by Megan Smith
Photo by Minerva Canales
The music is bumpin’, hips are shakin’, and sweaty bodies are movin’ to the beat. No, this isn’t a Saturday night out at the club; it’s your new favorite workout at Studio Tropa.
Located south of the Galleria at 5110 B Ashbrook, Studio Tropa is truly the first of its kind, offering fun and high-energy group fitness classes in a non-competitive atmosphere. The studio’s specialty, the Latin-inspired Zumba classes, incorporate movements from salsa, merengue, cumbia, hip-hop, reggaeton, Bollywood, and more, for full-body toning. “There was no model [when opening Studio Tropa],” founder and owner Jerry Maese says. “We were the first place to open what was not necessarily a gym, and not necessarily a dance or yoga studio. So I had to create and invent something new.”
Maese has always loved fitness, even before the term “Zumba” was on the lips of millions. Born and raised in El Paso, he recalls rollerblading and biking as a kid, then joining the swim team and hitting the gym once he reached high school.
At age 20, Maese married and had three sons, now ages 20, 22, and 24. He went on to serve four years as a medic in the Army and earned his bachelor’s degree in health sciences with the goal of becoming a doctor.
Following his time in the service, Maese divorced, moved to Houston, and came out as a gay man. Having been raised by a single mother following the death of his father, Maese says he never battled internalized homophobia, as he was never subjected to a “machismo” attitude while growing up.
Although Maese originally came to Houston with the intention of pursuing medical school, he soon started working at the former Fitness Exchange and fell into personal training. “I still thought I needed to get a ‘real’ job,” he says. “But I liked that I was keeping people happy and healthy.”
As it turns out, helping others improve themselves through fitness was the just the “real” job Maese was looking for. A long-distance relationship led him to travel back and forth from Houston to Miami, where he was able to work alongside some of the best celebrity personal trainers in the business—including giving tips to Ricky Martin’s trainer. “My claim to fame is that it was because of what his trainer learned from me that Ricky Martin got his body. So he owes me a thank-you,” Maese laughs. “Or a date!”
Miami has always been on the cutting edge of fitness trends, so Maese was determined to find the next big craze during his time there. In 2003, an Internet search led him to Zumba, and he signed up for one of the very first instructor certification classes taught by Zumba’s creator, Beto Perez.
Today, the health benefits of Zumba are widely known. According to HealthStatus, a 150-pound person can burn around 540 calories performing one hour of Zumba—more than you would burn jogging for the same amount of time. However, back in 2003, no one was paying attention to this fitness phenomenon, Maese says. Still traveling back and forth from Miami to Houston, Maese tried to introduce Zumba to Houston-area gyms to no avail. “Everyone would tell me that no one was going to want to dance for fitness, much less to Latin music,” he says.
When he finally got an opportunity in Miami to teach Zumba, he was by no means an instant success. “I had around 17 people,” Maese says. “But people were expecting Beto [to teach the class], because at that time, if you took Zumba in Miami, it was from Beto. I completely failed. I was heartbroken. The next class, I had three people and the third class there was only one—my boyfriend at the time. And that was that. I thought I was done with Zumba.”
With his relationship going downhill and his sons reaching their “rebellious teenage years,” Maese decided to make the move back to El Paso. What he didn’t expect was for that move to make his Zumba career take off. Local El Paso gyms couldn’t get enough of the new fitness craze, and because Maese was the only Zumba instructor in Texas, he was teaching up to 25 classes a week, pulling in 65 to 85 people per class.
He then decided to move back to Houston and try one more time to introduce Zumba to the Bayou City. This time, things took off, and Maese taught multiple Zumba classes each week at various gyms, including at Houston Gym. People flocked to his classes, he says, and when people thought of Zumba, they automatically associated it with his name.
Despite his success, Maese briefly considered a career switch, possibly to pursue an MBA or law degree to get that “real job” he still thought was necessary. A moving story from one of his Zumba students, however, changed his mind. “She told me she had been married before, and that her ex-husband had been mentally, physically, and emotionally abusive,” he says. “She had already been divorced for awhile, but she went on to explain that she didn’t realize how low her self-esteem [had gotten] until she started coming to my classes and started moving and feeling sexy. She said that, for the first time in her life, she felt like a complete woman again, because she felt sexy—like she could walk into a room and hold her head up high and know that she was worth something. I cried when I heard that. I was really flattered, but my first thought at the time was, ‘Wow, what is she going to do when I decide to quit, when I make my career change?’”
Over the years, he’s heard many similar stories. “I think that’s the magic of Zumba,” Maese says. “It changes lives.” Women were feeling so confident from his classes that some of their husbands started to come to class “just to see who this Jerry guy was. They thought their wives were cheating with me!” Maese laughs.
Committed to continuing his career as a Zumba instructor, Maese opened Studio Tropa, which is now celebrating its fourth year in business. The studio offers Zumba classes seven days a week, with morning and evening classes available most days. “Our classes are so diverse,” Maese says. “In any class, we can have people from 13 years old to 65, [even] 80 years old. They’re set up where anybody can take the class—anyone can have fun. You don’t have to know the music and you don’t have to know how to dance. You don’t have to be in shape, because you can modify it. You can do it.”
The studio’s name is now known internationally, Maese says, and he notes that they’ve had visitors from countries like Germany come to visit simply to see “The Studio Tropa.” Several Studio Tropa instructors—most of whom started as Maese’s students—have reached great success as well. Most recently, Erica Pierce, a former Studio Tropa instructor, was selected to be one of the avatars on the Zumba Rush video game for Xbox 360 Kinect.
Over time, Studio Tropa has evolved into somewhat of a family operation, Maese says. His oldest son, who works as a chef, has begun selling healthier food alternatives at the studio. The latest addition to the studio’s class schedule—a max-interval training program called Insanity—is taught by Maese’s middle son. His youngest works the front desk. “He schedules my life now,” Maese laughs.
When asked if he’s interested in expanding, Maese says he doesn’t think multiple locations are in the cards—at least for now. “I would much rather be a place that is one-of-a-kind in the world, where if you come to Houston, you have to come to Studio Tropa—it’s an experience all its own,” he says. “And I think we’ve created that.”
Outside of class, you can expect to find Maese enjoying yoga, working out with his sons, and kicking back for quiet time away from the music.
As for Zumba, he thinks he’ll make it his “real job” for awhile longer. “It’s not a workout, it’s an experience,” Maese says. “And once you get past the experience, it becomes a lifestyle.”
For more information and a full class schedule, visit studiotropa.com.