Pop Culture
12:01 am
Mon March 5, 2012

Zumba Is A Hit, But Is It Latin?

Originally published on Fri March 9, 2012 10:51 am

Zumba isn't just a fitness craze; it's an international business with more than 12 million enthusiasts in its classes. You can buy Zumba CDs, a Zumba video game and Zumba clothes. For many students — who show up in spandex to body-roll, fist-pump and booty-shake — it's their first taste of Latin music and dance steps. Now, some Latin dancers are trying to make more of a distinction between their art — and what happens in a Zumba class.

Zumba enthusiast Damarus Diaz is Puerto Rican, and she likes the way Zumba has brought Latin rhythms and steps to the rest of the world. "I love how all these different cultures are embracing the Latin culture now because of Zumba," Diaz says. "You'll see people mouthing words to the song and afterward they'll come to me and say, 'Damarus, what does that mean?'"

The story of Zumba begins with an accident that seems too good to be true. Back in the '90s in Colombia, dancer and choreographer Alberto Perez was teaching an aerobics class and he forgot his regular music. So he reached into his backpack and pulled out tapes of salsa and merengue. Fast forward to today, and Zumba has certified instructors in more than 125 countries around the world. Each class uses salsa, cumbia, bachata, and other Latin and international rhythms.

Marianne Martino-Giosa straddles both the Zumba and Latin dance worlds — she's a semi-professional salsa dancer and teaches 19 Zumba classes a week in the Philadelphia area. (She's got the six-pack to prove it.) There's plenty of overlap between Zumba and salsa classes, she says, but there are plenty of differences between the two styles of dance. For example, you never start a step on the right foot in salsa: "It's a no-no ... It's just not proper technique," Martino-Giosa says. But Zumba's an exercise class, and students need to work both legs.

There's still disagreement over whether Zumba is really Latin dance. "The salseros will tell you that Zumba is not Latin dancing," Martino-Giosa says. "But anybody who takes Zumba does feel that it's part of Latin dancing."

Jose Maldonado is one of the skeptics. He teaches Latin dance at the same studio where Martino-Giosa leads Zumba classes and says that students who think Zumba dance is legitimate Latin dance are "misinformed."

"One of my students said, 'I took Zumba. I think I know how to salsa dance.' I said, 'Fine, strut your stuff. Let's see what you have.' They couldn't salsa," Maldonado says.

Perhaps Latin dance is undergoing the same sort of transition that yoga did when it gained popularity. Joan White has taught the classical style of Iyengar yoga for nearly 40 years. For her, yoga is a spiritual practice, not just a physical fitness. "I find it extremely sad," White says. "It's like, here is this wonderful tradition that comes from India, and now it's being completely overrun by people who have no idea what yoga is."

Authentic or not, Zumba has been good business for Latin dance. At La Luna studio, where Maldonado and Martino-Giosa teach, Zumba brings in as many if not more students per month as the rest of the studio's dance classes.

World-ranked salsa dancer Darlin Garcia hopes to cash in on Zumba's popularity. His studio Art In Motion recently began offering Zumba classes, even though he still makes fun of it.

"You're taking a salsa step and in the middle of it you jump into a jumping jack," he says. "When you're mixing the two, that's just funny."

As it morphs and evolves, Zumba may be moving away from its Latin roots. The company has recently expanded to include more international rhythms from West Coast swing, belly dance and bhangra.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you're the kind of person who goes to the gym you may have seen classes there for Zumba. It's not just a fitness craze. It's also an international business. You can buy Zumba CDs, a Zumba video game and Zumba clothes. For a lot of students, it's their first taste of Latin music and dance steps.

But Yowei Shaw reports that some Latin dancers are trying to make more of a distinction between their art and what happens in a Zumba class.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND CHEERING)

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: Lines of women in spandex flail around as the ground vibrates with the pulse of the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND CHEERING)

SHAW: There's body rolling, fist pumping, shimmying and yes, even some full-on booty shaking. Damarus Diaz was lip-syncing the whole time. After class, she told me that she's Puerto Rican.

DAMARUS DIAZ: I love that all these different cultures are embracing the Latin culture now because of Zumba. You'll see people mouthing the words to a song and afterwards they'll come to me and they're like, Damarus, what does that mean? And I'll laugh. And I'll say but you were singing the song.

SHAW: The story of Zumba begins with an accident that seems too good to be true. Back in the '90s in Colombia, Alberto Perez was teaching an aerobics class and he forgot his regular music. So he reached into his backpack and pulled out tapes of salsa and merengue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Fast forward to today, and Zumba has certified over a quarter-million instructors. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Zumba Fitness cannot verify this number of instructors. Zumba has certified instructors in more than 125 countries.]

Each class uses salsa, cumbia, bachata and other Latin and international rhythms. For some students, it's their introduction to Latin music.

Marianne Martino-Giosa straddles both the Zumba and Latin dance worlds.

MARIANNE MARTINO-GIOSA: Do they cross? Yes. Do we see clients that go from one class to the other? Absolutely.

SHAW: Giosa is a semi-professional salsa dancer and teaches 19 Zumba classes a week in the Philadelphia area. She's got the six-pack to prove it. She says there are clear differences between the two. Like in Zumba, you start a salsa step on both the left and right foot. But in salsa...

MARTINO-GIOSA: It's a no-no to take that step on the right or break to the right in a salsa class. It's just not proper technique. With it being an exercise program in Zumba, obviously we have to exercise both legs.

SHAW: But Giosa says there's still disagreement over whether Zumba is really Latin dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINO-GIOSA: The salseros will tell you that Zumba is not Latin dancing. But anybody who takes Zumba does feel that it's part of Latin dancing, because technically we are Latin dancing.

JOSE MALDONADO: They are vaguely misinformed.

SHAW: Jose Maldonado teaches Latin dance at La Luna, the same studio where Giosa leads Zumba classes.

MALDONADO: One of my students said, I took Zumba. I think I know how to salsa dance. I said, fine, strut your stuff. Let's see what you have. They couldn't salsa.

SHAW: Perhaps, what happened in yoga might be happening with Zumba and Latin dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

SHAW: Joan White has taught the classical style of Iyengar yoga for almost 40 years. For her, yoga is a spiritual practice. White says it's not just physical fitness.

JOAN WHITE: I find it extremely sad. It's like here is this wonderful tradition that comes from India. And now it's being completely overrun by people who have no idea what yoga is.

SHAW: Authentic or not, Zumba has been good business for Latin dance. At La Luna, Zumba brings in as many if not more students a month as the rest of the studio's dance classes.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DANCE CLASS)

SHAW: World-ranked salsa dancer Darlin Garcia hopes to cash in on Zumba's popularity, as well. His studio, Art in Motion, recently began offering Zumba classes, even though he still makes fun of it.

DARLIN GARCIA: You're taking a salsa step and in the middle of it, you jump into like a jumping jack thing. I mean when you're mixing the two, that's just funny, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND MUSIC)

SHAW: Zumba may be losing some of its Latin-inspired flavor. The company has recently expanded to include more international rhythms from West Coast swing and belly dance to bhangra and Bollywood. For NPR News, I'm Yowei Shaw.

For NPR News, I'm Yowei Shaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related program: