The appointment was on a Saturday morning in March at the Aviator Sports and Event Center, between Brooklyn and Jamaica Bay. The goal to be in the front row, however, led to several dozens to arrive at 4 in the morning, even though it was freezing at 32 degrees.
The rush wasn’t because of a JBalvin or Daddy Yankee. It was the first ZIN Academy that the Colombian Beto Pérez, the co-creator of Zumba, would host in the New York City area.
The Colombian was in his element, devouring the attention, posing for selfies and signing autographs after his master class. It was the same scene that he had experienced weeks before in Spain, Brazil and Italy and the same he will relive days later in Poland and India. His life is practically an endless dancing tour. There is no doubt that Pérez, at 48 years-old, is at the pinnacle of his career thanks to the fitness empire he founded in 2001 with his two namesakes and compatriots Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion.
Zumba Fitness LLC does not disclose its financial results, but the company estimates that 15 million people take Zumba classes every week in 185 countries. Perlman likes to say that there are more studios offering Zumba classes than McDonald's in the world. Inc. magazine named it the company of the year in 2012.
More than an exercise program, some consider Zumba a lifestyle, thanks to the emphasis on community building that the company evangelizes. The devotion of instructors and students, which reaches its climax during the annual convention in Orlando, has even led some to call the fitness program a cult. "Those people are crazier than me, they love Zumba more than me," says Pérez.
Of course, like many other success stories, the road to the top has had its doses of drama, obstacles, good luck and even a scandal with a sex video that forced Pérez into self-exile for 14 years. A story like a movie ... or a television series.
'Nadie me quita lo bailao', the new series that Colombian TV channel RCN premieres this week is based on Pérez life, from his origin in Cali as the son of a single mother, until his "conquer of the world." Julián Román plays the adult version of the creator of Zumba in a production of Fox TeleColombia.
When Pérez talked about the series with EL TIEMPO during his visit to New York, he seemed to be, however, in the middle of an episode of Entourage. Three representatives of the public relations firm that work with Zumba sat, recorder in hand, at a safe distance in the lobby of the boutique Hotel 1, near the Brooklyn Bridge. At one moment or another, his assistant, DJ, producer and a personal photographer joined him, all of them ready to meet their boss needs or desires.
A marked contrast with his beginning as an aerobics instructor in the capital of Valle del Cauca state, or with the nights he had to sleep outdoors in a Miami park because an apartment he had rented wasn’t ready to move in. His mother, he says, has never wanted to reveal the identity of his father, and already warned him that she will not be able to watch the series. "She did not know many things that I went through or suffered for. Then it's hard for her. "
Opening his life to the public was not an easy decision, but Pérez admits that he wants his story to be known in Colombia, one of the most difficult markets for Zumba. "No one is a prophet in his own land," he says. The seed for 'Nadie me quita lo bailao' was planted by the mother of a friend, who told him that "instead of making series and telenovelas about drug dealers and 'las chicas prepago', it would be good to make stories about people who 'make Colombia proud'”.
This is what Pérez told EL TIEMPO about the process of bringing his life to the small screen, his return to Colombia and his life philosophy. Edited excerpts.
Instead of making series and telenovelas about drug dealers and 'las chicas prepago', it would be good to make stories about people who 'make Colombia proud'
You have said that Colombia is one of the hardest markets for Zumba, is it still?
Yes, in all aspects. Colombia is difficult. The economy, the political situation, we are distrustful, we are still very behind on internet. We work with credit cards and people still do not trust (the system) to give the credit card. Many cultural factors.
Can you talk about the genesis of the television series?
More or less in 2015 Mauricio Navas (writer of 'Azúcar', 'Pura Sangre, 'Alias el mexicano’, among others) called me, but I wasn’t that much interested because many people had wanted to write my story. I believe a lot in chemistry and it seemed to me that they wanted to do it in a rush and not with very good quality. However, Mauricio came. He had the special touch of flying from Colombia and meet me personally and the chemistry I had with him was excellent.
And you have to tell him about your whole life?
That was the start. I spent almost two years traveling around the world with a tape recorder and writing. I started to remember my entire life while traveling to the Czech Republic, Japan, Italy ... I made the recordings chronologically, from my mother, my origin. I do not know my father, so I had to draw my own conclusions. My mom did not want to talk about it, it's hard for her.
And how does that translate into a script?
Then I worked with other writers who started debugging the information and asking me questions about my stepfather, my passion, almost like therapy. I have a lot of material in my head, I have lived too much, so we tried to use the best for the series.
Was there a need to fictionalize?
I would say that between 65 and 70 percent is my story and the rest is fiction that had to be written to connect the dots.
You just said that your mom never wanted to talk about your dad. Did you have to convince her to collaborate with the series?
Yes. My mom is very shy. First, Fox TeleColombia interviewed her for a documentary that they are going to do, and that I don’t know in what stage is at. The journalist who interviewed her got a lot of information from her and she later regretted it. She told me: "I do not want them to say this, I do not want to be shown, I do not know why I opened my mouth". I told her: "Calm down mother, that's the documentary, I'm going to tell the story of my life, with what I know, because you did not want to tell me." I told them (the writers) that my mom was very shy and did not want to share much, but that they could put together the story as they thought fit with my approval. And so, it was like that, I gave them some basic information and they built the story of how I was born.
And now that the series has finished principal photography, what does your mom say?
She has seen the reel twice and cries immediately. She already warned me that she will not be able to watch the series. My mom did not know many things that I went through or suffered. So, it is difficult for her.
My mom did not know many things that I went through or suffered. So, it is difficult for her
Still, she seems to be a key character in your life and in the series.
She is a hard-working woman, a fighter who gave me an education and my whole life is based around my mother, on getting her where she wants to be, on fulfilling her dreams. Although we are very different. She is very decent, shy, calm. I am a crazy troublemaker, is like I am not her son. But I do not have siblings, I do not know my dad, I do not have aunts or uncles, I do not have anyone but her. It’s just my mother and me.
Not having family in Colombia was the reason that kept you from going back for 14 years?
And this mess that happened with and actress (Luly Bossa) that was my girlfriend. I was offended a bit because they accused me and condemned me (of leaking a sex video) without giving me the chance to defend myself. For four or five years I never knew what happened. There were books, plays and interviews where I was crucified, and nobody really took the trouble to ask me what happened?
Why didn’t you try to set the record straight?
I decided to close that book and start a new one, and the US, and especially Miami, adopted me. Everything I couldn’t achieve in Colombia I did it in three years in the US. Miami is proud that Zumba was born there. Every time I land in Miami, I feel is my second homeland.
Could you say that this series is your chance to tell your version of what happened?
Somehow my version is told. In a very delicate way, without much emphasis. But it is to say: "Look, this was the issue." I do not want to give more importance to that because it happened. It was hard for me because I have my dignity ... and I didn’t do it (leak the video). Still today there are people who bring the subject up and say that I sold it and with that money I created Zumba.
Just as you had to somehow convince your mom to agree to the series, did you have to talk to your two Zumba partners?
A bit. My partners respected the decision. They told me: "Beto is your story, we're not going to intervene. The only thing is that when is time for casting, we want to know which actors are going to play us."
Speaking of casting, what led you and the producers decide on Julián Román for the role of Beto Pérez?
There were three finalists. One was a Zumba instructor from Los Angeles (George Akram), a Colombian actor (Karoll Márquez) and Julián Román. When they mentioned Julián I said "perfect, it's my friend, I know him". He used to take my classes when I first arrived in Bogotá. We were ‘parceros’. He went to the convention in Florida, so he knows what Zumba is, he knows about my beginning. We are very similar, we have the same kind of humor.
When they mentioned Julián I said 'perfect, it's my friend, I know him'. He used to take my classes when I first arrived in Bogotá. We were ‘parceros’
Did you have to do some kind of preparation or training with him?
No. For the parts that required specific dancing skills they used doubles and he is not a bad dancer either. He is a ‘rolito’ with flavor.
The series ends just before the Zumba explosion in the United States, before the launch of ZIN (Zumba Instructor Network).
It is perfect for a second season. Because the story ends when I record my videos in Miami and start to taste success. My first DVDs, which I launched and sold on television. It touches until my conquest of the United States market. Until that moment.
So, will there be a second season?
There is still a lot of story to tell. It is perfect because then comes the conquest of the world. I said I was going to get here and conquer the US and I did it. And then I said I'm going to conquer the world, and I am working on that.
I said I was going to get here and conquer the US and I did it. And then I said I'm going to conquer the world, and I am working on that.
Now that you have had the chance, in some ways, to go back and relive your life, what do you think were the key moments that helped your professional success?
I have always tried to see life under a positive lens. Very complicated and very difficult things have happened to me, but that for me were lessons. Life with problems has to happen. What's more, I do not like to call them problems. I try to get that word out of my vocabulary, I prefer to say “situations” that have to happen for one to learn and progress in life. But there are special moments for me.
I made four trips to Miami to get an opportunity, but I refused to wash dishes or work on valet parking until I burned the last card I had. I went from gym to gym looking for work ... But, I did not speak English, nor did I have papers. Until on the third trip an American asked me to give her a private class, that turned out to be a sort of an audition.
Was it then when you were hired you for your first class in Miami?
No, it was just an offer. Even so, I returned to Colombia, sold my car and my motorcycle, because I was convinced that I was going to be hired. Is incredible how the mind works. When I returned to Miami I had to sleep in the street for two nights because an apartment I was expecting to rent wasn’t ready to move-in.
But in the end, it turned out just fine
Yes, despite the fact that I arrived late to the first class. It was in Ventura, in Miami. There was the mother of Alberto Perlman, who months later insisted that we meet to start a business.
What do you regret?
On the personal side, this scandal, which really was not my making. From a business point of view: I know that they hit me in the head when I was in Colombia. I been robbed, exploited, abused in the sense that I have always been a good worker, I always represent money. But everything is part of the learning process. That's why I recognized who Alberto Perlman was, someone with good intentions.
What we have done with Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion is an empire. They tell me that I am the Pablo Escobar of 'fitness'
Who inspires you?
In a big part my mother. Being the son of a single mother, I realized that I could not afford to lose, I had to be a winner. I have this image in Colombia of old ladies selling in supermarkets, and I said to myself that I would never let my mother be in that situation. I set myself the goal that at 40 I had to be in a good position (economically) to have my mother as a queen. She has been my great inspiration to get ahead. Artistically I have many people .... Michael Jackson on stage, the great classics like Fred Astaire. Personalities such as Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons (icons of fitness programs in the 70s and 80s). But they couldn’t build an empire. What we have done with Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion is an empire. They tell me that I am the Pablo Escobar of 'fitness'.
By Claudia Sandoval-Gómez
For EL TIEMPO