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Step Aerobics Marks Its 20th Anniversary With a Celebration Led by Its Creator

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By Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

There's a big birthday happening this year, and no, it's not mine. (Although that does happen to be this Friday. Thanks for asking!) But as we bust out the candles -- and the leg warmers -- to celebrate step aerobics turning 20, it's hard not to wonder: What's the next step for the exercise?

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When Reebok and step's creator, Gin Miller, introduced it to the masses in 1989, it was a completely different fitness landscape. Gyms back then taught aerobics, aerobics and, you guessed it, more aerobics. With the introduction of an elevated platform that forced users to hoist themselves vertically, step managed to double gyms' programming possibilities, and brought in scores of new members. "It felt different and tribal, and it attracted men," Miller recalls.

But at a convention of fitness professionals in Alexandria this month, step felt like a relic as exercise instructors took in the newest twists on improving the human body. There was Indo-Row, an indoor rowing program that promises to be the successor to spinning; TRX, a form of suspension training that's poised to take the place of such strength workouts as Bodypump, and Beam, a slightly elevated, somewhat squishy board touted as "the hottest new concept to hit the fitness industry since the step."

It's not that the pros have forgotten step because of these emerging distractions. To the contrary, even ones who've been teaching it since day one are still completely infatuated. "It's fabulous," gushed Kathe Scripture, a 58-year-old who leads classes at the Rockingham Memorial Hospital Wellness Center in Harrisonburg, Va. "I tell people it's the cheapest therapy you can get."

She was about to participate in a session with renowned presenter Rebecca Small titled "Four-Dimensional Step." It sounds complicated in a physics way, but really it's complicated in a physical way. The idea is to leave the comfort of the step in front of you and travel in unison to the ones in front of your neighbors to the right, back and back-right corner.

Granted, this was a room full of people following a career path paved with perkiness. But the looks on their faces declared they weren't merely training for a job as they marched, twirled and mamboed while adding the occasional hand flourish. Just ask 27-year-old Elizabeth Gmelin, who teaches at several gyms in Northern Virginia: "Step is my favorite class to take, by far. Once you're a step fan, you're always a step fan."

The problem is they seem to have loved step nearly to death. Thirty-year industry veteran -- and Beam inventor -- David Mesirow told me the idea behind the exercise is just as sound as it was when it debuted. "It's a great program because you're using your own body weight. You can use it for a straight cardio class, a circuit class or an interval class. And it's fun," he said. But time, Mesirow added, has not been kind to step: "Gin created something great, and the industry destroyed it."

What he means is that overzealous instructors have sped up the music to dangerously high beats-per-minute and complicated the choreography to keep die-hard fans (including themselves) happy while ditching intro classes. In other words, they're teaching to the converted.

While Mesirow was complaining, Small was in the next room leading another seminar on how to teach step, where she confronted those exact issues. "Even I feel pressure to teach faster," she admitted to the group. "But I have to be strong and know I'm doing the right thing."

To her, that also means banging the drum for continued education for step instructors. Although Miller, 53, spent more than a decade circling the globe promoting step through lectures and workshops for professionals, she has since lowered her profile considerably and retired from the conference circuit. Reebok University, the company's education division, has disbanded. Small says that has led to people teaching without any sort of formal training -- with disastrous results.

You won't hear much of an argument from Miller, who developed the program after injuring her knee. (A doctor recommended stepping up on a milk crate as rehab. Miller decided music would improve the experience and voila, the aerobics instructor had a new idea to introduce to her clients.) In California on Aug. 15, she celebrated the evolution of step over the past 20 years at a bash -- it included a step class for 200 -- that tracked the progress of the industry-revolutionizing program from the basic up-up-down-down to cutting-edge dance choreography.

And she remains incredibly proud of her baby for achieving gym staple status. "It's been integrated into just about every area of fitness. It's been used in yoga and tai chi. People use it as a weight bench," Miller marvels. But she laments that guidelines are routinely abused and that instructors are too focused on students in the front row rather than the people who need it the most. "I'd like for it to be as universal as it was in the beginning," she says.

Miller would be pleased, then, to peek in on one of Harold Sanco's classes at Results Gym. Sanco, the group fitness director for the local chain, has a special bond with step. They both got started in the business in 1989, and he was soon medaling in national step competitions by showing off the fanciest of footwork. He still teaches step five days a week, and he boasts a devoted following that pack his classes, including Elaine Grant, 42, who credits step with helping her lose 100 pounds. "I hope to keep doing step until I drop dead," she vows.

But even Sanco realizes there's a fat chance of step's ever regaining the buzz of its heyday given the rise of yoga, Pilates, spinning, Zumba and the like. And in the end, that might be better for members' health. "You can't do step every day if you're coming into the gym five days a week. You need to mix it up," he says.

What step really needs in order to survive may be the rule Sanco always teaches beginners: Never stop moving. If step's dedicated teachers can figure out how to innovate, and not alienate, step may not be over the hill after all.

Comments: misfits@washpost.com.


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