Group exercise has become a mainstay at fitness facilities of every type, but many facility operators struggle to decide between offering pre-choreographed classes and freestyle classes.

The number of clubs offering pre-choreographed classes has increased from 22 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2011, according to the 2011 IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Trends report.

This increase mirrors an increase in offerings from established companies adding new classes to their repertoire and from the emergence of new companies, says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA Health and Fitness Association, San Diego.

“Dance is getting very big,” Davis says, naming Zumba as an example.

Zumba, a pre-choreographed Latin dance-based group program, has become so popular in recent years that it has started popping up in unconventional places, such as Pilates studios.

“If you can’t beat them, join them,” says Risa Sheppard, owner of the Sheppard Method Pilates Studio in Los Angeles. She decided to offer the class after getting requests for it from her studio members.

Despite misgivings about pre-choreographed classes, Sheppard says the class has been successful since she introduced it last October, attracting new clients who are interested primarily in Zumba and then introducing them to Pilates.

“I’m not one for set choreography, but the people who take the Zumba seem to really, really like it,” she says. “You’ve always got to market to the masses. This is pure business. I think that the smart business person will keep with the integrity of the work and still be open to other forms of expression.”

The mass appeal of pre-choreographed group exercise classes was a major factor in group fitness director Ricky Russel’s decision to introduce Zumba and Body Training Systems (BTS) classes at Spa 23 Health and Racquet Club, Pompton Plains, NJ. The club also offers freestyle classes.

“People trust brands more than they trust freestyle,” Russel says. Even though freestyle instructors enjoy the creativity and freedom of making up their own routines, freestyle classes are more difficult to market and manage, he says. If an instructor gets sick or leaves the club, another instructor cannot always step in and lead the class in a way that meets club members’ expectations.

Kike Santander, CEO of Batuka, Key Biscayne, FL, says that his company’s pre-choreographed Latin dance-based classes allow for some freestyle. Batuka, which was launched in the United States last year but has been offered in Spain since 2005, allows instructors to modify the choreography or music to suit the abilities and preferences of the class.

“Bridging the gap between pre-choreographed and freestyle, that’s where we’re positioning ourselves,” Santander says.