ORLANDO, Fla. -- Zumba Fitness instructors worldwide are not only using a Latin-heavy song lineup in their classes, they're also creating new fans for artists such as Pitbull, Daddy Yankee and Don Omar.
Omar's "Zumba" has remained high on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart for nearly a year, peaking at No. 2. In Greece, Daddy Yankee's "Limbo," currently in the Top 10 on the Hot Latin Songs chart, is featured in a promotional video that has Greek Zumba instructors dancing to a Puerto Rican reggaeton beat in a beach setting.
"Daddy Yankee texted me five days ago and said, 'I wanted you to know that 'Limbo' is as much your hit as it is my hit,"' said Zumba Fitness co-founder and CEO Alberto Perlman. "It was perfect for Zumba. When he showed it to us, he said, 'I said Zumba nine times in the song and it's because you guys have inspired me."'
Zumba, a dance-based fitness program created by Colombian dancer and choreographer Alberto "Beto" Perez in 2001, was born and is still based in South Florida. It has expanded worldwide, creating new fans of dance styles such as Perez's native cumbia and new fans of Latin music.
Some 14 million people in 185 countries are now dancing and singing to the songs, smiling and sweating in Zumba classes and clamoring to buy the music.
"Being from Michigan, I wasn't exposed to any of that music, and now it's easy to find and we hear it so often," said Jill Cooper of Ann Arbor, a longtime fitness professional. She was one of 8,000 Zumba instructors from around the world who attended the annual Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Fla.
Walking through the convention space, you hear an international smorgasbord of music. Polynesian music blares from one room while the sexy samba of "Mas queue Nada" pulsates next door, all punctuated by a "Yeah!"
And Pitbull, always Pitbull.
"My mom loves Pitbull, and she loves Pitbull because of Zumba class," Perlman said. "She would never, ever have heard Pitbull on the radio because she doesn't listen to those stations, but because of Zumba class, she's listening to him and I'm like, `Mom, stop singing Pitbull songs."'
Perez said the music is treated differently in Zumba than in traditional aerobics classes.
"In the aerobics world, it's very cheap music. It's `boom-shh-boom-shh-boom-shh,"' Perez said, imitating the beat of workout music. "The music is in the background. We need to put the music in front because it's a party. How do you enjoy the party if the music's no good?"
Bill Roedy, former chairman and CEO of MTV International, is a consultant for Zumba. He said it's that party atmosphere that makes people curious about the music.
"Zumba has these captive audiences at 160,000 locations around the world, 14 million users every single week, so you get in this room and you're dancing and you're getting healthier and you're listening to this music -- you can't change the radio dial," Roedy said "It's a captive audience, and you're building these endorphins so you feel even better about the music."
Brazilian superstar Claudia Leitte, one of the celebrity coaches on the Brazilian version of "The Voice," will be a featured performer at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. She recently was named Zumba Fitness' global ambassador.
"We've been talking about Claudia for a very long time and we had a dream of meeting Claudia and trying to get her involved in Zumba because we'd go on YouTube and type in `Claudia Leitte' and see her with concerts of 800,000 people," Perlman said. "You take the biggest star in the U.S., multiply that by 10, and that's Claudia in Brazil."
Leitte, already a fan of the Zumba Fitness workouts, sees the partnership as a love affair of sorts. "It's about passion. I can see the love in everything that Zumba is doing."
Leitte was showcased in the Zumba convention's opening-night concert that also spotlighted Jamaican dance hall performer Sean Paul, Nickelodeon actress-singer Victoria Justice and three singers labeled Zumba Fitness Emerging Artists -- Haitian singer J. Perry, Colombian singer Mara and American singer Dahrio Wonder.
Perlman said choreography is designed to a particular song. "We have to concentrate on the verse, the chorus, the bells, the drums -- anything in the song we can use. And that makes people have to think about the song while they're taking the Zumba class. And that's why after the class, they always go up to the instructor and say, 'What was that song that you played?' and they start singing it. And the instructor says, `Oh, that's Claudia, that's Victoria, that's Sean Paul.' And that drives a lot of sales on iTunes, views on YouTube, social media mentions."
That social media connection and Zumba's global reach is what has driven Perez to scour the world for new beats, on display in the "Zumba Fitness World Party" video game, which will be in stores in October. The game offers more than 30 global dance and music genres, including salsa, Tahitian, calypso, Bollywood, cumbia, reggaeton, Irish step and capoeira.
"It was just Latin artists, but now artists from different parts of the world come and say, 'Hey guys, I'm here. Can we do something?"' Perez said. "But I say, `Let me hear if your music works for Zumba.' I can't call Adele, for example -- it doesn't work, you know? But if maybe Adele says, 'We can do a song together,' if we're working together, then maybe."
But other artists are a perfect fit, without alterations. "Now the artists come, we make a deal, like Claudia Leitte. She's like the Beyoncé of Brazil and I say `OK. You push us in Brazil, and you want to come to the American market? OK, we push you in America."'
A big part of that push comes every month to members of the Zumba Instructor Network. Instructors are sent a CD of music to use in their classes, along with a DVD that shows the choreography for each song. That collection comes from Zumba's music department, headed up by producer-musician Sergio Minski.
Zumba's influence on the music industry had a coming-out party of sorts in April at the Latin Billboard Awards.
"Daddy Yankee opened the show with the song 'Limbo,' which is pretty much associated with the program," Minski said. "Don Omar closed the show with the song `Zumba.' And Beto danced with Don Omar, so Zumba pretty much ruled the awards. We opened and closed them. Inevitably it's getting associated with mainstream music and a lot of artists are just throwing 'Zumbas' out there in their songs."