Note: Rarely do I stray off jewelry on this blog. I have written about , exercise, health, family, dating and relationships for magazines and now I combining some of these topics into one blog on a subject I feel very passionate about. I did throw a line or two about jewelry or else it wouldn’t be bjeweled.
A recent article in the New York Times (The Pros Who Help You Move To The Music, March 16, 2014) spoke to the resurgence of the dance cardio craze in New York City and cited various instructors throughout Manhattan.
Upon reading it, I realized that there is something more to these workouts then “whittling waists” and growing more toned, tightened and taut. Like everyone else who has ever taken a rigorous class, I too want four-pack abs, muscles rather than flab defining my triceps and curves rather than love handles moving towards my hips. But, there is something in addition to ‘the burn’ and having your body worked tirelessly that makes an instructor ‘a pro’. It is the unique combination of dance training and the building, not only of the body, but the strength of commitment to seeing students grow in all aspects of our lives, the community of friends the instructor brings together and the consistency they provide. Ben Byrd is this pro. Approximately100 other active regulars seem to feel this way, at least 60 of whom I see every Saturday and Sunday at his Alvin Ailey Zumba classes.
No one else could get me to wear my two least favorite colors as bracelets: neon green and neon orange for a double Sunday class. These are the wristbands that I must sport for two hours with my Cartier Love bracelet and my Victorian Locket bangle to get into the jam-packed sessions. This not my idea of piling it on or stacking it up the arm.
No one else can me out of bed that early on weekends with a huge smile to face the intense and high impact yet accessible dance moves that Ben choreographs for his classes. His single Saturday and double Sunday classes have been sold out since I have been taking them for the past three and a half years. Yet, I found out two weeks ago from a friend and class go-er, that Ben was unilaterally let go as an instructor from Alvin Ailey with no explanation (after being the first instructor to have more than two classes per month and after six and a half years of helping to grow the Extension program). All of the regulars as well as anyone who has ever taken Ben’s class were confused and enraged. We organized as a group. In numbers, we thought we would be strong. We wrote letters. We asked for face-to-face meetings. We had conversations with the powers that be. It fell on deaf ears.
Ben will be leaving on March 30th.
Under any circumstances, Ben being fired is ludicrous for numerous reasons: the amount of people he brings in to his classes, his passionate teaching style, so many who attended his classes will be leaving Ailey since he is the reason they are there.
But for me, someone who gets anxious at the thought of changing manicurists, it goes even deeper. Forgive the mixed metaphors, but Ben’s forced departure, at present, is akin to taking my life raft, leaving me stranded in the middle of an ocean in a storm. I recently left my job at a magazine after 5 ½ years, I am apartment hunting for the first time in 23 years and I seem to be having some type of “when you turn 50” memory lapses. I forget what I walked into the other room to do.
What I need most in my life is the routine, the balance, both physical and mental that Ben’s classes provide, along with the friendships, laughs, and letting go. In the face of life’s challenges, Ben teaches me to challenge my body and let my mind rest, while having tons of fun.
No stranger to dance, I took ballet and modern when I was a child and it pulled me out of my shy phase. In my room I did the “monkey” and “pony” when I found out my parents were getting a divorce. I hustled my way into the hottest clubs during the early ‘80s while procrastinating college exams. I then went on to work off stress by ripping my sweatshirts in true “Flashdance” style in the clubs and the gym. When both my mom and dad died way too young in the ‘90s, I got back into the rhythm and blues of Aretha and Ottis and danced around my room once again. Upon entering the era knows as “my forties”, I realized two things: I needed a power nap if I wanted to go dancing at a club at 11PM and that the only cardio I had partaken in for years was schlepping overstuffed luggage through customs and power shopping in Italy
It was time to get back to a gym. I signed up at Crunch and spent seven years clinging on to Cardio Strip, Latin Grooves and Belly Moves until my two favorite instructors and dance classes were ditched for Pilates and forms of yoga. Not for me. Dancing, whether at the gym, around my house or in clubs is my way of letting loose, facing adversity and dealing with change.
I met Ben Byrd in 2010. I loved the idea that Zumba mixed moves and beats from various cultures from around the globe. Ben ramped it up with a combination of kickboxing and fancy footed salsa, Samba, meringue, cha cha, swing as well as some sensual strip style move I had done before. Yet, five minutes into his first class, I was out of breath. By the second class, I could keep up as long as tripping over my feet was acceptable. Soon I learned how to fake what I didn’t know. Eventually I got the hang of how to do figure eights, with “sexy arms” swaying my hips, popping my booty, all while extending my torso, until my abs were sore.
I love this class.
I was also impressed by the varied demographics, women and…men, twenty-something through sixty-something of all ethnic backgrounds.
Perhaps it is Bens teasingly testing us when we are half asleep if we know right from left, his infectious spirit and love of dance and his offbeat sense of humor that keeps me coming back. Friends in class have been there longer than me, many for six years.
Most of us still get there a half hour earlier to wait outside to procure a spot.
Ben’s Zumba saw me through my metabolism going on a prolonged peri-menopausal strike after being the same weight for 14 years. I punched and kicked through grieving my grandmother’s death and sang loudly to the cool down song by Adele “Someone Like You” after the end of a long-term relationship.
But I am just one of the many who have stories to tell about the generous instructor who has encouraged so many of us to grow. We all have our tales. Mine is small compared to some of the more profound stories of the women I have met. Maria Zoccoli, who has been a student of Ben’s for six years, explained, “We have celebrated engagements, weddings and birthdays, and grieved parents’ deaths. Ben has been a leader, not only as Zumba instructor. When one of his longtime students was going through a bad divorce and had her fifth bout with brain cancer, he helped us coordinate her care. He strengthened another classgoer after a heart attack.” I have seen women achieve their goal weight. Ben has made us all laugh at ourselves, work hard, step fast, drop lower and sing louder, along with Christina Aguilera and Pitbull to Feel This Moment, hitting the high notes of “Oh Oh Oh Oh” while lunging in place.
My personal favorite times are those when, during the three weekends leading up to Halloween, Ben plays Thriller and he teaches us the choreography from the music video. There are also those few times when we are all Sandy and Danny in Grease’s Summer Lovin during cool down. Ben has a goofy side, and these are the type of moments that make him all the more human, one of us, the head of our family and a ‘Pro.’ The only thing I won’t miss is the mix of vivid green and orange in combination and in paper rather than gold.
Ben will be at Alvin AileyOn Saturday March 29th 11:30AM
On Sunday March 30th,10AM and 11:30AM
Please follow him on FB at Ben Byrd Fitness
His website: www.dancebody.co for a schedule of his new classes and locations
And on twitter: @BenByrdNYC