I started participating in group aerobics classes about half-way through high school. “Body Concept” – aptly named for its era – was the local gym in George, at a time when it was wholly acceptable to work out in a g-string leotard over a pair of cycling shorts. (At least this was thought to be cool in George, in the mid-nineties.) My high school was hockey obsessed and seeing as I couldn’t really run in my teens – let alone run while connecting a hockey bat to a ball – going to aerobics classes across the road from my boarding school was a welcome escape into the anonymity of the adult world. Or so I first thought…
Because before long, I recognised that the Kingdom of Aerobics possessed all the hallmarks of a high school class – except without the boys. If you were an unpopular instructor, you were toast. No-one spoke to you, no-one wanted to hang out after class and worst of all, group exercise goers would simply boycott your class. If, God forbid, there was a last minute change to the regular roster and one or two unsuspecting souls hadn’t called to double check who was giving a particular class, they would arrive and, the moment they saw the uncool instructor walk up to the teaching podium, they would walk out. The poor instructor might be left with one newbie, or no-one at all, to teach.
The popular instructor, on the other hand, wielded untold power. She commanded a following which would arrive up to thirty minutes before, marking their territory with their sweat towels, thereby staking a claim on their favourite spot on the sprung floor. By this stage, I had found a space off to the side, where I could safely head before every class, not yet claimed by any Smug Regulars who had come before me and who would therefore have held a position of greater seniority than I. Here, in this space on the side, I would be free to break out into a grapevine with confidence.
During my university years, I graduated to the Health & Racquet Club in Cape Town’s Mouille Point. This was the big leagues and competition for spaces in the popular group exercise classes was stiff. We’d arrive, well in advance, and request a numbered ticket at reception. If you got there too late, there would be no tickets left and access to the class would be denied. By this stage, Step Aerobics had gained massively in popularity and participants were expected to be able to move around, over and across, their steps, according to the instructor’s signals. Heaven help you if you moved in the opposite direction to what what was instructed and put yourself on a collision path with the participant to your left. The Smug Regular would then have every right to look at you with the utmost condescension as if to say, “How dare you come to the Advanced Class if you cannot perform at this level?” You would then gingerly pick up your Reebok step and shuffle off to the back of the class, to join the other rejects who were unable to keep up with the routine.
Unlike George, in Cape Town and Joburg, you might get the odd male participant. Amongst these, there were usually one or two who would engage in a “simply Step” routine. This literally means that they were simply present to step up and down. They made no bones about the fact that following a routine was completely beyond their capabilities and so they just stepped for 60 minutes, to great music and a good vibe. Amongst this grouping, one might have come across The Class Clown. The Class Clown liked to try to provide entertainment for his fellow participants. His idea of doing so would be to deliberately go right when everyone went left, thereby creating mock collisions and ceremoniously roaring with laughter at his own joke. He was tolerated by those around him, but not seen as a serious aerobics contender otherwise.
In recent years, after a hiatus of some time, I returned to Step aerobics. I was a little rusty, but felt inwardly that my years of dedication to the cause afforded me certain rights: the rights to a good spot (not right at the back with the rejects), for example, fairly close to the front with a view of the instructor plus a bit of mirror space. But nothing in my years as an aerobics practitioner, had prepared me for Patronising Peggy. Completely unsolicited, this stranger turned to me at the end of the class and told me to “keep on coming and trying my best” since I would “eventually get the hang of it”. I stared at her, in her fluorescent headband. I actually think she may have been wearing leg warmers. I wanted to say: “well maybe if I’d been alive as long as you have been doing aerobics, I would have reached your level of proficiency.”
Long live group exercise with its Smug Regulars, Class Clowns and too-cool-for-school instructors!