Culture: The Zumba Uprising

For certain members of the Sports Club/LA, a fitness instructor is the new cause célèbre.

The Zumba Uprising

Illustration by Jessica Romberg

On Sunday, February 7, Super Bowl Sunday, a half-dozen women gathered at Café 47 in the Back Bay to take care of important business. As the football game blared from a nearby television, the group huddled around a laptop creating a PowerPoint presentation.

The document they produced was only 14 pages, but it was designed for maximum impact, loaded as it was with jargon (“added value”), buzzwords (“luxury redefined for the recession”), charts, analyses, and a blizzard of figures.

In fact, the presentation contained the type of information you might typically find in a marketing proposal or business plan, which made sense: One of the women is an attorney, and two are restaurateurs.

But the women were not planning to pitch investors on a new venture or woo a new client. They had assembled that day to make a case for something they care about deeply, something more essential to their daily existence than commerce: their fitness routine.

The need for the meeting had become apparent three days before, when the group learned that Alexa Malzone, a 33-year-old instructor at the Sports Club/LA, the city’s most exclusive workout facility, was going to be leaving the gym.

Normally, the comings and goings of SCLA personnel elicit little, if any, reaction among the club’s members. But Malzone was different. For the past year and a half, she has taught an ultra-popular dance-workout class called Zumba, and her students were, to say the least, not happy to learn she was leaving. After Malzone broke the news during her regular Thursday-morning class, a group of distraught loyalists loitered outside the club’s fitness studio, discussing the move within earshot of the managers’ offices.

Malzone had, technically, resigned from SCLA, but her regulars had a hunch the decision wasn’t entirely her own. “I, along with 20 other members, figured out very quickly that there was something behind it — she had tears in her eyes,” says Melissa Gibeley Korcak, who claims she hasn’t missed a single one of Malzone’s Zumba classes in the past 18 months.

SCLA is not known as a breeding ground for grassy-knoll types, but now the place was buzzing with speculation: Was management pushing her out? Why weren’t they fighting to keep their best instructor? Some in the crowd were crying, others were simply complaining, albeit loudly. Several managers soon emerged from their offices to investigate, but that only seemed to make the situation worse. Eventually, a group of 40 or so people ended up shouting over one another — and at the club’s general manager, Kristin Miller McEachern. “People went a little crazy,” recalls Korcak, a former Boston magazine employee. Among a certain crowd, it was soon referred to as “The Riot at Sports Club/LA.”

Outside the hothouse atmosphere of the club, however, there was a simple question: What. The. Hell? Zumba is, after all, an exercise class. An amalgamation of samba, salsa, and dirty-dance moves, the workout has been quick to attract attention, mostly because it offers something rare among exercise regimens: It happens to be a lot of fun. But it is no longer a novelty, as gyms throughout the city (including those far less exclusive than SCLA) now offer classes.

Much of the passion at SCLA was simply due to Malzone. Though she’s not the only Zumba instructor at the club, she’s far and away the favorite. Her classes are regarded as intense, but also likened to “big sweaty dance parties with all your friends.” And over time, a group of members got downright religious about attending her thrice-weekly sessions. Indeed, Malzone’s followers have a simple way of describing their devotion. “It’s like a cult,” admits Korcak.

Yet it is also clear that the brouhaha was as much about the students as the teacher. SCLA calls itself “the finest sports and fitness complex in the world,” a designation that tends to attract a certain set: successful, socially connected, type-A go-getters — people accustomed to wielding influence on and off the treadmill. By luck or design, Malzone happened to teach the sort of people accustomed to getting what they want in life — and what they wanted was to get their Zumba instructor back.

It soon became clear that the folks who run SCLA were caught completely off-guard by Malzone’s announcement — or rather, by the reaction to the announcement. To try to quell the unrest, McEachern scheduled a meeting with members on Monday, February 8, four days after the news became public. Yet the promise of a meeting failed to assuage members’ ire. Within hours of Malzone’s announcement, 34 had already signed a “Petition to Reinstate Alexa Malzone,” in which they threatened to cancel their memberships. Over the next couple days, 30 more added their names. A few industrious folks even phoned Equinox, a competing sports club, to tip them off about Malzone.

Korcak was among the most disappointed by the instructor’s impending departure, and she scheduled a private meeting with McEachern to see what could be done. “I looked her in the eye and said ‘Kristin, I’ve been coming here for two years, and I know she doesn’t want to leave.’”

When Korcak didn’t get the answers she wanted, she took her complaint up the food chain: She e-mailed Smaiyra Million, the chief operating officer of SCLA’s parent company, Millennium Partners Sports Club Management.

After members learned Million would attend the big meeting, they convened a series of planning sessions, including the one at Café 47 on Super Bowl Sunday. “The only reason I wasn’t going to quit Sports Club is because of her classes,” says Courteney Mitchell, another one of the die-hards. “I know a lot of people feel the same way, so we all sat down and started going over talking points. We were trying to brainstorm ways we could stay calm and collected when we met with the COO…. I said, ‘I’m going to go home and put this in a PowerPoint.’”

When Monday finally rolled around, about 60 Malzone supporters showed up for the meeting. As it turned out, the PowerPoint presentation wasn’t necessary. Far more powerful were the tearful testimonials attesting to how Malzone had changed members’ lives. Wioletta Zywina, proprietor of the Italian restaurant Da Vinci, was among the speakers: “I own a restaurant and I deal with customer service on a daily basis,” she says. “I know good customer service, and I know a good employee. So I kind of stood up and said to the club COO and manager, ‘You should be proud of yourself that you have an employee in this club who can create so much emotion.’”

Korcak felt confident after the meeting, but she still hadn’t heard anything by Wednesday. That afternoon, she e-mailed Million to ask if she could expect to see Malzone at the next day’s Zumba class. Million’s assistant called Korcak later that day. “I’m happy to tell you Alexa will be teaching tomorrow,” she said.

Even now, the members aren’t sure why Malzone was going to leave — if she was fired or if she really resigned. When asked, the instructor deferred to SCLA’s publicist, Kate Conti, who said the club had wanted to retain Malzone all along. “She commutes from Rhode Island,” says Conti. “There was a time when we were talking back and forth, the company and Alexa, just to see what situation works the best.” As for the Monday meeting, Conti says the goal was simply “to allay concerns and make sure they knew the company was dedicated to having Alexa as an employee.”

Whatever the case, Malzone’s admirers are thrilled to have her back. SCLA didn’t make an official announcement until that Friday, but by then the good news had already spread via Twitter and text messages. One of the agitators updated her Facebook status as soon as she heard. “We proved that when people unite together in voice and reason on behalf of something good, great results are achieved.”

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  • john

    Why was she going to leave? If she loved it there so much and the members loved her so much, why was there any reason to leave? I don’t think we are getting the full story here.

  • john

    Why was she going to leave? If she loved it there so much and the members loved her so much, why was there any reason to leave? I don’t think we are getting the full story here.

  • john

    Why was she going to leave? If she loved it there so much and the members loved her so much, why was there any reason to leave? I don’t think we are getting the full story here.

  • john

    Why was she going to leave? If she loved it there so much and the members loved her so much, why was there any reason to leave? I don’t think we are getting the full story here.

  • Maija

    Fascinating that Boston Magazine wasn’t able to discern (or chose not to print) the story behind the story. I live on the North Shore, have never stepped foot in that facility, and even I know, mo

  • Maija

    Fascinating that BM wasn’t able to discern (or chose not to print) the story behind the story. I live on the North Shore, have never stepped foot into that facility, and even I know, more or less, w

  • jjake.peanuts@hotmail.com

    Ms. Malzone was outed due to inappropreate behavior, which she then covered up. Dirty Dancing is the cleanest part of this story!

  • masimo@hotmail.com

    As a member of this gym, I have heard rumors that Ms. Malzone threatened our gym with an unfounded lawsuit, appearances can be deceiving, she may have a loyal following but this is an employee who is

  • masimo@hotmail.com

    As a member of this gym, I have heard rumors that Ms. Malzone threatened our gym with an unfounded lawsuit, appearances can be deceiving, she may have a loyal following but this is an employee who is

  • diana@hotmail.com

    If the above stories are true, I’m quitting this gym, I don’t need someone acting like a spoiled drama queen in the gym I’m trying to relax and work out at. Go be an actress in LA, if you want to b

  • mike@hotmail.com

    How do we know these advocates know the whole story, maybe they jumped the gun in backing her. It sounds like the gym had no choice but to reinstate her, it seems she would have gone into litigation w

  • debbie

    I think as members we need to find out the truth, who covered up what and why, I don’t want my gym staff lying to me, we need to find exactly what she is covering up.

  • Alexa

    Being a member, I don’t like a cover up, if there was a wrong doing, fire this instructor, DO NOT cover a story up, we members deserve the truth!

  • Chris

    I’ve seen employees get fired…if she really did something wrong, they would have fired her.

  • d

    Lets not forget about the other roomers that make this issue look like preschool. This club is full of scandals.

  • Jane

    What are the other rumors going on in the club, I did hear a rumor from another member that this instructor has a shady background, possibly in some kind of adult industry, that’s not the kind of les

  • xela

    “Adult entertainment?” If that’s true it’s obvious why her “advocates” revolted. Who wouldn’t want the “adult entertainer” teaching dance class. Boston is so uptight & conservative. Lo

  • Debbie

    I would like a follow up piece from this writer explaining why this instructor was going to resign, it’s a huge missing piece of this story.

  • Samantha

    I’m a member of the gym, I have seen this woman, women keep your men away, she looks like she’s in some adult business. Ladies beware of her!

  • Samantha

    This article never states why she was resigning, was she being forced out, I would like to see a follow up story before I pass judgement on this.

  • D

    We the members asked her to take us into the studio to zumba, and she got in trouble. Upper management used it as a way to get her out. She didn’t do anything inappropriate.

  • Joanna

    Because members asked to be taken into the gym is why she was being let go, something’s missing from this story, can someone explain a little more please.

  • Gianna

    This woman is so wonderful, she’s just the best, being a friend of her’s is like such a privilage, she is just like the coolest, bestest person in like the whole world.

  • Diane

    Is there any more to this story? What happened to the instructor, was she fired?

  • Rate Your

    We love instructors that stir it up. One of our bloggers recently attended Alexa’s spin class, which is also heavily influenced by Zumba. Check it out here!

    http://www.rateyourburn.com/blog/post/2012/03/07/class-review-rev-with-alexa-malzone-the-sports-club-la.aspx