Culture: The Zumba Uprising

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

By CHRISTY DESMITH | Boston Magazine |

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.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2010/03/culture-the-zumba-uprising/