interspersed with hourly stage performances, prize giveaways, branding and advertising lessons.

The laminated welcome booklet alone totals 54 pages. At the two-hour kickoff event, company leaders spin through a mad whirl of zumba’s accomplishments; It’s forged partnerships with artists like Pitbull and Shakira, supported breast cancer research, made cameos in Hollywood blockbusters, even paid for cars and hospital bills of standout members who’ve undergone hardship. In the chirping, ever-buoyant words of one Zumba LLC executive, zumba is a “stunning multicultural force for happiness in the world”—but what that actually means is entirely unclear.

She thinks about it for quite a while.

“With zumba, you can go anywhere,” Cintron eventually answers, picking words carefully—English isn’t her first language, as is the case with many of the instructors in attendance; a great number actually only speak Spanish. But Cintron is both earnest and eloquent when she tells me: “Zumba for me changed my life. I lost my job. I lost movement in the left side, I had screws and all that, they retired me. I was so depressed. But zumba changed my life and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do—it changed my life, it can change yours. That’s how I became an instructor. I didn’t become a zumba instructor. I became more than that. It’s the stage for you to teach others they can do the same as you can do. It’s the freedom to try to change people—to make somebody happy or smile or dance.”

Her words are lovely, blooming with inspiration. They still don’t answer my question. What’s the definition of zumba?

“It’s a Spanish word, something about a type of dance,” one attendee says to me with a bemused shrug, as I pose the question at large to a crowded clump of instructors sitting in a hall in the Orange County Convention Center, queued up tightly for that night’s fitness concert. (At the front of the line are several groups of friends who have been waiting for seven hours, they tell me, just so they can be as close to the stage as possible when Beto and his carefully selected dance crew come on, and later when Daddy Yankee makes his appearance as well.) “It’s the name of Beto’s hometown?” someone else guesses.

“I thought it was African,” confesses John Brian Fuentes, a 35-year-old instructor originally from the Philippines but currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Because Fuentes comes from a business background, he was a quick study on zumba’s artifice when he signed up to be an instructor—but even so, couldn’t discern the word’s origin.

Mario Lopez—the 43-year-old television star most known for Saved By the Bell and Dancing With the Stars, who is briefly at ZINCON this year as a guest speaker—has an enthusiastic, but even more misguided answer for me when I ask him: “I’m attracted to zumba because it has a large Latin influence,” Lopez tells me. “I think the Latin flavor is what makes it stand out.”

Actually, the word “zumba” is jumbled nonsense.

Perelman and Perez wanted “rumba” at first, a style of rhythmic dance from Cuba; it was already trademarked by another fitness group. “Zumba” was quite literally the result of the two men sitting in a Starbucks café, going down the alphabet until they hit upon the letter with the most intrigue. Co-opting other countries’ histories—then packaging them as a new and improved lifestyle—often raises cries of cultural appropriation, but in zumba’s case, nobody cares. Zumba isn’t promising anything as serious as peak athletic prowess; it only wants people to have fun and be well. A Harvard Business Review analysis in 2014 noted that successful brands “decipher where society is going in the long term and figure out how their brand adds value to that direction,” and zumba—by tapping into fun, music, and now the world’s increasing infatuation with wellness—has done that with a laser-like precision ironically at odds with how loose and unstructured its classes promise to be.

(Quartz/Amy X. Wang)
(Quartz/Amy X. Wang)

Most zumba classes these days could be considered bastardized Latin dancing—salsa, merengue, et cetera—but zumba has sprawled out so much as a cultural empire that there are events on the 2017 ZINCON schedule with names such as “ASIAN INVASION” and “FOLK DANCES OF INDIA.” Visiting those courses, led by instructors not even necessarily of the dances’ ethnicities, I see the kinds of classes one would actually find in most mid-tier gym chains. The audience of the Bollywood-themed class is about a third Asian, a third Hispanic, a third white. Latin doesn’t have much to do with it anymore: Zumba, as A.P. says, indeed has become “water.”

All the flavor sucked out, intentionally. Starting from the product, and now, finally, in its very name.

“Zumba broke the mold on a what a dance class is,” Maggie Engels, a New York instructor with a story quite similar to Cintron’s, tells me a few days into the convention, sitting across from me in the (where else?) 24/7 Hyatt diner. “It took everything from all those styles and countries and brought them into one hour. I could not be more of a white girl, but I salsa like I’m Latin! When you take the rhythms, when you do zumba—you can transform into an African jungle queen. You can be Beyoncé. I can be Beyoncé.”

A.P. shares with me another metaphor he favors: Not just water, but Kleenex. “Nobody says ‘I want to go to dance fitness’ or ‘I want to grab a tissue’—it’s ‘a Kleenex,’” he explains. “We want to be the Kleenex of dance fitness. We chose some principles, like, local instructors have the freedom to choreograph their own routines, as long as they use the Zumba formula.” Zumba is happiness, after all; it’s not a 250-strong team of strategists who group together on a daily basis in a corporate office to push a product.

“We think of ourselves as open-source dance fitness,” he says, repeating that he and Beto “hid the company” at first. That means aggressively pushing the substance itself and reeling back all commercial touches as much as possible, a point that has proven especially crucial in Latin American countries, where many zumba instructors are located, and where individualistic attitudes are much more celebrated than corporate ones.

And, friendly and transparent as the “three A’s” pride themselves on being to their instructors, Zumba LLC—as I’m reminded by its PR team, repeatedly, before the executive interview—does not disclose the scantest of its financials. It is a tight-lipped private company, declining to reveal even the number of members it has in ZIN; its reported value is upward of $500 million—but how upward is not publicly known.

In 2017, zumba is morphing—once more. The company has just decided to introduce “STRONG by Zumba,” an entirely new brand: a HIIT class, filled with quick, challenging bodyweight exercises, set to original music. A.P., Beto, and the press team all stress that the point is to step it up a notch, to offer a more intense rhythm-based experience for people graduating from zumba. But “STRONG” is essentially a typical gym class. Zumba, the company, has come full circle: It made something weird, subversive, and radically new by pretending it was rooted in the real; now it’s doing the exact reverse. Zumba has grown so much out of its origin that its followers—its core of instructors, but also the 15 million people signing up for classes every week in the world—do not see its “water”-like existence as a crisis of culture, but merely a fun activity that is its own brand-new culture. You buy yourself an hour of happy, mindless sweating, set to vaguely Latin-originating pulses mixed in with some of the top Billboard hits of the day, which rotate in and out, forgettable, easy, replaceable—and in the madness of 2017, that is some sort of utopia.

By the time ZINCON’s Friday night fitness concert rolls around, one might expect the whole operation to have collapsed—instructors panting on the floor, peeling off shoes in defeat, music slowing down or at least being turned back to an appropriate, migraine-free volume. But not so. Beto and a dozen instructors, who’ve been carefully handpicked and trained for weeks beforehand while they lived together inside a single house, lead the thousands-strong room in hours and hours of ceaseless energy.

It’s more than three hours into the deafening spectacle when Daddy Yankee finally strolls out. He plays just a handful of songs, the final one being “Despacito”—a Spanish-language pop song that shot up on music charts at record speed this summer and also became the most-watched music video on YouTube. There is a resonance here that goes beyond how well the song’s thumping beats and guitar rhythms echo across the cavernous space: “Despacito” and zumba are both success stories equally astonishing and unlikely, built off what seems to be a desperate hunger for the existence of some kind of universal culture—just not necessarily a real one. (And their achievements are entwined, too. The rapper himself gave a shoutout to zumba in an interview about the song’s rapid climb earlier this year.)

It’s a quick, pulsing melody, ending in an uproarious clash of notes. Daddy Yankee is irreverent, casual, seeming to not entirely comprehend or care for the very words that he’s pushing out from the microphone, perhaps unaware of them at times altogether, but it doesn’t very much matter; only half the people he’s singing to speak Spanish, anyway.

So really, what is zumba? I had asked Beto and A.P. directly, the morning beforehand. Beto took a second to muse over it, but it was A.P. who shrugged noncommittally and leaned forward to—sitting just five feet away from me on the sofa in his suite—unexpectedly give me the most elegant, starkly brutal answer of all: “Zumba? You can say it in every language. It doesn’t mean anything, so it has no meaning in any language, and it sounds like what it is.”

The song ends. Daddy Yankee gives a cool nod and leaves. The crowd—in wrenchingly perfect harmony, of course—goes wild.