Zumba's A Hit, But Is It Latin?

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 more than a quarter million instructors. 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/.

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