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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Alberto Perez, the creator of the "Zumba" fitness craze leads a class/session at Studio 600 Thursday, June 18, 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

He was trying to stay hidden until the class started, but a trio of women managed to spot him as he sneaked back inside after a quick interview.

"Beto!" the women screamed. "Beto!"

He turned and acknowledged the women with a boyish smile. They snapped a picture, and then Alberto "Beto" Perez left to finish preparing for his class.

A few minutes later, he was ready for his big entrance. It was time to Zumba.

For the uninitiated, now might be a good time to offer some explanation. First, Zumba is, indeed, a word. It means to move fast, or have fun.

Zumba is also the name of one of the top fitness trends in the United States, and Perez is the creator. It's a cardio workout that combines dance moves such as merengue, salsa and samba with various body-sculpting exercises.

Perez came up with the idea for Zumba in the mid-'90s after forgetting to bring his regular workout music to an aerobics class he was teaching in his native Colombia. He improvised by using a few Latin music tapes he kept in his car.

Class members loved it, and from there, the idea of Zumba began to spread. It is now being taught in at least 75 countries and appears to be benefiting in the states from public interest in shows such as "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance."

Perez jokes the rapid growth of his fitness routine makes him feel like Forrest Gump, who was a character played by Tom Hanks in the award-winning movie from 1994. Gump was a man who accomplished a lot in his life, including starting a running trend.

"When Forrest Gump started running, everyone followed him," Perez said. "I feel like one day I started to dance and people followed me and changed their lives."

Just two weeks ago, he was in Utah to teach a master Zumba class at Studio 600 in Salt Lake City. It was his first time in the state, and people traveled from as far away as St. George to see him in person and attend the class.

Most in attendance were women, but a few men also joined the crowd.

"This is just our favorite thing to do," said Linda Blosch, from Bountiful, who attended the class with friends. "We just love it. I hope everyone will do it and start moving."

From the outset, it was easy to see why Blosch and others enjoyed Zumba, particularly the class with Perez. The minute he appeared on stage, wearing baggy pants, a hat and a bicep-revealing shirt, the crowd began screaming. They continued letting loose with occasional screams of excitement throughout the 90-minute class.

Perez started by giving a brief demonstration of a few Latin dance moves. Then, he led the crowd through a 12-minute warmup with stretches, squats and other moves designed to raise the heart rate.

After that, the class jumped into high gear. Perez was on the stage, smiling and flirting with the audience as he demonstrated moves. The crowd followed along, moving quickly to mirror his steps.

While a few first-timers appeared a little lost at first, they eventually seemed to find a way to follow along. People of all shapes and ages participated, and at least two women who looked obviously pregnant were dancing with the group.

Kymmy Amesquita, who attended the master class with Perez, said she loves Zumba because the workout is fun and high-energy. She began taking classes at her Layton gym about a year ago and said she is addicted to the program.

"Before Zumba, I felt like I needed exercise, but I hated it," she said. "I was just dragging myself to the gym and counting every minute on the treadmill."

Now, Amesquita said, it's easy to forget she's actually working out.

For Perez, that is the goal of his workout. He doesn't want people to feel as if they're stuck doing the same thing, with sets and reps and specific equipment. He wants his workouts to be fun, although still hard enough to make people sweat.

The motto of his program is, "Ditch the workout, join the party."

"I set up this program like a philosophy," Perez said. "People don't come to my class to lose weight. People come to Zumba class for happiness and for the experience and to feel like a family."

Along with regular Zumba classes, Perez has also created cardio-dance programs for children and senior citizens. This year, he plans to debut a Zumba class for people to do in the pool.

Along the Wasatch Front, at least 178 classes are offered within a 50-mile radius of Salt Lake City. Visit the Zumba Web site for specific classes at www.zumba.com. Click on the link that says, "Find a class."

E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com