From Chicago to Japan: My Zumba Encounter

Hey there!

So, a few months back I told you the story about my encounter with the music producer, Timbaland, in NYC. Well, I’m back and thrilled to share another chapter of my chance encounters. This one is about Zumba. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. 😉

So, let’s rewind to the year 2004 shall we, where it all kicked off… 

Imagine a bustling fitness conference in Chicago. It was my first time strutting my stuff as a fitness presenter surrounded by a sea of fitness professionals – which, by the way, getting to that point was no walk in the park. My stomach did flips from nerves and excitement, oblivious to the fact that this moment was about to set the stage for something interesting and (perhaps) revealing. 

There I was, teaching to about 150 of my peers. I saw people poking their heads through the door and even a few watching from the sidelines as this was the first time ever that bellydance fitness was offered at a fitness conference. And you know what…? I friggin killed it! 

After class, I walked through the expo on such a high after teaching when I was flagged down by a woman at the Zumba booth. “Nice class! You’re a really great presenter”, she said. “So, tell me about SharQui – is it your creation?” Proudly, I spilled my story, and she listened intently. She proceeded by telling me that she was the Director of Programming for Zumba. She thought that I’d be a great Zumba instructor and asked if I were interested in getting certified. I told her that SharQui is my focus at the moment, but thanked her and asked for her card in case anything changes in the future. She continued to talk about how she’d like to expand Zumba and include other dance styles, like belydance, and perhaps collaborate with me if I were interested in the future. Of course, I said yes. I was interested. Then came the moment I might regret forever – she asked for the outline of my class, and, well, like a rookie, I handed over part of the training manual I created for my SharQui Instructor certification. I know, I know, such a rookie move –  what was I thinking?!  But hey, Zumba was interested in possibly working with me!  They were becoming a big deal. She thanked me, and said that she’d be in touch, and in return, gave me the 4 set VHS bundle and offered a free Zumba certification – which I never took her up on.  I never heard from her again about a collaboration.

Fast-forward four years, I taught at the same conference, but in San Francisco. I was presenting as well as a booth to showcase my products and info.  Two people in bright, flashy Zumba gear sprinted to my table, and rubbed in my face: “Zumba also has bellydance!” Their tone suggested that this revelation should make me rethink everything I was doing. I was taken aback, wondering if that encounter four years prior had played a role in this new development. I became curious.

The unexpected twist left me a bit miffed about the new competition, but I was also ready to face it head-on. My curiosity took me to a Zumba class that was happening an hour late where I checked out their spin on bellydance. I peeked into a class, and I knew immediately that I had zero competition. Their version was a watered-down rendition of the art. I couldn’t help but feel upset about the misrepresentation, worried that the world might now think this is what bellydance actually is. (It reminded me of how authentic Latin teachers and dancers initially perceived Zumba when it first launched.)

Hey, I’m all for getting people off their butts and moving with dance – awesome, but it does go to show how wild and unpredictable the fitness world can be, and how brands can be shamelessly “inspired”. (Not saying this was the case, but curious to read your thoughts as you read on) From then on, I just kept my eyes on my own paper and marched forward with my business, trying to make it different from the rest of the dance formats out there. 

Then an interesting thing happened: bellydance instructors started to complain about how Zumba was affecting their student retention. I found that to be fascinating because I was actually experiencing the opposite.  My classes were actually booming!  I know…what the heck, right?  

My theory…? Zumba enthusiasts wanted to learn “the real way” to bellydance. (Thanks, Zumba – wink.) 

Then it dawned on me. 

The issue causing the loss of students by bellydance instructors was not Zumba itself, but how bellydance was being taught by traditional bellydance instructors. No lie…when Zumba peeps came to my classes, they told me that I taught differently. I made it just as fun as Zumba. My classes weren’t technique-heavy, the music was hype, students got a sweat, and they danced right from the start of class. What they really wanted was a workout class but with authentic bellydance moves! 

Those were their exact words.  

And that’s what they got with SharQui.

OK now the juicy stuff…

So, from 2009-2010, I busted my ass trying to stand out next to Zumba by applying for every fitness conference gig, plus doing my best to make SharQui shine in a city saturated with traditional bellydance classes. Although SharQui was what people were looking for, it was still an uphill battle promoting my brand.

But then it happened – the opportunity of a lifetime. 

In late 2009, I got the golden ticket to present at the IDEA Fitness Conference in California – the mother of all U.S. fitness conferences! 

When I arrived at IDEA, I was 4 months pregnant with my first child at the time, desperately hoping my pregnancy wouldn’t suck the energy out of me – and thank the lord, it didn’t. In my workshop, I was lucky to have an important person taking my class – the program director of AFAA Japan (American Fitness Athletics of America). Well, she liked what she saw, and guess what? I got an invite!  An invite to present at AFAA Japan 10 months later!  Oh snap, I nearly peed my pants! Oh, and she casually mentioned that I’d be sharing the stage with none other, Beto of Zumba. 

Cue – jaw drop.

Fast-forward 10 months later, to July 2010, there I was, my husband, my 6-month-old son and I, navigating through Tokyo in the scorching heat of Japan. I taught two kick-ass, jam-packed workshops and was on cloud nine. Would you believe there were lines out the door for my autograph? Yep, I was a mini-celeb for a hot minute. But then, I saw Beto’s line, wrapping around the hallway, not once, but twice! Womp womp. My celeb status then dropped to a solid C-list. But still, teaching at this international event was a dream come true. Little did I know the (best?) was yet to come.

After a day of teaching, the evening brought a formal, thank you dinner hosted by the crew of AFAA Japan. Enter Beto, the man, the myth, the legend behind Zumba. After a few hellos and kisses, he waltzes right up to me and drops the bomb: “So, you’re the famous bellydancer!” Hold up, what? Famous? How does he even know me? I responded with confidence (when I really was truly star struck), “Thank you, it’s so nice to meet you, congrats on all your success.” Then he gets tapped on the shoulder by someone else. A few seconds later, in walks the lady I crossed paths with back in 2004 in Chicago, the director of programming. Our eyes meet, I shoot her a smile, and for a split second, I sense a deer-in-the-headlights look from her. It was like she was afraid I’d recognize her. I was still pretty green and just stoked to be there, but her reaction left me scratching my head. At that point, I didn’t connect the dots. 

Fast-forward to a fantastic dinner where the AFAA crew pops the suggestion of a mini demo/dance party on stage the next night. Every presenter would do their 10-minute schtick while people joined or watched. Lucky for me, I had packed a costume and thought it’d be cool if I did a mini-bellydance performance in costume. They loved the idea! 

I was ready to win those Japanese hearts! Move over Beto, you’ve got competition! 

Now the moment it all made sense…

It was now the next evening – the dance-off!  Each presenter did their demo and rocked it! The crowd went absolutely wild. It was super awesome to see everyone in their element.

Then, the moment came. The one we’ve all waited for – Beto! He took the stage, and suddenly, it hit me like a ton of Zumba bricks. This is how Zumba is taught! Teachers in the states should be watching this ‘cuz this isn’t what I see back home. The energy was through the roof and folks went bonkers! And Beto…? Well, he’s got the magic touch – engaging, inclusive, and turning the whole thing into a fiesta.

And then, he pulled the move. You know the one. The one that gets the whole crowd losing their minds. The shirt unbuttons, six-pack reveal, and he strikes a pose on the last beat of the song, fully aware that the screams will last until he decides to break the spell. And boy, did they scream. Dang, that man’s got crowd-working skills that should be patented!

Now, hold on tight – here’s where it gets juicy. When Beto finished, he encouraged everyone to get up and do a free dance. The AFAA Japan crew, fellow presenters, and Zumba’s entourage (including the Chicago woman) all joined in. It turned into a dance extravaganza, and got pretty crowded. So, I decided to sneak off to the side to join my hubby and son, who were watching from the sidelines. 

Now, the moment that will forever be etched in my memory. I didn’t catch the fall, but a few minutes later, I heard the buzz that the Chicago woman was on the floor. She apparently took a tumble off the stage! They helped her up, but she couldn’t put weight on her ankle. They put her in a wheelchair, and then our eyes locked – again! But this time it wasn’t the deer-in-headlights gaze. Nope. It was the “Shit, karma just bit me in the ass” gaze. I stood there wondering what the heck was going on with all this eye-locking, and why is she looking at me like that?  I mean, I didn’t even know her.  It was the weirdest feeling.  

And then it clicked.

Was SharQui the catalyst that brought bellydance into Zumba that day in 2004?  

Then it clicked again when Beto said that I was the famous bellydancer.  She must have told him about me. Was she feeling some guilt? 

Who the F knows?  I’m left pondering even to this day.  It’ll always be a mystery. It’s just one of those life’s unexpected moments, twists, turns and yes – mysteries. 

Well, regardless of what the answer is, the excitement of having met someone whose vision has transformed the fitness world is a memory I will never forget. Beto’s energy was contagious and electrifying – watching him work his magic left an imprint on my soul.  

As I reflect on the events from Chicago to Japan, I’m hit with a realization: it’s the unpredictability of life and its opportunities that make our stories interesting. Am I right?  It’s what shapes us, and what I feel is what’s meant to happen.

So, instead of being upset, frustrated, or angry – just screw it and roll with it!  Because you can’t change it. 

Now, that Chicago woman from 2004…?  She may have unwittingly confirmed I had something special with SharQui. Cool. I see it as a compliment. And if this story is actually true – I’m super stoked about taking pride in being an unintentional muse, even for a billion-dollar company.😉

So, whether you’re a Zumba enthusiast, a bellydancer, instructor, or a fitness professional, I invite you to share your stories and join the conversation. I’d love to hear about your unexpected twists and turns. After all, our journeys are best when shared.

Keep going and always be awesome,


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