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What's shaking

Zumba blends Latin dance and aerobics into a hot new workout

Angel Green of Lynn dances along to Latin rhythms during a Zumba class at Salem's Gold Gym.
Angel Green of Lynn dances along to Latin rhythms during a Zumba class at Salem's Gold Gym. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff) Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / January 19, 2008

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SALEM - Deb Gillooly led two dozen women through a lively regimen of slide steps, arm pumps, knee bends, pelvic thrusts, and shoulder shrugs, all to the pulsing beat of songs such as Zona Prieta's "Nena Bonita" and Wisin Y Yandel's "Llame Pa' Verte."

"Use your abs!" exhorted Gillooly, though it was hard to identify any muscle group not in use during the nearly nonstop 45-minute workout at Gold's Gym. The smiles - and beads of sweat - on the women's faces spoke for themselves.

"It's just more fun than other workouts I've done," said Barbara Rafuse, 52, after the session had ended. "At my age, there's less stress on the joints than with something like cardio kickboxing. The music really gets you going, too."

Zumba, combining hip-shaking Latin dance moves with high-energy aerobics, has become one of the hottest workout crazes of recent vintage, spreading northward from South America and Florida to calypso-challenged regions like New England. In the Boston area, where the first training workshop was held in late 2006, nearly 30 clubs and gyms offer Zumba classes. That total could soon increase as more training sessions are scheduled to be offered locally in the next two months.

"Zumba has just exploded around here, mostly due to word of mouth" says Ann Saldi, who oversees training sessions in the New England area. "Everybody wants to dance, even if they think they can't dance. I've never seen anything quite like this."

Terri Comegys, 48, said she'd grown bored with other fitness classes before Zumba came along. "I'm Cuban-American, so I was thrilled to hear about this," she said. 'If you know salsa or Latin dance, it's a phenomenal workout."

Zumba is the brainchild of Colombian fitness trainer Alberto "Beto" Perez, who stumbled upon the dance-and-aerobics formula one day in the mid-1990s. Perez, a charismatic dancer and step-aerobics instructor, had forgotten to bring the music tapes he normally played during workout sessions. Substituting his own salsa and merengue tapes, Perez improvised steps to accompany the new playlist. Zumba - Spanish slang roughly meaning "to move fast and have fun" - quickly became his most popular class and the launching pad for a business that has since gone global.

Perez took his act to Florida in 1999, where it proved to be an instant hit all over again.

"The secret was not having that drill-sergeant mentality behind it that a lot of workout classes have," says Alberto Perlman, CEO of Zumba Fitness Inc. in Miami, which markets Perez's workout tapes and related merchandise. "It was more like, 'Let's have a party!' Going to one of Beto's classes was like going to a Latin nightclub and getting a little wild."

In 2001, Perlman helped Perez launch a company initially built around sales of instructional videos. Four years later, they created a training division to meet the growing demand for Zumba instructors and classes. As their numbers have increased, so have Zumba's visibility and popularity. There are now 10,000 instructors in 30 countries including China and Japan, according to Perlman. DVD sales have soared past the 3 million mark, and the company has expanded its product line to clothing, bracelets, and other accessories.

To get certified in Zumba, instructors pay $200 to $350 for one- and two-day training sessions, a few conducted by Perez himself. For an additional $30 a month, they get their names listed on the Zumba website (zumba.com) and receive the latest CDs and DVDs put out by Perez and his partners.

As appears to be the case with most Zumba instructors, Gillooly has taught a variety of workout regimens - including spinning, pilates, and cardio kickboxing - but has found a passion for Zumba that's unique. These workouts are different, she says, because they're a lot of fun to lead and they appeal to exercise buffs of all ages, from teens to senior citizens.

"No one knows exactly what will happen in any given class," says Gillooly.

The basic workout formula, according to her and other local instructors, consists of 70 percent music and dance steps taken from the Zumba playbook and 30 percent chosen by the class leader.

"Emotion plays a big part," says April Nugent, who teaches Zumba classes at the YMCA in Quincy. "You totally forget where you are for an hour. Nobody feels uncomfortable here. It's the smile on your face and the tilt of your head making these moves that give you the biggest benefits."

Patricia Karina Mendoza, who is from Bolivia and teaches Zumba at five clubs and gyms in the Boston area, says Zumba "makes you feel energetic and sexy." She adds: "It's all about how much energy you put into each step and how much attitude you put in each move."

What about the men?

Gillooly theorizes that guys may feel more comfortable performing booty-shaking dance moves in private, one-on-one sessions and not in predominently female company. "For whatever reason, so far it's a female thing," she says. But if more men tried it, I think they'd like it."

Perlman says his company is "working on" broadening Zumba's appeal to both genders, but he concedes that more than 90 percent of current class members and instructors are women.

One of those women, Nancy Smith, 52, of North Weymouth, took her first Zumba class in Quincy recently. After it ended, Smith compared it favorably to the many other workout regimens she's practiced in the past.

"It's the dance aspect" that makes Zumba so much fun, Smith said. "No machines. You just let yourself go."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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