It's Friday evening at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in downtown Los Angeles, but there's no Zen quiet here. Instead, Latin-inflected hip-hop thumps from a basement room, where about 30 men and women follow teacher Nelly Villegas through a series of squats, grapevines and box steps.
This weekly Zumba class, at only $5 a pop, is one of many low-cost sessions held around the city each week. And it's an all-ages crowd: From 80-year-old actor Ken Takemoto, dressed in a bright purple T-shirt, to 26-year-old journalist Mia Monnier, everyone sweats to the music.
Takemoto grinned beneath his thick white mustache when asked about his exercise regimen. "At my age, exercise is like a job," he said. "I feel safe in the back."
Zumba, a Latin American dance-based cardio workout that came to the U.S. in 2001, could be called this era's Jazzercise. You can find classes at most major gyms, DVDs to follow along with at home and celebrities who swear by it. (Sofia Vergara and Hugh Jackman have been spotted in Zumba classes.) There's Zumba for kids, aqua Zumba and other variations.
Yet, while many exercise fads remain confined to sleek facilities on the Westside or Hollywood, Zumba is a uniquely scrappy craze.
A Spinning class at the studio Soul Cycle — with locations in Brentwood, West Hollywood and Santa Monica — can cost as much as $30. Zumba, on the other hand, has cropped up in churches, parks, schools and converted commercial spaces. Classes are often less than $10, and sometimes free.
Karina Munoz, 38, opened her own Zumba studio in Mar Vista about a year ago. It occupies a narrow storefront with bright orange walls, adjacent to her sister's clothing shop. She charges only $6 per class. On a recent weeknight, Munoz's studio was the only sign of life on an otherwise quiet stretch of Washington Place, pumping Latin beats onto the sidewalk.
"Right now, the place is barely staying open," admitted Munoz, who also works as a cashier at a nearby carwash. But, she said, her desire to open the studio was more altruistic than money-driven. "I wanted to bring this to everyone in the area. There was nothing else accessible here … in terms of exercise classes."
The relatively low cost of becoming a Zumba teacher is one factor behind its proliferation, opening the door for entrepreneurial types like Munoz to hang their own shingles. Certification comes after a single-day seminar that costs about $300. Then teachers pay about $35 a month for access to additional training and marketing materials. By comparison, it takes some 200 hours of training or more, often for upward of $1,000, to become certified to teach by the nonprofit Yoga Alliance. Plus teachers must meet continuing education requirements at their own expense.
The promise of extra income with minimal upfront investment was part of the appeal for Villegas, 34, the teacher at Higashi Honganji. After trying and enjoying Zumba classes at a gym, she thought, why not get paid to go? "I've always been into dance," she said, "and I'm a health nut."
Villegas and Munoz are both of Mexican descent, which speaks to another factor behind the workout's spread here: L.A.'s huge Latino population. Zumba's choreography and music include samba, salsa, merengue and mambo influences, and its built-in appeal for many of the city's Latino residents has made it a go-to for public or community-based recreation programs.
"Whatever classes we've offered, our music has always been Latin music, because that appeals to the communities we serve," said Jaime Edwards-Acton, executive director of the Jubilee Consortium, a nonprofit that works to improve health in L.A. neighborhoods that have historically been underserved in terms of recreation. "Our clients are 95% Latino."
Jubilee Consortium runs Zumba classes for as little as $2 at churches and parks in Long Beach, Echo Park, Boyle Heights and Highland Park.
It's difficult to quantify Zumba's popularity. Allison Robins, a Zumba Fitness spokeswoman, said the company doesn't disclose how many certified teachers or classes there are in particular cities or states. According to Zumba's corporate website, there are 100 classes within 25 miles of downtown L.A., but the site isn't always up-to-date — I found several classes listed there that no longer exist. Still, the frequently neon-lettered windows and signs advertising the workout all over the city offer strong anecdotal evidence of its ubiquitousness.
"Zumba is the thing of the day," said Edwards-Acton. "I don't know how long it will last, but it's had a pretty good run so far."