How could we aerobicize with someone new after we'd danced to Kevin's beat?

THE FUNKMEISTER

January 28, 1996|By ALLEGRA BENNETT

The teacher's announcement took most of his 30 or so students by surprise. Some of us already knew that the next class would be his last. But for those caught unaware, the news had the same effect as car headlights have on a deer. Folks were frozen in place.

The teacher tried consoling us with the explanation that the class was not being canceled. It would continue under another instructor. Few felt comforted, and as they emerged from their catatonic state they began to ask questions.

Why was he leaving anyway? "It was time to go," he said plainly. Some who knew more than he was telling revealed that it was a dispute over pay.

Having been hit with that bit of news, the usually affable group turned into a surly bunch. We'd been to a lot of aerobic classes over the years and the one thing we knew was that finding an instructor who connected with students the way this one did was like finding a doctor who makes house calls.

This was a crew that had a lot in common with junior high school students when it came to the treatment of the unfortunate substitute who was standing in for a popular teacher. We did not tolerate understudies gladly. On one occasion most of us walked out only a few minutes after class had begun.

"This place can hire a substitute if they want to but I'm not coming," some threatened. Other swore they would cancel their membership at the health club. Some got out paper and pen and hastily dashed off rude messages that they deposited in the club's suggestion box.

But none of that exorcising really mattered. Whether the teacher's departure was about time or money, the fact was that students and teacher had only one more week together and then it would be over. Circumstances were breaking up the act.

To understand the disappointment over this departing instructor to understand that his was not just another garden-variety exercise class in the growing culture of aerobic fitness.

Wednesday nights at 7:30 with Kevin was much-needed cheap therapy. It was show time with a funky attitude and Kevin was our funkmeister. We were the chorus line and every class was the dress rehearsal for the big Broadway musical of our fantasies.

Sure, the club could get a substitute for that time period. But aerobics without Kevin's B'More Funk program would be like pizza without cheese. So thank you, but no, we'd rather have a V-8.

Many class members had been meeting at the same time and day for the entire year and a half that Kevin had been leading physical-fitness seekers to the funky rhythms of James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, the Gap Band, Rick James, Barry White, Stephanie Mills and his own special blend of funky grooves.

We grunted, laughed, sweated and escaped with Kevin. We bonded into a kind of way, way, way off-Broadway troupe that gathered in a gym once a week to get down. Our noisy fun and loud music often drew audiences who peered at us over the second-floor railing of the room or observed us through the picture windows. That's when we really showed off.

We were a multiracial collection of men and women who ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s. Among us was a nurse who worked long shifts at the National Institutes of Health, a stockbroker who spent her weekends taking graduate courses, a banker, a novelist, a computer whiz, a schoolteacher, a manager of tactical radar systems, a corporate consultant on conflict resolutions, an opera singer who had performed in "Carmen" at the Metropolitan Opera House, a rhythm and blues singer, an actress who had been featured in a Bell Atlantic commercial and an animal-rights activist.

For the stressed-out in the group, Kevin's class was a decompression tank. But all of us swore that our stress levels went down the moment we slipped into our tights and Nikes to perform the amalgamation of street dance, ballet, modern and African dance that is known as funk.

As our funkmeister, Kevin made us work harder than we would work ourselves. He raised the low thresholds of physical tolerance and ability we had set for ourselves by audaciously pushing us to the high level of expectation he had for us. "Give it to me," he'd yell. And when it looked like we were "just jiving," just going through the motions, he made us work the routine again and again.

The bonus for our giving came shortly. Folks who early in their funk-aerobics career had sneaked away before class had ended or taken a water break just 15 minutes into the routine were soon taking pride in having progressed -- in just a few months -- to doing the whole hourlong "show" without a single break. It was a defining moment.

Many who thought they were forever rhythmically challenged happily boasted that their two left feet had evolved into a cooperating pair, and that their feet were even in sync with their arms.

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