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A little after 7:30 a.m. this morning, women and men in neon workout gear were lined up in front 35 West 48th Street. Fifteen minutes later, a car pulled up in front of the building, and out stepped actor Ryan Reynolds, who kept his tanned head down and walked into the building to appear on the Today Show. A couple of people squealed. But despite his heartthrob status, Reynolds’ presence inspired nowhere near the commotion of the appearance of Alberto “Beto” Perez on Rockefeller Plaza. Beto is the creator of Zumba. Beto was the reason why the crowd of more than 1,000 people were gathered on Rockefeller Plaza — for a giant Zumba class filmed for the fourth hour of the Today Show. The event became a place for Zumba instructors and fans to network, socialize and share their love of the workout.
“We’re all like family,” instructor Nathan Blake, 43, said.
Though Beto happened upon the “Zumba style” by “accident” in the mid-1990s, Zumba officially began in 2001, combining hip-shaking Latin-inspired dance moves and aerobics. Now in more than 125 countries, it has a fan base that is almost cult-like in their devotion.
“We expected a big turnout,” said Megan Kopf, the public relations director for Today, surveying the crowd. “But this is a really big turnout.” (Still, it was nothing compared to a fitness convention in San Francisco, news anchor Natalie Morales told us, where a “Zumbathon” turned out over 150,000 people.)
The Zumba segment was pre-taped around 8:30 a.m., even though it would air after Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford took over at 10 a.m., due to noise constraints enforced on the program.
“Why aren’t you Zumbaing with us?” Kathie Lee yelled at Megan as she made her way to the stage. Beto then entered, and the crowd started screaming his name.
Natalie leaned over: “He is like the rock star of the Zumba craze.”
To begin, Beto and his team led Hoda, Kathie Lee, and correspondent Sara Haines in a rehearsal. He prompted the anchors and the crowd to wave their arms, thrust their pelvises, and shimmy. The last move was Hoda’s favorite, she told me later.
Then they did it with the cameras rolling. During the taping Beto jumped off the stage and ran to Zumba in the middle of the fans who clamored around him.
Hoda and Kathie Lee came down from the platform sweating. As the crowd continued dancing, I asked the hosts if they were exhausted.
“We did two three minute bursts,” Hoda began.
“Let me dab you,” Kathie Lee interrupted, reaching up to Hoda’s face.
“I know,” Hoda laughed, continuing. “We did two three minute bursts and I feel like I could eat a Snickers bar and feel good.”
“And you will,” Kathie Lee added.
The co-hosts said they wouldn’t be doing anymore dancing after that. Instead, as per their reputations, they’d be drinking. What would they be sampling?
“It’s Winesday,” Kathie Lee said. “I don’t know; they like to surprise us. Red is better for your heart, so it will probably be white.”
(They ended up sampling mojitos.)
After Hoda and Kathie Lee went inside, the crowd, at least two members of which had been there since 1 a.m., lingered. Alex Wunderlich, 42, and Valentina Molina, 33, both instructors, described themselves as Zumba “freaks” and “addicts,” calling it “an epidemic.”
“Meeting and seeing Beto or even just dancing with him is one of the things off my bucket list,” Lorraine Trivone, 51, said. Trivone explained that she has a pacemaker, bad knees, and lost 90 pounds doing Zumba about a year ago: “It’s the one thing that works for me.”
As the participants were ushered off the plaza I heard cries of “flash mob.” I turned around and asked a group of young instructors where they were headed. Bryant Park, they told me, and I followed along. As we walked around 5th Avenue, Iris Ivette, 20, turned to me.
“We have to Zumbafy you a little bit,” she said, handing me a red rubber wristband. “Here is a Zumba bracelet.” Most people on the Plaza wore brightly colored official Zumba gear, marked by the logo of a figure dancing. Some women bared their toned bellies, and wore low-hanging pants from which were dangling ribbons.
When we reached Bryant Park, the group gathered in front of the stage at one end of the lawn. No one seemed to know how the gathering had been organized. And then Beto and fellow Zumba celebrities Tanya Beardsley and Gina Grant emerged from 6th Avenue. The group flocked around them, clamoring to take pictures, grabbing at them.
“You can’t even get close to Beto,” a woman behind me said.
The crowd was told to move to the other side of the stage and gather at the tables in front of a fountain. When Beto’s fans finally moved away from him, he stood on the fountain’s edge and started an impromptu Zumba party. The group chanted the phrase “mueve la cadera” as music played quietly. After 15 minutes, authorities shut down the party, telling Beto permits were required to host such an event. The crowd shouted “boo” and began to chant the word “Zumba.”
Handlers held onto Beto, Tanya, and Gina, who were once again mobbed by fans as they tried to leave. I was allowed to follow them into a cab where they were heading to their hotel.
“Today is a party,” Tanya said.
As the cab approached Lexington Avenue and 51st Street, it got caught in traffic. Their hotel was only a block away, and Beto wanted to get out.
“We’re going to go see if we can catch the Today Show segment,” Tanya said.