Meet Iris Gonzalez and Zoe Brown, dance teachers and co-founders of Island Beats

Our #CLEative Groove series features Q&A profiles on our city’s creators and creative agitators! Read on for our next episode with Iris Gonzalez and Zoe Brown, co-founders of Island Beats.

How long have you lived in Cleveland and where do you currently live?
Zoe Brown: I’ve lived in Cleveland most of my life, over half a century (sounds so old, but it’s true)! When I was younger I went to high school in Connecticut and college in Washington, D.C.

Iris Gonzalez: I’ve only been in Cleveland since March 2019; I moved here after spending 21 years in West Palm Beach, Florida. I didn’t know anything about Cleveland but I was brought here and I love it even though I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Zoe and I now live on the west side of Cleveland.

Talk a bit about your Island Beats dance classes: where do you teach in Cleveland and how did you team up?

Zoe: We met in April 2019 at a Zumba class that Iris was filling in for. As Iris traveled around Cleveland giving dance lessons, I became her number one student. There was something authentic and fresh in his style that struck me; I drove from Shaker to Lakewood every Saturday to take his course. Plus, we had a lot in common – we’re both the same age with young adult children, a love of shopping and island culture. Our friendship turned into mentorship and then into the partnership that we are now.

Iris: In the summer of 2019, Zoé asked me to organize a Zumba party for her birthday. It was so much fun that we decided to host our own class at Euclid’s Green House on Tuesday nights and we would invite our friends. I noticed how Zoe was getting better [at teaching], and encouraged her to get her Zumba license. After that, we started offering duo classes at a dance studio in Cleveland Heights.

Zoe: Island Beats was a serendipitous decision we made in early 2020 after becoming part of the Nola Movement team led by Nike Olabisi-Green. She was probably the first person to recognize our energy and drive. Nike asked us what we wanted to call ourselves, and we lightheartedly answered “Island Beats” because of our passion for the sounds and rhythms of island culture.

Iris: When the pandemic hit, we decided to go virtual. Our first virtual class took place on March 28, 2020 and we were amazed at how many women from all over the world joined us. Many of my Florida students have logged on, as well as others I’ve met over the years teaching Zumba. (I have been teaching Zumba for 13 years and Zoe for 2.5 years.). It was crazy – we just wanted to teach, but realized that our virtual classroom gave so much joy and excitement to those who joined! And because our class emphasized the importance of movement when the world stopped, we knew it was an amazing way to get women to take care of themselves in radical ways. That’s when we decided Island Beats was more than a hobby.

Zoe: More than a Zumba class, Island Beats is a movement platform for busy, stressed women so they can start feeling happy, energized, and confident to move their bodies. We believe the power of movement can change the way women present themselves in life, especially when they sway to salsa or bachata, curl their waists to dancehall or afrobeats, or squat to reggaeton. While our virtual and in-person classes are core to our business model, we also host events, including private events for individuals and organizations; signature workshops like Body & Soul Bachata; and an international wellness adventure for women who want to travel to paradise to activate their magical charm! (We’re still on cloud nine from our recent adventure in the Dominican Republic!)

Iris: Everyone always asks us, “Why island music?” Well, partly because I’m Dominican and grew up listening to and dancing salsa, merengue, and bachata. Growing up in New York, I was exposed to many different cultures, including many from the islands; Zoe was too when she lived in Connecticut as a teenager. We chose to play Latin and Caribbean music because it moves certain parts of your body: hips, waist and core. The music in our playlists is energetic, upbeat, and fun! Our classes and events are more of a party than a workout.

Zoe: We are currently teaching virtual and in-person classes at Groundwurk Strength on Clinton Avenue. We plan to add more group fitness classes in the future once we expand and get our own studio.

When you’re not teaching, where do you like to go dancing and/or take dance lessons in town? Zoe: We don’t have a favorite place to go dancing in Cleveland, but we’ve had parties at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Touch Supper Club, and a few Latin spots on the West Side. Last Saturday we partied with Tropical Cleveland at the Music Box and it was an incredible variety of Latin music. But hands down, one of the best parties we’ve been to was hosted by KIZ216! We used to teach Zumba at Salsa in Lakewood, and their classes are awesome. Viva Dance Studio also offers good classes, especially Bachata.

What do you think are Cleveland’s best-kept cultural and creative secrets? Zoe: I’ve been a fan of the Cleveland International Film Festival for years and I think it’s one of the best in the world. I have also been a fan and enjoyed some amazing films at the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival (GCUFF).

Iris: Being new to Cleveland, I can’t think of the best kept cultural and creative secrets, but I can say that I love the food here. La Morenita is a Dominican restaurant that was one of my favorites before it temporarily closed. I also like Blue Habanero in Gordon Square and Brassica in the Van Aken area.

What are some of your other creative passions and how do you practice them locally? Iris: I love fashion and dressing up. Everyone knows Iris will bring bling wherever I go! I’m passionate about showing our Zumba students how fashion can help build their confidence, especially in the classroom. They are told that when we are done with them, they will no longer want to wear big black t-shirts and leggings to practice. And of course, they’re starting to show up in colorful and fun outfits, and they might not shy away from wearing fitness clothes that show off their bodies instead of hiding them.

We also love SEE Eyewear at the Van Aken District. They have the funkiest glasses ever. I have 21 pairs and Zoe has 10. Every time we go, our “frame whisperer” Charles suggests perfect frames. If you go, tell Charles we sent you!

Stina AleahFavorite local artists/galleries? Zoe: I just started following Stina Aleah, a black artist with a studio on Detroit Avenue. His work is amazing!

Share a fun fact about yourself that might surprise other people. Iris: At the end of our lessons, we always calm down with my daughter’s original songs. Her name is Natasha Red and she lives in Queens, New York. Last summer she performed some of her songs during our Birthday Hangout Zumba Masterclass. Everyone was so happy to see her in person after listening to her songs for a few years.

Learn more about Island Beats here and follow Iris and Zoe on Instagram @islandbeats_cle. Also stay tuned for more #CLEative Groove profiles! You can also follow @CLEativeGroove on Instagram here, or submit suggestions for people to profile here.