Ellen was our captain. When they started canceling step classes at Body Strength Fitness, a small, privately owned gym on 106th Street and Broadway, Ellen clandestinely circulated a petition for the reinstatement of high-energy aerobic courses. She solicited support before and after classes. She held impromptu meetings in the locker room. She kept the whole of the high-impact faction up to date on the status of the petition -- "40… 50… 75 signatures!"
A couple of weeks after she'd started the petition, Ellen walked into the Sunday morning step class noticeably shaken. She paced behind her step with clenched fists, shaking her head at the floor.
"Hi, Ellen," I smiled.
"I gave Andrew the petition," she said, her voice cracked and edgy. "You're not going to believe what that bastard said to me. He completely belittled me. He said it was completely absurd. He said it was like a revolution. He said he'd talked to people who signed the petition and none of them had any idea what they were signing. He's such a fucking tyrant!"
I hated to see Ellen, a tough metropolitan mom with a nose ring and battered Nikes, reduced to this. "That's ridiculous," I said. "You explained to everyone what the petition was for. They probably just didn't want to confront Andrew," I suggested then glanced around to make sure no one was eavesdropping.
That was Ellen's last class at Body Strength. I never saw her again, though her membership wasn't up for a month. Checking in with Andrew, the manager of Body Strength, was, no doubt, too much of a disgrace for our fallen captain to bear.
Step originated in 1994, and some say it's simply outmoded. Some say it's dying out because it's hard on your knees, ankles, feet, bones and joints. People like Ellen and I didn't care. We didn't have any delusions about step being good for us; we did it because it felt good. We were there for the free-flowing adrenalin, the surging endorphins. Ellen was a 53-year-old mother of two who lived a block from Body Strength and liked to squeeze in a step class after she got off work, before going home to have dinner with her daughters. "I just want to keep doing this until I can't do it anymore," she told me once.
After Ellen left, Body Strength started replacing more of the step aerobics and body sculpting courses with tranquil, low-impact courses like pilates and NIA (Neuromuscular Integrative Action, pronounced nee-a). Pilates emphasizes breathing, form, and posture through a series of floor exercises. NIA is described as "a creative non-impact aerobic movement blending principals of modern dance, martial arts, and alignment into a fun and freeing aerobic workout."
"Step is out and NIA is in," Andrew told us disgruntled members. "It's the new thing at all the big gyms and we have to keep up."
We found out who the serious steppers were when they moved Shirlina's class to Friday nights from 6 to 7. Shirlina was a tall, muscular black woman who looked to be in her late twenties with long dreadlocks and the most amazing arms I have ever seen on a woman. She offered a high-paced, non-stop rhythmic workout to African tribal music. When everyone else was getting ready to flee Columbia-ville, there were five of us in Shirlina's class. There was Jim, a middle-aged Latin teacher at Horace Mann with sagging chipmunk jowls, a balding head, and a Tennessee drawl, who could kick it better than anyone else at Body Strength. Shirlina would maneuver over to his step in the middle of class, and they'd play elaborate moves off each other on either end. There was Winetta, a middle-aged, mahogany skinned woman who would do a step class, and then go downstairs and ride the bike for an hour. Winetta was incredibly calm, persuasive, and diplomatic. She was quickly appointed as the representative for everyone's grievances toward Tony, a queeny instructor with an excess of attitude. There was Carla, who pulled back her Reba-Macintyre mane with an elastic headband and wore black tights with giant fluorescent flowers all over them that had a re-energizing effect; if you stared at them long enough, you could channel into that neon and recharge yourself like a battery. Carla was from the Midwest. The tights were from Hong Kong. And there was Kerrie, a journalism student with the unfortunate habit of boasting loudly about her thesis in the locker room. Nonetheless, she was one of us. We were The Diehard Five.
Some people blamed Jerry, who had recently become Andrew's partner, for the cancellation of step classes. "That man is a pilates Nazi!" said a vocal Jewish woman in her fifties who sported a bleached pixie cut with hot pink tips. I had often seen Jerry emerging from pilates classes. He was a tall, thin man with long limbs and a long, drawn face, all cheekbones and angles, right up to his sharply sculpted hair, which maintained its triangular architecture through any number of pilates exercises. Perhaps Jerry feared that even his super-potent sculpting gel could not withstand the vigorous sweating and bouncing that goes on in a step class, but personally, I feared that Jerry was overdoing it with the pilates classes, the way one can spend too much time under a tanning lamp and come out looking like Magda in Something About Mary. Pilates claims to elongate the limbs without building bulk muscle through full-body stretches. Jerry looks like he's spent time on a stretching rack.»
It's not that I'm opposed to trying new things. I tried pilates, but felt that I could nap more comfortably at home. I tried a class called Body Logos, described as a "mind/body/spirit approach to health and fitness." Tammy, a tiny woman with a flame of Titian hair and a large tattoo of a cat with fangs and a dragon's tail that wrapped around her ankle, lead the class. She put on new age instrumental music and sang the instructions in an operatic voice so that even the simple, "brEEEEATHE in, breath OUT!!!" took on all the heartrending drama of Le Mis lyrics. I was too busy stifling laughter to follow Tammy's instructions, which were a little abstruse to begin with. "Spend some time with the abdominals; spend some time with you. It's like cradling or nurturing yourself. Come into the inner essence of your being. Allow an awareness of body to expand to an awareness of mind. Be your own mother." Tammy kept having to come over and mother me. She'd kneel at my feet, stare intensely into my eyes, and lay her hands on my abdomen like a spiritual healer, singing, "Belly-button inTO SPINE!!" I was tempted to stare back with the same intensity, and belt with tears in my eyes, "But it's HARD, so VERY HARD!!!"
And just the other day, I went to a NIA class. I arrived a few minutes late but it didn't seem like much was happening. An extremely pale, skinny, Shaggy-resembling character with a shock of white hair was lecturing to 5 women who definitely qualified for senior citizen discounts. He wore a wife beater, white, elastic-waistband cargo jams, and lace-up black combat boots. He was emphasizing in this very surferly voice that, "We have to, like, pay attention to our body's inner needs and voices." I was willing to let the alternative athletic gear go, but 10 minutes into class, he was still rambling. What was this? Were we going to work out or just talk about it for an hour? I announced that my inner child had changed its mind, and fled NIA for a run in Central Park.
In step class the next Sunday, I overheard a middle-aged woman talking about NIA. "It's not much of a workout but it's pretty freeing. I mean at one point we were actually skipping around the room. You really get in touch with your inner child," she said and giggled in a way that made me sort of uncomfortable. I pictured myself skipping around the room with a bunch of old women in ill-fitting tights, Albino Shaggy leading us like a pied piper, playing Hot Cross Buns over and over on a recorder. A few weeks ago, four of us rushed upstairs (Kerrie was still missing) with our customary end-of-the-week, keyed-up buzz to find some bouffant-haired blonde imposter in Shirlina's place. The imposter informed us that Friday night step was now Friday night NIA. We ran downstairs to the front desk and demanded to know what happened to Shirlina.
"Shirlina's gone," Andrew informed us.
"So am I!" Carla declared, seconded by the rest of us.
We caught Kerrie rushing in the door. "Shirlina's gone," Jim glumly broke the news.
"What? No! This was my anchor--you know, the end of the week and everything."
"I know," we said, and walked dejectedly uptown, emanating a dust-cloud of depression. We talked about protesting, but it was no use; we all knew what happened to Ellen. We talked about organizing a class with Shirlina in a church basement or something, but none of us really wanted to put in the extra effort and expense. "I checked out New York Sports," Jim said before he turned off at 112th Street. "They don't have any step classes either."