Drums Alive: Feel the beat, feel the burn

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Sunday, March 20, 2011; 11:53 AM

Drums Alive wants you to have a ball - and a pair of drumsticks to whack it with. In this fitness class, you're not just listening to music. You're playing it. And that has the potential to really pay off.

"I'm always totally soaking wet by the end of class," says master instructor Patrick Leonard, who owns Baltimore's Universal Fitness at the Overlea, where he has offered Drums Alive for nearly a year. That's because while you're pounding away on an exercise ball with your arms, your lower body is engaged in traditional aerobic movements. So a typical routine might include striking the sides of the sphere as you bounce between lunges, or jumping while you click your sticks above your head and squatting so you can bang the floor.

It sounds weird, I know. But it has developed a faithful following in pockets around the world, particularly in Germany, where creator Carrie Ekins is based. Even though it was introduced in the States six years ago, it hasn't caught on nationally. In the District and surrounding suburbs, for instance, you won't find a single class. So, it's all the more remarkable that Charm City has become the U.S. hot spot for Drums Alive, thanks to the efforts of Leonard and fellow instructor Shawn Bannon.

In the past month alone, it has been launched at both Meadow Mill, a health club known for its plentiful squash courts, and a holistic wellness studio called the Living Well. The Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore just started pushing the program in a big way, adding not only the standard format to the schedule, but also variations for seniors, kids and families.

When Ekins says anyone can take part in Drums Alive, she's speaking from experience. "I've been blessed with a creative mind. But I've been unblessed in that I have bad bones and joints," says the former professional dancer, who came up with the program a decade ago when recovery from hip surgery forced her to use a wheelchair. Bored with the other stuff she could do with her hands, she started hitting boxes in her basement. As her condition improved, she stood up and began banging on exercise balls.

Toying with the idea, Ekins realized she'd stumbled onto a workout that can do more than make you fit. There's the immediate stress relief that comes from hitting things, but that's just the beginning. Drumming engages both hemispheres of the brain, which in turn boosts overall coordination. In recent studies, drumming has been credited with improving immune function, mood and creativity.

So a combination of drumming with aerobic exercise has the potential to be powerful medicine. And because rhythm is universal, the class lends itself to sampling music from around the globe, from African to American Indian to Irish. "You can learn to appreciate and respect other cultures," Ekins says. "Asian drumming is powerful. Latin just makes you want to shake."

That last part may be driving Drums Alive's popularity in Baltimore, where the fitness community can't get enough of Zumba, the Latin-dance-inspired exercise craze. Virtually all the instructors in the area are also Zumba-certified and looking to develop a repertoire that lets them do more than mambo and cha cha cha.

"I teach 16 Zumba classes a week. I wanted something else," says Joyce Lortz. She introduced Meadow Mill to Drums Alive in February by persuading the 30 or so folks in a Sunday morning Zumba class to stick around. It took only a couple of minutes for the crowd to start pounding the exercise balls in unison.

Sidney Pink, a 31-year-old in the back row, told me the experience reminded him of the Taiko Drum Master video game he and wife April played when they lived in Japan. "I'm becoming aware of the way cultural activities can be brought into the gym setting," he said. As for April, she wanted to bring something else: "My mom."

It's common for students to want to share Drums Alive - with parents, friends and children - because it thrives on a group dynamic, Bannon explains. The more people in the room, the louder each boom. "The energy is off the charts," he says.

At the Maryland Athletic Club in Timonium, where Bannon teaches, 53-year-old Janet Amirault has persuaded husband Alan Foote, 52, to join her in taking up drumsticks once a week. "Of the various things she did, this was the most interesting," Foote says. As for Armirault, who had a stroke caused by a genetic defect six years ago, she credits her six months in the program with strengthening her brain and her body. "This helps keep me alert. It forms neurons. To me, it's the magic exercise," she says.

It was clear Bannon agreed with that last week as he got the class warmed up to a Hawaiian tune. "Sticks are going to fly, and balls are going to roll," he warned. He turned out to be right on both counts. But the incidents caused no injuries, just giggles, and before long, the whole room was back on the beat.

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Try it

Have you tried Drums Alive? Tell us what you thought in the comments of this story online. Here are two Baltimore locations with Drums Alive that don't require membership:

The Living Well. Saturdays at 9 a.m. $10 per class. 2443 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-212-5953. www.livewellbemore.com.

Universal Fitness. Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. $5 per class. 6809 Belair Rd., Baltimore. 410-668-6060. overleafitness.webs.com.

Drums Alive locations that require membership:

Meadow Mill. Sundays at 11:15 a.m. Members only. 3600 Clipper Mill Rd., Baltimore. 410-235-7000. www.meadowmill.com.

JCC of Greater Baltimore. Power Beats on Sundays at noon and Tuesdays at 6 p.m., Golden Beats on Mondays at noon, Kids Beats on Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., Family Beats one Saturday a month at 3:30 p.m. Members only. 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. 410-356-5200. www.jcc.org.

Maryland Athletic Club. Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. Members only. 110 W. Timonium Rd., Timonium. 410-453-9111. www.macwellness.com.


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