When Kristin Sutton, a Zumba instructor, got a Halloween party invitation in the mail with the words “Free Zumba Lesson” handwritten in red on the envelope, she assumed the sender was just trying to make sure she would attend.
Then she opened the envelope.
And a condom fell out.
It was another example of a friend finding humor in the case of Alexis Wright, 29, a Zumba instructor who is accused of prostituting herself and secretly recording sex acts at her dance studio in Kennebunk.
Sutton wasn’t amused.
“Enough with the flak about the Zumba instructor, already,” said Sutton, general manager of the Avant Dance Center in Westbrook, where she teaches Zumba and tap.
Wright’s case has created a national media frenzy. She’s known on the Web as the “Zumba Madam” and has inspired everything from T-shirts to fan pages on Facebook.
Suddenly, Zumba — a fitness program that combines Latin dance with aerobics — has become synonymous with sex.
Like other Zumba instructors in Maine, Sutton has heard her fill of prostitution-related jokes and innuendo. “I feel like it’s giving Zumba and the local instructors a bad name,” she said.
People may not know what Zumba is, but it seems everyone has heard about Wright and the accusations that she was doing more than shimmying and shaking with her clients.
“This was an unwelcome intrusion into a very wholesome activity,” said Susan Sinnett, who owns Studio Fit of Maine in Portland and has one of the largest Zumba followings in the area. “No one enjoys the smear it’s put on the Zumba name.”
‘It’s just a big party’
This week at the Studio Fit of Maine dance studio on Warren Avenue, a Zumba class of mostly women and a couple of men swung their arms, bent their knees and kicked to an eclectic mix of contemporary and Latin music.
Sue Goran, of Freeport, who takes Zumba classes a couple of nights a week, had never exercised before and knew she had to try something to soften the blow of turning 60.
Sinnett told her to come to a class and “just have fun.”
“It’s just a big party,” Goran said. “You don’t care that you are sweating. I’m in the best shape of my life.”
She said, “When I hit 60 in August, I didn’t feel so bad.”
Goran said Wright’s alleged transgressions are unfortunate but “won’t stop anyone from taking Zumba classes.”
Sinnett has more than 1,600 students, ranging in age from 7 to 82.
Susan Trammell of Scarborough, who started taking classes in April, now takes them four times a week.
She said, “It’s too bad it happened with a dance that everyone loves, but Zumba lives on.”
Kelley Lachance of Saco started taking Zumba classes in June. She said she has had to endure a lot of jokes as a result.
“I just look at them and laugh and say that (prostitution) is not what Zumba is about,” Lachance said.
So what is Zumba about?
Besides being a crater on Mars and a city in Ecuador, it’s a fitness program with Latin roots in dances such as flamenco, salsa and tango.
The Colombian choreographer Alberto “Beto” Perez created Zumba in the 1990s when he blended an aerobic dance workout with Latin music. He later moved to Miami and, with Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion, founded the Zumba Academy, which licenses the Zumba Fitness program and certifies instructors all over the world.
According to the academy’s website, more than 14 million people take Zumba classes in more than 150 countries. Representatives from the Zumba Academy did not return calls seeking comment.
Maine residents who teach or practice Zumba hope publicity surrounding Wright’s case will create a renewed appreciation for Zumba. (The legal kind, that is).
“If someone asks themselves, ‘What is Zumba?’ they’ll find out it’s something wonderful and life-changing,” said Sinnett, who said it’s not uncommon for her students to lose hundreds of pounds taking Zumba classes.
“It’s a fusion of hard-core cardio and dance,” Sinnett said. “If someone likes to dance and lose weight and have fun, they take a Zumba class.”
While most people who take Zumba classes are female, Zumba attracts the occasional man, such as Tim Fish of Westbrook, who said he has lost almost 70 pounds since he started taking classes at Studio Fit of Maine.
Of the Wright case, Fish said, “If Uncle Sam had got his cut, it would not have been as big a deal.”
(Among the 106 counts against Wright are three felony charges related to taxes and receiving public assistance when ineligible. She has pleaded not guilty to all 106 counts.)
To some — including family members of Wright’s alleged prostitution clients — it is a very big deal.
Fish said he knows of someone whose marriage ended because of the prostitution scandal, and he feels badly for the families that could be harmed.
Incredulous about stories
While most people didn’t learn of Wright’s alleged transgressions until this summer, members of the close-knit Zumba profession in Maine say they began hearing two years ago that Wright had an alter-ego.
“A couple years ago, I’d heard that she had some online pornography going on,” said Theresa Saxton, who owns Fitness Success Personal Training in Yarmouth, where Wright taught five years ago. “I did not know that her Zumba studio was a front. I heard she had a side business online.”
When news broke of the prostitution charges, Saxton said, “I was shocked.”
“Alexis was posting pornographic videos on Craigslist using her name,” said Sinnett, who did charity Zumbathons with Wright. “As a result, a number of us pulled away from her professionally.”
Still, some instructors who knew Wright praised her skill as an instructor and her friendly demeanor.
“When I first heard the stories, I didn’t believe them,” said Nina Alves, who runs Nina’s Zumba Studio in Portland. “Zumba is a very small community, so everyone had kind of heard rumors of this a couple years ago. The contact had been made to the Zumba main office (in Florida), but nothing came of it.”
Vickkie Parent, who teaches Zumba at her Intensity Fitness Dance Studio in Biddeford, said the first time she took a Zumba class, at the Kennebunk Community Center, it was led by Wright.
Years later, when she began getting emails detailing Wright’s alleged activity online, Parent said, “I thought it was a joke. I said, ‘There’s no way.’ I called her on it, and she said, ‘No, someone hacked into my computer.’ “
Despite all the talk surrounding Zumba and prostitution, instructors say they haven’t seen a drop-off in attendance.
“I don’t think it’s going to have any kind of negative impact at all,” said Peggy Hilfrank, a Zumba instructor who owns The Balanced Body Fitness Studio in Falmouth. “It’s no different than a bookkeeper who embezzles from a company. It doesn’t make all bookkeepers bad.”
Alves acknowledges that only about 20 percent of the emails she has received since the scandal broke have been serious inquiries.
The rest have come from people hoping that her Friday Night Fitness Parties offer more than the Sexy Salsa and Sassy Samba advertised on her website.
“Some people like Zumba because it can be a little risqué,” Alves said. “We’re very reserved people here in Maine and North America, and when you first see a Zumba class, it does seem sort of sexual.”
Sutton, the instructor in Westbrook, thinks that Wright’s “shaking the booty down in Kennebunk in all the wrong directions” won’t dampen Zumba’s legitimacy or popularity.
And she’s not averse to poking fun at the Wright case. She’s posted this message outside her business:
“No really … it’s just Zumba.”