Hobby shapes up into a new career Entrepreneur: Former lawyer Charmaine Gordon left her profession to follow a dream: starting a women's exercise studio.

February 16, 1997|By Tonya Jameson | Tonya Jameson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's been more than five years since Charmaine Gordon gave up power suits for spandex and the sedate tedium of taxes and pensions for the heavy breathing of high-volume aerobics.

"Are we rolling?" she asks her panting class at Synergy, the women's fitness center she runs in Ellicott City. "I love you. Do you hate me?"

She grins. Her class of about 30 women groans. But the women keep moving in unison with her.

It's quintessential Chookie Gordon, as she is called -- show time, with the aerobics studio as her stage. Gordon spends the next 75 minutes talking trash and sprinting around the room, challenging her class members to outdo her -- if they can.

Gordon, 44, gave up a successful legal career to whip women into shape when she opened Synergy in 1991 off Route 108 near the Columbia Palace Nine movie theater.

She pushes her classes hard and doesn't accept laziness. Her current clients describe her as funny, sarcastic and crazy, probably not the words that sprang to the lips of her previous clients in the tax and pension field.

"She'd make a great Marine drill instructor," says Mary Curtis of Dayton.

Gordon says she left law because it was boring. "I couldn't stand it," Gordon says. "I was never one of those people who said, 'I want to be a lawyer.' "

She chose a legal career after receiving her bachelor's degree in Brazilian literature from Yale University. She loved studying the languages of other cultures, but found that her expertise couldn't get her a job.

Her law degree came from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Though she says she found the students stuffy, she enjoyed arguing cases on the mock trial team.

"There's not an argument I can't win," she says with a laugh.

In 1979, after law school, she joined her husband in Columbia. During the next 12 years, she worked for the U.S. Department of Labor, an investment firm and then started her own practice.

She discovered aerobics at the Labor Department when she started taking classes after work. When the instructor quit, she took over the class.

"It was the high point of my life," Gordon says of aerobics back then. "It's fun, the music's great, the moves are great. Time goes quickly."

When she left the Labor Department, she taught aerobics at Spa Lady in Columbia. Many of her current clients met her there.

Gordon has long been a fitness enthusiast. She was a walk-on for Yale University's first women's basketball team.

From 1982 to 1985, she and her husband, Rod, coached a Columbia Basketball Association girls' team. She still plays recreational soccer.

Gordon thought about the gym for two years before taking the plunge. Synergy became a family project. She and Rod, a 32-year-old manager at Pepsi-Cola Co. in Baltimore, manage the club and teach several aerobics classes aimed at all skill levels.

Her parents helped clean the club at night until her father died of cancer in 1993. Her mother, Mikki, is a member and takes her daughter's challenging advanced aerobics class.

Rod Gordon said owning the club has turned his wife into a fierce competitor. She has to be. The club competes with the Supreme Sports Club and the Columbia Athletic Club run by the Columbia Association (CA).

"Trying to open a health club in Columbia with CA having a monopoly here, people said we were nuts," Charmaine Gordon says.

As one of four daughters of a Japanese mother and an African-American father, she was used to challenges. But she says her father didn't let the girls' mixed heritage damage their self-esteem.

"We were always different," Gordon, whose maiden name is Baldwin, says. "My dad said, 'You're a Baldwin, so do it.' We had our own standard."

Since Gordon turned her hobby into a career, Synergy has grown to a staff of 18 serving 700 customers. During aerobics sessions, the place sounds like a night club -- with Gordon as the deejay. She even takes requests.

"I wasn't going to be in some little room with a boom box," she says of her club's high-powered sound system.

She works about 70 hours a week, juggling the duties of an owner and manager and teaching one to three classes a day.

Choosing the right name was also essential for her. She considered some other possibilities -- like Aerofit and Metamorphosis. "Being a literary person, it couldn't be Columbia Women's Fitness Center," Gordon says.

She chose Synergy, which means "combined or cooperative action." Plus it sounds like energy, which Gordon has in abundance.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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