“What’s Zumba?” I asked.
“Don’t you know what Zumba is?” said one of the PR girls.
“I haven’t even heard of it.”
“Richard, where have you been? Zumba’s massive.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s sort of like Legs, Bums and Tums, with more dancing.”
This is just the sort of maddening conversation which I have all too regularly at my job at Breakthrough Breast Cancer. I am the only man in a team of women, and they tend to think that I am slow-witted, or acting slow-witted, or just being irritating.
On my part, I think that they speak in an unfathomable female patois which doesn’t give me the slightest chance of understanding anything.
Normally I would have let the thing pass, but my interest was piqued by the upcoming Zumbathon at Alexandra Palace, London, due to it featuring a performance by Wyclef Jean.
Wyclef is a hero of mine. In the pantheon of great, shamelessly commercial rappers I put him right at the top of the tree.
I love him for lots of reasons. I love that he first came to the public’s attention on the Fugees’ Killing Me Softly video where his main role was saying ‘ONE TIME!’ while filling his face with popcorn.
Then, when Lauryn Hill went off to make one of the greatest albums of all time, in response, Wyclef did a duet with The Rock on the equally timeless It Doesn’t Matter.
I also loved his claim that Brian Harvey of East 17 was the UK’s greatest living singer, a statement as bizarre as Pele’s quote at the 2002 World Cup that Nicky Butt was the future of football.
So, with the faintest sniff of a meeting with the great man I declared I would volunteer at the event, taking photos and video with my comrade, Chris Joseph.
Arriving at Alexandra Palace, it was clear this was a massive event. It was a 3,500 sell-out and many of the women were wearing official Zumba merchandise. They looked a bit like football fans, except with more tassles.
To my surprise all the talk in the entrance hall was not of Wyclef, but Beto. He is the man who invented Zumba and, according to a Zumba official, “Women go crazy, start crying when they see Beto. He does so much for them. Beto changes lives.”
This now seemed less like a cuddly charity event, and more like a personality cult, with Wyclef as court jester.
We went down to the VIP area, where there was a strong early 2000s vibe with Gail Porter, Rachel Stevens and Charlie Brooks in attendance. The only person you could say was ‘of the moment’ was The Only Way Is Essex breakout star Amy Childs.
Then the A-listers arrived. Wyclef, in a fabulous red leather jacket with hat to match, and Beto, who looked like a slightly less camp Ricki Martin. They posed for photographers, going through the cheesy photo repertoire, including the ‘Wow! That was the funniest thing ever!’ pose, the ‘THAT guy!’, and, of course the ‘Back-to-back.’ Wyclef even treated us to the coquettish ‘one-arm-of-sunglasses-in-mouth’ pose. It was a masterclass.
Beto posed with Amy Childs, where their mutual respect of each other’s chests was for all to see, and meanwhile Wyclef was DOING INTERVIEWS. I put a bid in to the Zumba apparatchik for a minute of the his time for the charity, to which they agreed.
He spoke with Press Association and a woman who looked like she’d just stepped out of a David Guetta video. Then I was introduced to Wyclef and he was saying, ‘it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ with manners which would have pleased the Victorians.
We got him mic’d up and he reeled off an eloquent justification of why Wyclef and Zumba and breast cancer charity work made total sense (naturally referring to himself in the third person). I spent my time with him sycophantly nodding and smiling, while idly wondering how much he was earning from this unlikely partnership.
There was a million questions I wanted to ask him, not least the Brian Harvey matter, but suffering a dose of cowardice I satisfied myself with a handshake and a photo, before he sauntered off to the next interview.
We then got into the main hall, when proceedings were just getting under way. Beto arrived on stage in a cloud of dry ice, Latin dance music pumping, big grin on his face, with a troop of incredibly beautiful Latin American dancers. The party had started.
Zumba, I now saw, is a mixture of fitness class, dancing, Latin music and a very American, cuddly form of commerce. But mostly Zumba is a craze, like the Charleston, the hula hoop and rollerblading.
I know it is a craze because there were 3,500 women dancing loco. Which, as my close personal friend Wyclef would tell you, doesn’t make them hoes, no.