My Muscle Mentor
At Gyms, Following ‘Rock-Star’ Teachers As Classes Overtake Working Out Alone
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela has traveled all over New York City for seven years to see Patricia Moreno as often as possible.
It’s not about friendship.
Ms. Moreno is Dr. Petrzela’s aerobics instructor.
Ms. Moreno teaches classes at Equinox fitness clubs in Manhattan. She is best known for “intenSati,” a class she created in which she links movements with affirmations. A double fist punch move, for example, is called “faith.”
Dr. Petrzela, a history professor at the New School, says she has learned not to get jealous of other students who fall for Ms. Moreno only to move on to spinning or Bikram. “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go,” she says.
Gyms are experiencing a surge in the popularity of group fitness classes, and as they move out StairMasters to make way for aerobics studios, they’re finding that the linchpin of a successful class is a charismatic instructor. Often former dancers or musical theater dropouts, instructors motivate students, mostly women though some men too, to pack themselves like sardines into a studio and to come back, again and again.
A demi-class of female friendship is developing: the fitness instructor and the student. “My friends and I always gush about the instructors we have a girl-crushes on,” says Katie Lee, a writer and TV personality in Water Mill, N.Y., who takes spinning classes about four times a week.
Instructors market themselves on the Web by teaching free classes on Google+ Hangouts. They attract followers by posting videos on YouTube and offer daily affirmations to sometimes tens of thousands of Facebook subscribers.
RateYourBurn, a website that launched in June, has more than 100,000 users who, in nine weeks, have written nearly 2,000 reviews. Teachers are tagged with keywords and terms including “I LOVE YOU” and “eye candy.”
Studios know the value of a teacher who generates Web buzz and they use social media to help their instructors get a leg up. Earlier this summer, Katie Warner Johnson, an instructor at Physique 57, a company known for its ballet-inspired barre workout in New York and Los Angeles, sent an email to staffers asking for their support as she competed to be named “Hottest Trainer” by the website Racked LA. “Winning might not be everything, but losing has little to recommend it,” she wrote.
The Physique 57 Twitter feed subsequently and repeatedly lobbied its 8,600 followers to vote for Ms. Johnson who won the title.
At Equinox gyms, about 45% of members attend group classes. “The reason our group fitness business is so powerful is because the relationship between the instructor and the members is, in many ways, emotional,” says Carol Espel, senior national director of group fitness and Pilates at Equinox.
Kathryn Budig and Karly Wade met about a year ago at YogaWorks in Los Angeles, where Ms. Budig, 30, began teaching in 2004. Ms. Budig had set out to be an actress after graduating from the University of Virginia but instead became a yoga instructor. She has nearly 20,000 followers on Facebook and when she travels to yoga studios—33 gigs this year from Idaho to Dubai—it is standing-pose-room-only.
In Los Angeles, Ms. Wade tries to schedule her work doing marketing for a yoga-mat company around Ms. Budig’s classes. The two chat before and after class and meet for coffee when Ms. Budig is available.
Ms. Wade says she has been so inspired by Ms. Budig that she decided in February to go along on one of Ms. Budig’s regular sky-diving excursions. Ms. Wade is now bracing for a big change in her life: Her teacher is relocating to Florida.
“I had a breakdown this morning,” Ms. Wade says.
Unlike past aerobics crazes that cemented Jane Fonda and others as stars who could sell videos and books, today, exercise-fanatics want to attend the classes of their favorite teachers and the retreats they host at spas around the country and beaches around the world.
Sue O’Lear of Wilson, N.C., began taking Zumba, a Latin-music fueled dance-based exercise class, two years ago and then underwent training to become an instructor. Two months ago, she quit her marketing job to teach full time. She is a 38-year-old mother of two. She routinely has to squeeze 50 students in a studio.
“There is a rock star element to it. I’m not going to lie,” she says.
Eileen Partridge, 66, shows up several times a week for Ms. O’Lear’s classes at the local YMCA. Ms. Partridge, a commercial real estate appraiser, has diabetes and began taking Zumba last winter after a doctor told her she needed to get fitter. She has lost 20 pounds. Ms. Partridge recently attended a Zumbathon fundraiser with Ms. O’Lear. “When someone is a mentor to you, through osmosis, they become a friend,” Ms. Partridge says.
SoulCycle, a popular spinning studio chain in which Equinox owns a majority interest, saw the teacher-student connection in New York when one of its marquee instructors, Clare Veronica Walsh, died unexpectedly on Christmas Day 2011.
“There were two huge buses filled with SoulCyclers that came to Clare’s funeral mass” in Lakeville, Conn., says Kate Walsh, Clare’s mother. Her 22-year-old daughter died of natural causes, she says.
One cycler at the funeral was Abby Gardner, 36. She had zigzagged New York City to take Clare’s spinning classes for about a year. “I remember thinking, ‘Am I allowed to feel like this?’ ” about her exercise instructor, says Ms. Gardner.
Dr. Petrzela, the history professor who takes Ms. Moreno’s “intenSati” aerobics, also has puzzled over her attachment.
When Dr. Petrzela, an assistant professor of education studies and history at the New School, started attending intenSati in 2005, she was procrastinating writing her dissertation. As she took classes with Ms. Moreno, she began to consider how her instructor’s motivational and spiritual preaching got her to work out and to work on her paper. She was so taken with Ms. Moreno, she enrolled in her certification program to become an aerobics instructor. “Patricia taught me that ‘in my next life’ is a sellout on your dreams,” she says.
Ms. Moreno considers Dr. Petrzela a good friend but it isn’t always easy to make time. “I have a lot of people contacting me for advice and life coaching,” she says.
Dr. Petrzela is now focusing her research on the history of self-help in America.
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