Group exercise goes global

If you are searching for the next phenomenon in group exercise, you may want to look outside of your club. You may even want to look outside of your country.

Ethnic classes that draw on international music and dance are becoming a staple in fitness facilities, according to Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA, The Health & Fitness Source. She first noticed the demand for these programs five years ago when instructors began presenting culturally based exercise at an IDEA convention. Response was good, with 200 to 300 people typically showing up to check out the ethnic workouts. And the more sessions IDEA added, the more people came looking for fresh ideas. In fact, at the 1999 World Fitness IDEA convention in July, the organization upped the number of workshops and classes that focused on ethnic programming. Sessions included Afro Latino, Tango Latin, Salsa Hi-Lo, the Culture Shock Hip Hop Training Program and the United Nation water workout.

Davis believes that ethnic classes are growing in popularity because they deliver the variety exercisers crave to combat the boredom of routine. After all, group exercise programs are as diverse as the cultures that populate the planet. And they can be much different than the classes to which exercisers are accustomed. For example, some ethnic classes may incorporate a live drummer or pianist.

"In some ways, these classes offer a whole new element to the traditional group exercise classes," Davis explains. "There are different kinds of music. There are different moves."

While ethnic programming can attract new members to group exercise, clubs may not want to start off with a full-blown ethnic class. In the beginning, instructors should try adding a few steps to an existing class or experimenting with music from different cultures - just to see how members react.

Clubs that do decide to add a full class must take the instructor's qualifications into consideration. Granted, a successful class is always dependent upon the knowledge and personality of its instructor, but a cultural class is particularly reliant on the teacher's skills. For example, a class based on African dance requires an instructor with an extensive background in African dance. As Davis points out, the training that exists for typical group programming doesn't exist for international classes; an instructor can't learn the intricacies of an authentic cultural dance in a few sessions.

Due to their diversity, culturally based programs can't be lumped into a single category, making it difficult to track the number of international classes that clubs offer, Davis admits. Still, she believes that ethnic programming is expanding across the industry. "It's hard to categorize, but members and clubs have told us these classes are really starting to take off," she says. I would go so far as to say we'll see a lot more of this in the future."