Zumba, the booty-popping, hip-thrusting, arm-waving dance exercise craze that has been sweeping the planet, was pure happenstance or a “happy accident,” as Zumba founder Alberto “Beto” Perez refers to it. Beto was ready to lead his step aerobics class in his native Cali, Colombia, when he realized he’d forgotten his usual exercise music. Rummaging though his backpack, he pulled out a tape (this was the mid-90s, okay) of salsa and merengue—sultry, saucy, syncopated tunes like the ones he danced to growing up. The fusion of sounds emanating from the boom box (yes, the giant, pre-iPod radio/cassette combo that gave you a workout just carrying it) resulted in a collective visceral reaction: moves and the overall energy in the room went from that of a basic workout routine to a full-on, beat-laden, midday rager. Beto knew he was onto something, but Zumba simmered until 2001, when another happenstance resulted in a business partnership that would eventually ignite Zumba fever worldwide.

Beto, who had bought a one-way ticket to Miami, taught a Zumba class in a Miami gym that piqued the interest of one student. She was the mother of Alberto Perlman, who would soon become his business partner in Zumba Fitness, along with Alberto Aghion, both fellow Colombians who agreed that the dance-fitness program could become the Latin-flavored approach to wellness.

“Latin culture was the inspiration for the whole thing—beyond just the music,” said Perlman, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer. “It speaks to a unique worldview, a mood and an attitude about life that is all underscored by joy.”

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And the Zumba team has plenty to be joyful about these days. Zumba boasts a growth rate of more than 1,000 percent (during the recession, no less) and more than 12 million people of all shapes and sizes “partying themselves into shape”( in Zumba lingo) weekly. Classes are offered in more than 110,000 locations in 125 countries, and Zumba Fitness is approaching 2 million Facebook followers.

What started as a simple dance-fitness routine, has grown into a fitness empire that today includes the following:

  • Zumba Gold for “older adults”
  • Zumbatomic for 4- to 12-year-olds
  • Zumbatoning
  • AquaZumba
  • Zumba In the Circuit, which includes dance and circuit training
  • Zumba Academy to license Zumba instructors, called ZINs
  • Zumbawear – apparel and accessories
  • Z-Life Magazine

In addition, Zumba currently is the best-selling video game on Wii, with another game soon on the way. Zumba products—such as the new Exhilarate, a high-octane DVD set featuring the best instructors directed by the best directors and producers—are being churned out faster than you can salsa!

Just this month, Zumba held its 2011 Zumba Instructor Convention, highlighted by a “fitness concert,” a 6,000-person international party of rave-like proportions, featuring performances by artists such as Pitbull and Wyclef Jean.

Zumba has formed key partnerships with the following: Pitbull for a Zumba mix of his Pause, available on iTunes; Degree Women Deodorant, sponsors of the Fitness Concert; and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, helping to raise more than half a million dollars through Zumba-thons. Organizers hope to triple that goal this August with the help of Wyclef Jean, who will create a special theme song for the Zumba-thons.

Perlman says the company has its faithful fans and followers to thank for the Zumba phenomenon. “We really listened to our people and they gave it to us,” he said. “We didn’t sit down with an ad agency to build this emotion into the brand. Our people told it to us.” As he explains it, the very equity of the brand is defined by a word in Spanish that he said the company has never been able to properly translate into English. The word is ‘gozetas,’ and is used to describe a person who savors life and lives it in a perpetual state of enjoyment. That, according to Perlman, is the prototypical Zumba enthusiast.

“Forget ‘no pain, no gain.’ Forget ‘feel the burn.’ It’s about loving what you do, getting lost in the music and enjoying every minute of it,” he said. “It is a lifestyle philosophy that says love everything you do—including your workout!”