#CLE-ative Groove: 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 creative makers and shakers! Read on for our next installment 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 a half-century (that 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 led here and I love it, even though I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Both Zoe and I now live on the west side of Cleveland.

Share a bit about your Island Beats dance classes—where do you teach in Cleveland, and how did you team up together?

Zoe: We met in April of 2019 at a Zumba class Iris was subbing. As Iris was making her way around Cleveland teaching dance classes, I became her number-one student. There was something so authentic and fresh about her style that resonated with me; I would drive from Shaker to Lakewood every Saturday to take her class. Plus, we had a lot in common—we’re both the same age with young adult kids, a love of shopping, and island culture. Our friendship grew into mentorship and then into the partnership we are now. 

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

Zoe: Island Beats was a coincidental decision we made in early 2020 after becoming members of the Nola Movement team led by Nike Olabisi-Green. She was probably the first person who recognized our energy and dynamics. Nike asked us what wanted to call ourselves, and we lightheartedly said "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 was on March 28, 2020, and we were amazed at how many women joined us from all over the world. A lot of my Florida students logged on, as well as others I had met over the years teaching Zumba. (I’ve been teaching Zumba now for 13 years, and Zoe 2.5 years.). It was crazy—we just wanted to teach but realized that our virtual class was giving those who joined so much joy and excitement! And because our class emphasized the importance of movement when the world shut down, we knew it was an incredible way to get women to practice radical self-care. 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 and stressed women so they can start to feel joyful, energetic, and confident about moving their bodies. We believe the power of movement can change how women show up in life, especially when they sway their hips to Salsa or Bachata, wind their waists to Dancehall or Afrobeats, or squat to Reggaeton. While our virtual and in-person classes are the core of our business model, we also host events, including private ones 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 are still on cloud nine from our recent adventure to the Dominican Republic!)

Iris: Everyone always asks us, "Why island music?" Well, partly because I am Dominican and I grew up listening to and dancing to Salsa, Merengue, and Bachata. Growing up in New York, I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, including many from the Islands; Zoe was as well while living in Connecticut as a teenager. We choose to play Latin and Caribbean music because it makes you move certain parts of your body—hips, waist, and core. The music on our playlists is high energy, upbeat, and fun! Our classes and events are more of a party than a workout.

Zoe: We currently teach virtual and in-person classes at Groundwurk Strength on Clinton Avenue. We anticipate adding more group fitness classes in the future once we expand and get our own studio. 

When you’re not teaching, where do you love to go dancing and/or take dance classes in town? Zoe: We don’t have a favorite place to go dancing in Cleveland, but we have had a ball at parties at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 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 amazing variety of Latin music. But hands down, one of the best parties we went to was thrown by KIZ216! We used to teach Zumba at Le Salsa in Lakewood, and their classes are awesome. Viva Dance Studio also has good classes too, especially Bachata. 

In your opinion, what 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 is one of the best in the world. I also have been a fan of and enjoyed 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 I love the food here. La Morenita is a Dominican restaurant was one of my favorites before they temporarily closed. I also love Blue Habanero in Gordon Square and Brassica in the Van Aken District.  

What are some of your other creative passions and how do you indulge them locally? Iris: I love fashion and dressing up—everybody knows Iris will bring bling wherever I go! I am passionate about showing our Zumba students how fashion can help boost their self-confidence, especially in class. We tell them that when we're done with them, they won't want to wear big t-shirts and black leggings to work out anymore. And sure enough, they start showing up in colorful, fun outfits, and they might not be shy about wearing fitness apparel that shows off their body instead of hiding it.

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

Stina AleahAny favorite local artists/galleries? Zoe: I just started following Stina Aleah, a Black female artist with a studio on Detroit Avenue. Her work is amazing!

Share a fun fact about you that might surprise other people. Iris: At the end of our classes, we always cool down to my daughter's original songs. She goes by the name Natasha Red and she lives in Queens, New York. Last summer, she performed a couple of her songs at our Birthday Hangout Zumba Masterclass. Everyone was so happy to see her in person after listening to her songs for a couple of years. 

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

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.