Dear D.C. gyms: Please offer adult gymnastics

Fit editor, Express March 29, 2011

Somewhere in the middle of interviewing Alvaro Maldonado about his plans for a dance studio last summer, we got to talking about what kids are into these days. “You should totally offer a ‘Glee’ dance class,” I suggested, never expecting he would take my advice. Or that it would turn out to be so good. Apparently, students at Dupont Circle’s Ballet Teatro Internacional Dance Institute can’t get enough show choir choreography.

So, now that I have a proven track record, I’m hoping someone out there will finally be interested in launching the fitness concept I’ve dreamed about for years: a downtown gymnastics center that caters to adults.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express. View Archive

Chances are, you think of gymnastics as child’s play. That’s because most tweens give it up when puberty and homework get in the way. But there’s no rule that adults can’t do somersaults. Tim Preston, owner of Preston Gymnastics Academy in Gaithersburg, learned that lesson seven years ago when a parent of a student begged him to start teaching grown-ups.

“I was nervous at the time, but all of those fears have disappeared,” says Preston, who now offers adult classes three nights a week.

They aren’t all that different from what he does with youngsters. “It’s basically like teaching big children,” Preston says. Turns out, no matter how old you are, getting to jump on trampolines, perform vaults and hang on rings makes it easy to forget you’re also developing core strength, balance, flexibility, power and body awareness.

I know I did when I took one of Preston’s classes back in 2006. So why haven’t I managed to go back? Location, location, location.

There are an incredible number of fitness facilities in the District, but there isn’t a single gymnastics gym. That means urban dwellers of all ages looking for a place with a regulation 42-by-42-foot floor better get ready for a drive (hardly any of them are accessible via public transportation). And even fewer of them open their doors to adult students.

Head over heels in the burbs

The two biggest hurdles to my plan are space and cost, explains Joe D’Emidio, who has run the YMCA of Greater Washington’s gymnastics program in Arlington since 1972. As property values have risen over the years, he’s seen gymnastics drift farther into the suburbs, where it’s easier to afford warehouse-size buildings.

“You need high enough ceilings so that people doing giants don’t hit the lights,” he says. (A giant is when you hold on to a bar or rings and swing all the way around, starting and finishing in a handstand.)

Equipment is pricey, and so is insurance. Preston says it’s much more expensive to have adult students because they’re more likely to hurt themselves. Thick mats and spotting from instructors help make moves safer, but when accidents happen, older, heavier, less limber bodies don’t tend to handle it as well.

That hasn’t stopped the demand for adult offerings, however. In 2004, when Carly Meyer took over the gymnastics program at Arlington County’s Barcroft Sports and Fitness Center, there was just one class for age 17 and older. Now there are four, divided into levels of ability. (Details for the next session are in the county’s spring recreation catalogue.)

At the YMCA Arlington’s Woodmont Program Center, D’Emidio’s staff nagged him for a chance to work on their skills, so he set aside Tuesday nights for them. Then they wanted to bring their friends, so he set aside Thursday nights, too. A month ago, the booming adult crowd also took over Sundays.

“At the end of that class, it’s hard to get them to leave,” says D’Emidio, who never imagined gymnastics could be so popular with adults, even though at age 57, he prides himself on still being able to kick into a handstand.

But he definitely sees benefits from picking up the basics. “We teach how to fall, how to roll out and absorb it,” he says. “That will carry them through their lives.”

Rolling with a young crowd

Part of this growing interest in adult-friendly facilities is due to the rise of other sports that borrow from gymnastics. Yoga devotees want to work on headstands, handstands and balance. Dancers and martial artists like to be able to throw in a flip or two. Preston has a few regulars who are honing their snowboarding skills, and D’Emidio often sees circus performers traveling through town. (Trapeze School New York, located on the Southeast Waterfront in the District, offers trampoline lessons but no straight-up tumbling.)

The newest folks to show up at D’Emidio’s adult classes are into parkour, which is an acrobatic way of maneuvering through urban landscapes. Jumping off roofs and scrambling over walls isn’t quite gymnastics, but it’s close. Instead of performing hip circles on uneven bars, they spin around scaffolding.

So when I noticed that Primal Fitness, the parkour gym on New York Avenue, was adding gymnastics classes to its schedule a few months ago, I flipped out. At long last, a downtown spot to bring back my back walkover! Too bad I didn’t look closely enough to notice there was a catch: It’s only for kids.

Instructor Natalie Strasser, a 25-year-old former Division I college gymnast who convinced Primal to let her start the program, admits that mats and bars aren’t enough to train competitive athletes. But she can introduce kids to the sport in a location that makes parents happy.

“We live on the Hill, so we were driving 45 minutes each way,” 50-year-old Ellen Chafee said as she dropped off her 7-year-old, Nina, and a few friends at Strasser’s class. The only thing that would make the setup better, she told me, would be if they offered a simultaneous class for moms. “I’m jealous she gets to jump around. It looks like fun,” she added.

And it was. Strasser gave me permission to join in, so I got warmed up by skipping and inchworming. I paired with 9-year-old Xander for partner conditioning. We both flew through the sit-ups, leg raises and back extensions, knowing it’d soon be time to take a tumble. Minutes later, lined up at the end of a long mat, waiting my turn to do another string of somersaults, I felt giddy, dizzy and officially like a kid again.

As I headed out the door, my classmates invited me to come back to cartwheel some more with them. Maybe I will — at least until someone starts that adult class.

g Online poll Would you take an adult gymnastics class if one was offered near you? Let us know in poll with this column at washingtonpost.com/wellness .

6 Twitter Follow @postmisfits.

Adult gymnastics classes

Two sources for adult gymnastics classes in the area (not in the District, alas):

3Preston Gymnastics Academy. Classes Monday (all apparatus), Tuesday (women’s apparatus), Thursday (tumbling and trampoline), 8-9:30 p.m.
$300 for a 12-week session. 7967 Cessna
Ave., Gaithersburg. 301-948-0827. www.prestongymnastics.net.

3YMCA Arlington’s Woodmont Program Center. Classes Tuesday 8-9:30 p.m., Thursday 9-10:30 p.m. Sunday classes are on hiatus.
$5 drop-in fee. 2422 N. Fillmore St., Arlington. 703-527-4966. www.ymcadc.org.

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