Ministering to body, soul

Fitness: Christian program finds strong market among women tired of the gym scene and in need of a connection.

May 11, 2001|By Jean Leslie | Jean Leslie,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Gallop, gallop, gallop, kick!" and "Single, single, double" are the words heard in South Columbia Baptist Church three mornings a week when the Sunday school room undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming an exercise studio.

This isn't just any exercise class - it's a ministry. Class members start and end each session with a prayer. They dance exclusively to contemporary Christian music, singing along because when they learn the words, their religious faith is deepened by the lyrics they are dancing to - songs such as "God Is in This Place" by Plus One, "Laying Down My Will" by Raze and "Faith, Hope and Love" by Point of Grace.

"These ladies don't like the music played in the [typical] gym. Some find the messages offensive," says Laurie Sammis, "Body and Soul" exercise instructor at South Columbia Baptist. "They appreciate the wholesomeness of contemporary Christian music. And they enjoy the camaraderie of other Christian women."

Unlike members of large, anonymous classes in gyms, these women know and care about each other. "One of the things the women in Body and Soul do that sets them off from other exercise classes is that they share personal needs and pray for each other," says the Rev. Steve Neel, pastor at South Columbia Baptist Church. "The strength of that is the nurturing of the women."

The church's administrator, Frieda Clutts, has been attending the evening class at the church for about eight years. "It's nice that I can get to know people outside of my group," she says.

Fellow Body and Soul student Kathy Mariano agrees. "I like the religious and prayer aspect of the classes, but it's low-key. We have had women from the Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist faiths attending our classes."

Body and Soul is an international, nondenominational ministry founded in Maryland. In 1981, Germantown resident Jeannie Blocher started the Body and Soul Ministry in her home, when she led a small group of friends and neighbors in exercise to contemporary Christian music. A number of students encouraged her to start a class, and with the help of her computer-savvy husband, she made aerobics her business.

Blocher, who has a dance background, still trains the instructors and creates the choreography. The office and her studio remain in Germantown, but the classes have spread to 33 states and 14 countries. The ministry has grown to 353 teachers and 3,204 students in women's, senior's and co-ed classes. Body and Soul also offers free classes in women's detention and rehab centers, overseas mission classes and in homes for unwed mothers.

In Howard County, day and evening classes are offered at South Columbia Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church of Howard County, both in Columbia, and Glen Mar Methodist Church in Ellicott City. Exercise students pay for classes by the session. Four sessions run each year, roughly corresponding to the seasons.

Sammis has been teaching these classes for seven years. She started as a Body and Soul aerobics student and was spending so much time exercising that a friend suggested she become a teacher. Her classes average about 15 women.

She runs her students through a gamut of conditioning and aerobic exercise, including aerobic dance, kick-boxing, weights and floor exercising. Sammis welcomes new students, even in the middle of a session.

"If a new student can't start with the beginning of the session, she can still learn the dances in a couple of weeks and we'll prorate the fee," she says.

"Laurie is like our camp counselor," says Jan MacFarlane, a student since 1997. "I have exercised all of my life, but I just like this better. It's like a support group. And the music is great."

Information on Body and Soul, or to find classes in Howard County: 1-888-660-SOUL.

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