Fueled by Zumba, giant fitness classes become the new big thing

Vicky Hallett
Fit editor, Express July 19, 2011

If you sense something burning at the Franconia Fire Station, don’t worry — it’s just calories. Six days a week, Roberson Magalhaes and Leonardo Lins take over the station’s bingo hall, crank up the music and teach Zumba, a Latin dance-based form of fitness that’s celebrating its 10th year of getting participants to “Ditch the Workout, Join the Party.”

Maybe that slogan should really be “Ditch the Gym.” That’s because popular instructors are building such enormous followings that they can’t fit inside typical health club exercise studios, which are rarely designed to handle more than 50 students. So several have started businesses to cater exclusively to the hordes of Zumba zealots, and they’re finding that no matter where they set up shop, they often don’t have enough space to meet demand.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express. View Archive

Pop your head into one of Magalhaes’s and Lins’s Chakaboom Fitness classes, for instance, and you’ll probably see upwards of 150 people. At their first class, Jan. 1, they expected 30 students, but 70 showed up. It’s kept growing ever since. “We knew it was going to happen, but not this fast,” says Magalhaes, who’s been in the fitness industry for more than 20 years.

StudioX has a similar story. When Martin Luna opened the business in Germantown last year, he had a space that could hold 35 people. So when twice that many regularly started coming, he improvised. Half of the people stayed inside, and the other half danced in the parking lot, while Luna and another instructor rotated between the two groups.

Six months ago, he partnered with Julie Hoang to open a larger space in Gaithersburg. But even with room for 100, they’ve already outgrown those digs. In a few weeks, they’ll head to yet another address, a former pet store, so they can boost class capacity to about 150 — and bring kicks and punches safely back into the choreography.

The only reason Adelicia Villagaray, who has a cult following in Baltimore, isn’t worried about having to change locations soon is that she’s offering her Zumba classes at an indoor soccer arena and a separate skating rink. So even with crowds in the 200s, there’s breathing room. “Once we hit 480 people, I’ll have to start thinking about what to do,” she says. I don’t think she’s kidding.

The Zumba Fitness company isn’t sure how common these regularly scheduled mega-classes are, but it encourages instructors to organize Zumbathon charity events that often draw crowds in the hundreds. No weights, mats or other accessories are required, so as long as there’s more room, you can add people, which is why Zumba is one of the few fitness formats that can feasibly be taught in such big numbers.

That leads to an economy of scale that the studios can pass on to clients. Instead of paying an initiation fee and a hefty monthly charge, as you would at a gym, each class with any of these instructors is only about $5. (It’s usually less if you buy a package.)

The crush of people boasts a certain appeal as well, particularly for a form of exercise that markets itself as a party. The women making their way into the Franconia Fire Station and paying their cover charge on a recent Thursday night almost look as if they’re lined up at a night club, only with very different attire. Lins takes to the stage and asks through his mike, “Hello, how are you? How’s everybody doing?” A roar comes back from the crowd.

I find myself next to 43-year-old Kathy Bryant of Alexandria, who has a big smile on her face and a water bottle in her hand. “I don’t know that I love the size. But I love the energy,” she says. “You find a space and everyone’s considerate.” There’s even an area for kids, including her 8-year-old son, Alex, who practice the moves just next to the stage.

From my spot in the front row, it’s no problem following the footwork. But I gradually drift to the back of the room, where I realize there’s a baby in a stroller I hadn’t even noticed. As Magalhaes and Lins warned me, the vantage point here isn’t nearly as nice. They’ve considered getting a higher stage, but they’d have to lug it with them every class. So they’re thinking about bringing in cameras and TVs.

In the meantime, the folks who can’t see the instructors follow the people in front of them, which works out well enough thanks to clear verbal cueing (“front, side, slide,” “the running man”) and plenty of regulars who know the choreography by heart. Magalhaes and Lins also often hop off the stage and work the room, to give more students a closer look. For one number, they both get down and split the class into two sides for a booty-shaking battle.

But if 33-year-old Cynthia Hawkins of Lorton doesn’t know exactly what to do all the time, she just makes it up. “The thing I like is there are all kinds of people here. I don’t have to be self-conscious,” she says. “You can do your thing and not worry about people looking at you.”

That’s precisely what worries Walter Thompson, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, who doesn’t like the notion that someone could go unnoticed in exercise classes that large. “The ‘A’ students always sit in the front row,” he says. “People who migrate to the back of the room can’t keep up. I’ve seen in large groups that those tend to be the people with medical issues.”

Zumba often targets an audience that’s been turned off by other forms of fitness, so it could be a first foray into the exercise world for many of these students, adds Kevin Burns, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. “I’m not knocking big classes. As an instructor, it’s very motivational,” Burns says. But he urges beginning students to be as proactive as possible, staking out a spot where they can see (and be seen) and talking to the instructor before class about concerns or injuries.

Keep yourself safe, and no one will need medical attention — except for maybe your friends. “People are sick of hearing me talk about it,” says 48-year-old Vicky McVey of Alexandria, who credits Chakaboom Fitness with helping her lose 15 pounds. Now those are some impressive numbers.

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