Anyone who has even dabbled in group exercise at a gym on the East End has probably met Oscar Gonzalez. And once you do, it’s hard to forget him.Gonzalez has been a fixture on the East End fitness scene for 14 years, most recognized for the infectious enthusiasm and energy he brings to Latin and hip hop dance classes. But that only scratches the surface of what Gonzalez does. The 40-year-old native of Costa Rica is a bustling tornado of creativity—not only does he have multiple certifications in all area of fitness instruction, from spin to TRX training to his most current obsession, Zumba, he also lends his expertise to people and organizations outside the confines of gyms and fitness studios. Whether he’s providing the choreography for student musicals at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor or designing and creating spooky masks and costumes for a charity haunted house, Gonzalez is always on the go, and always has a smile on his face.
Since moving to the United States 14 years ago, Gonzalez has made a name for himself in the fitness world both on the East End and
in Manhattan. He’s trained celebrities, taught classes of more than 10,000 people in New York’s Central Park, and has worked professionally as a dancer and in choreography for some of the world’s most recognizable brands.
Most recently, Gonzalez was the co-creator, co-organizer and a Master Instructor at the 2012 Central Europe Zumba Tour, Costa Rican Style, touring Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic and Hungary, where he attracted the most Zumba enthusiasts to his classes. In April 2013, Oscar reprised his roles, and he will return to the same countries this fall for a third time, adding Switzerland to his travels, to perform at several sold-out events for his second Central Europe Zumba Tour, Costa Rican Style, as the special guest star.
Fans of Zumba, and of Gonzalez more generally, have been flocking to the Ocean Resort at Bath and Tennis in Westhampton Beach this summer for Gonzalez’s Zumba at the Beach outdoor classes. The classes take place on Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. Participants work out with Gonzalez on the raised sun deck, breaking a sweat with sweeping views of the ocean and beach. Participants in the class are big fans, not only because it’s fun but because it’s effective as well.
Two weeks ago, Gonzalez took time out of his busy schedule to speak with The Press about his career in fitness and how he’s become one of the most sought-after trainers and instructors on the East End.
Question: Let’s start from the beginning and talk about your background and how you got involved with Zumba, fitness instruction and training in general.
Oscar Gonzalez: I used to work for different companies as a dancer, promoting their brands. I worked for Coca Cola, Absolut Vodka, and others. My manager at the time, in Costa Rica, asked if somebody could teach a hip hop class, and I raised my hand. I didn’t even know how to teach hip hop at that time! I was probably 17 years old. So I started teaching classes, and then a month or two months later, they asked again, if someone could teach a Latin dance class, because someone needed coverage at the gym. So I raised my hand again. And that’s the way I started.
My classes went from 15 people to 50 people, quick. In one week, the numbers just started getting higher and higher.
Q: So your background really is as a dancer?
OG: No, actually, that’s not my background (laughs). I got a degree in advertising, and I used to work in promotions and special events as an executive director. I started [dancing] as a fun job, as a hobby. Then I moved here, and I didn’t speak a word of English, so I started learning English teaching my classes and Latin dance classes. That was an easy way to start.
I started at American Fitness Factory in Southampton and Sag Harbor, then went to World Gym in Hampton Bays, and then started teaching in Southampton at the Omni. And I started teaching classes and getting more and more degrees in fitness. I got my certification as a personal trainer, and I started training people. Every time something new would come up, I would get another certification. For example, now I’m teaching TRX, and I started teaching spin about five or six years ago.
But I’ve always loved to dance. I was teaching Latin dance for many years, and I created my brand, but Zumba became so powerful. It’s such a great brand, and I was trying to compete with a big monster. Then, three years ago, I decided to become a Zumba instructor, even though I have all this background, over 20 years of experience, in the fitness field teaching dance and also being a choreographer. But now I have the support of the Zumba brand, and that’s what I’m doing right now.
Today, I was teaching aqua Zumba—Zumba in the water.
Q: Why do you think Zumba has become so popular?
OG: As I always tell people, and they always say, it’s exercise in disguise. You don’t know that you’re exercising, because you’re having so much fun. People just do it because it’s fun. And you’re working most of the muscles in your body—you use your arms, your core, your legs. Everything is being used during the workout.
Q: It seems like your life and career path have taken you in a lot of different directions. If someone told you 20 years ago that this is where you’d be now, would you have thought, “No way, you’re crazy”?
OG: Actually, I would probably say yes. (Laughs.) Because I’ve always felt that I can express myself, and I’m very artistic. I look forward to creating things—that’s the other thing that I do. I do a haunted house every year. But that’s another story.
Q: Tell me a little bit about that.
OG: I’m working on doing a haunted house in Oyster Bay. I used to do it at La Maison Blanche in Shelter Island. It started as a fundraiser for breast cancer. I created all these props, headpieces and other freaky creations. Last year, we had 250 people there.
Q: Very cool. Okay, let’s get back to Zumba. Tell me more about Zumba at the Beach. What’s it been like this summer?
OG: Anybody can come. The biggest class we’ve had so far is 65 people.
Q: Wow, that’s a lot. Is it hard to keep track of everyone in a class that large?
OG: Well, the biggest class I’ve ever taught had 10,000 people. That was at Central Park, for Self Magazine. You’re on a stage, and it’s very hard to control what’s going on with everybody. I always try to keep an eye on everybody, that’s my goal. But I also have two people, [manager Denise Freda] and my mom, so they are always checking that everyone is okay, seeing if anyone needs water.
Working in a different environment, being outside, is very challenging, because even when you’re, like, oh my God, it’s beautiful being out here on the water, you still have to think, okay, it’s outside, the sun is right there. We have water, sports drinks, wet towels, spray bottles, sunblock and the umbrellas.
Q: So, Latin dance and hip hop classes are where you got started in fitness training, but you do it all now—TRX, personal training, etc. When would you say you became excited about delving into those other aspects of fitness, as opposed to sticking with dance classes?
OG: I think it was always there. In Costa Rica, I started teaching pace, which is a little like spin. And I just started adding more and more knowledge. In Costa Rica, I was more focused on advertising and didn’t have as much time. I didn’t really cultivate the relationship with fitness until I moved here. I just had the craving to know more, and now, after 20 years, that’s just my passion.
Q: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the fitness industry over the last two decades?
OG: In fitness, it’s like we’re reborn every day. That’s why you have to keep yourself updated and have to go to different courses and get different certifications, because you need to bring something new to the table every single time. If you don’t, people will say, “Oh, I saw this, he did the same choreography last year.” People get tired of that.
Also, I think you have to make it fun. When people are sedentary, sometimes it’s because they feel intimidated to go to the gym, or maybe they are afraid of the machines, or that someone is going to make fun of them. By making it fun, they have a different outlook. They can say, “Oh, this looks fun,” and maybe it looks a little easier.
That’s why Zumba is so successful. I see everyone on Facebook and social media, with before-and-after pictures. A lot of people even become Zumba instructors and continue sharing their experience with different people. And that’s when we start changing lives. Those people can say, “Look at me—I was that way too, now I’m here. You can do the same thing.”
So that’s one of the things I see in fitness, people having the access to different kinds of experiences. Some people are hardcore and want to work out at 6 a.m. in a strong boot camp or TRX class. But there are the 9 and 10 a.m. people who just want something to have fun with. And if it comes with a cute guy like this … (laughs). If it comes with some fun, that’s easier for them to get out of the house and do something about themselves and get fit.
Q: You’ve used the word “fun” a lot, which isn’t a coincidence, because a lot of people consider you to be the epitome of fun. How do you keep up that level of energy in your classes?
OG: I’ll tell you a story about aqua Zumba today. You have to be out of the pool as the instructor, and the people in the water follow my movements. We make the movements very big and long and slow, because they are working with the resistance of the water. Today, a lady came over to tell us that the music was too loud, so I said, “Okay, no worries,” and I turned the music down. It was funny, because a year ago, I would have said to her, “I’m working—I don’t need to talk to you right now,” and probably my whole body language and state of mind would have changed. But today, I just turned it down and kept going like nothing happened. Because people don’t come to class to see me grumpy or sad. They come because they want to be happy and feel like, oh my God, this is so great. I want everybody to have a good experience. That’s why I’m very silly in class too.
Q: What do you find most rewarding about teaching fitness classes? What makes you keep loving it?
OG: It’s so many things. For example, I have a person in my class who is in a walker, and at the end of the class, she is so happy. I used to have a blind man who took my classes at the Omni. That’s rewarding. That’s why I come back. Just to see people smile.
It’s simple: I love what I do.
For more information about Oscar Gonzalez and his Zumba classes, visit zumba-oscar.com, zumbafitnesshamptons.com, and oscargonzalez.zumba.com.