The Evolution of the Fitness Class


By John Burgman

On a typical Wednesday night in northeastern Ohio, a sizeable group of gym members show up at Climb Cleveland to get in an evening workout. They laugh and socialize as they filter in to begin their normal pre-exercise routines—stretching, loosening up, and putting on the proper footwear. On the walls of the gym, other climbers are already hard at work on various bouldering problems. Yet, when the time comes for these devoted regulars to begin their usual workout, they don’t take to the walls. Instead, they head to a side room and begin the weekly class—blues dancing.

Blues dancing at Climb Cleveland is one example of the unique classes being offered at gyms around the country, and the variety has amounted to an observable evolution in fitness options. It has long been common for gyms to offer yoga or feature a weight room adjacent to the climbing walls, but it is now possible to find anything from belly dancing to guided meditation being taught as well. Owners seem increasingly willing to maximize facility space by catering to the varied interests of climbing’s typical clientele—often with minimal startup costs.

“It’s hard to start a new dance venue because of the money-cost for the space, but in my building, the money-cost for the space for dancing was zero,” says Chick Holtkamp, who started Climb Cleveland last year after having owned the building outright for 30 years.

Of particular note is Holtkamp’s observation that a majority of the regulars at Climb Cleveland’s weekly dance classes are at the gym for the dancing and not the climbing. It has prompted him to hold monthly dance parties, as well as weekend dance workshops. Dancing has now become a big part of the gym’s identity.

Jessie Conrad is the Program Manager at Bridges Rock Gym in El Cerrito, California—a gym that also holds dance classes. The gym offers 40 unique fitness classes per week, not including all the climbing classes. There is a slacklining class on Wednesday, a Spin class on Thursday, plus boxing classes, kickboxing classes, and Pilates interspersed throughout the calendar. Conrad sees the gym’s role as a provider of “excellent training tools” for a community that is composed of climbers as well as non-climbers. “I think what we have is a very welcoming, super-inclusive community of people who enjoy being active,” she says. “There is no feeling of one activity being superior to another, just a mutual respect for being fit, healthy and active.”

Bridges Rock Gym was built specifically with yoga and fitness instruction in mind, but everything still circles back to climbing: “Offering classes inside of a climbing gym exposes more people to climbing,” Conrad says. “Whether members taking classes choose to climb or not, it’s on their radar. And that is our first love and main product that we offer. But we recognize the cross-training opportunities that having non-climbing related classes present and see it as our job to make those available to our members.”

Doing the Dance

To Holtkamp, a longtime outdoor climber, connecting dancing and climbing at Climb Cleveland wasn’t a new or unusual concept. “When I started climbing in 1972, people would say, ‘Climbing is like dance,’ because for the most part, climbing was on vertical surfaces—not much overhanging stuff back then,” he recalls. “So, everyone was moving in this very dancerly way, and we could see that connection. Anybody who climbed back then would have heard climbing compared to dancing.”

Holtkamp traveled around the country and looked at 100 different gyms prior to opening his own—in a building that was a former Ukrainian social hall. He sees the uniqueness of the building reflected in the uniqueness of the dance classes. But there is a correlation between dancing and climbing that makes offering instruction a logical option for any gym that is so inclined. Both climbing and dancing rely on a vital social component—a partnership, occasionally with someone new—and slipping into a certain rhythm amid that partnership.

“I see a lot in common with thinking about where your hand-then-foot go in flow with the rock, and where your hand then foot go in flow with the floor and the music,” says Lynn Gardiner, who teaches “social dance” at Bridges Rock Gym. “Both hobbies have shared weight and balance as concepts too.”

“Social dance” is an umbrella term that might include swing, waltz, or line dancing. Gardiner describes the class as a place where participants move, laugh, “share weight,” overcome shyness, and create a community. She has been a dance instructor for nearly a decade, and a background in Spanish and American Sign Language allows her to explain the nuance of dance movement to class attendees in a variety of ways. “I’ve found in the past three-and-a-half years of teaching [at Bridges Rock Gym] that my students are this neat blend of introversion, thoughtfulness, and people who understand that growth happens in a craft where you keep showing up and doing it,” she notes. “Improving one notch per session yields great growth over weeks and months—for both dance and climbing skillsets.”

Felicia Bode, who teaches classes at Climb Cleveland, says that blues dancing enhances in-the-moment decision-making, which is also useful in climbing. And dance class “hones skills that aren’t focused on as closely in climbing, such as specific spatial/body awareness, isolations of muscles and muscle groups, and control of where you hold and place your weight.” Bode taught university dance classes and founded a dance-themed nonprofit, Cleveland Exchange, prior to working at the gym. She is particularly welcoming to beginners who take her class: “I work to create a welcoming space and reassure people that we are all here to learn, encouraging everyone, new and old alike, to offer feedback to each other during class,” she explains. “Additionally, I tell them that we all start somewhere, and everyone in the dance scene started knowing nothing; what’s great about the dance scene is that it is incredibly inclusive itself, and many people…are happy to dance with people at all levels of dancing—they’re just there to dance and have a good time!”

An aerial silks performance at Epic in Indianapolis, IndianaAn aerial silks performance at Epic in Indianapolis, Indiana

Offering New Acrobatics

Dancing might possess a sort of a longtime kinesthetic bond with climbing, but there are other classes that have only come to be associated with climbing gyms recently. The most conspicuous of these are aerial silks courses, which involve large, colorful ribbons of fabric being hung from a high rigging point at the gym. Although there are various types of cloth apparatuses—silks, slings, and hammocks—any aerial class likely entails a “combination of gymnastics and ballet,” according to Olivia Miller, the aerial silks instructor at Epic Climbing and Fitness in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Miller has noticed an increased popularity in aerial silks. “Especially at Epic these past few months, my classes have been filling up two or three weeks in advance, which is great because I’m getting a lot of returnees as well as some new faces that I hope to turn into returnees,” she says.

Miller notes that aerial classes fit in the context of a climbing gym because the act of working with the hanging fabric improves grip strength, endurance, and flexibility. Classes for beginners emphasize getting the shoulders and back warmed up, then working on the basics of an “inversion,” progressing into basic positions on the silks, and finishing with footlocks. Advanced classes will encompass harder moves, such as “French” and “Russian” climbs up the silks, as well as intensive ab and core conditioning. Still, Miller thinks most people are drawn to aerial silks because of the fun aspects that also apply to climbing: “The thing that I think attendees enjoy most about taking a class is the fact that they get to go upside down and feel like a kid again, but all while getting a good workout in and accomplishing things they thought weren’t possible,” she says.

Miller was a climber prior to knowing what the aerial arts entailed—but taking a beginners’ silks class at a climbing gym one day got her hooked. Now, in addition to teaching, she also performs with an aerial troupe, Aerialogy. She points out that unlike yoga, silks necessitate a gym visit: “Aerial silks isn’t something you can do at home for fun in your spare time, unless you are a professional and have the right equipment for the job on hand, so it’s best to just come in and take a class with a trained professional,” she says.

Planet Rock in Madison Heights, Michigan, is another gym that offers aerial silks, and the gym’s Aerial Athletics Director, Beth Gonzales, says there is always consistent interest in the classes because there’s a lack of other places to try silks—and because the skills cross-pollinate so well with climbing. “Our aerial clientele directly feeds from our gym members,” she says. “We are very much ‘climbers who do silks,’ rather than typical aerial artists you might find in a circus school. We generally find that takes a lot of pressure off people who might be hesitant to try silks otherwise.”

Planet Rock first offered aerial silks as a summer camp activity for kids, but expanded to become a regular program—offered to adults as well—by popular demand. Now, the age of those taking part at the gym might range from six to 65, according to Gonzales, although mid/late-20s is the average. Classes tend to be comprised mostly of women, although not exclusively.
“Climbers bring an immediate strength to the fabric—if you can climb, you can silk,” Gonzales says. “The progression from climbing to silks is usually a smooth transition. Many of our climbers find immediate success on the fabric—skills on the wall really help with beginner silking moves such as climbing, locks and inverts. And really, if you point your toes, smile and have a good time, that’s all we really require.”
Another acrobatic activity that is appearing at more gyms is pole fit—similar to aerial silks, but with strength moves such as flags and levers performed on a stationary pole rather than fabric. Imani Latif teaches pole fit at Rocknasium in Davis, California, and she has noticed a growing interest—in fact, she points out that pole fit is currently vying to be an Olympic sport. “My class attendance has been steadily increasing and I’ve noticed a change in where these new students are coming from,” she says. “Before, most of my students had some experience with pole or aerial dance previously, either my classes at the other studio, or at different studios, and were looking to continue learning pole. Other students who had no previous pole experience were members of the gym and had seen it on [Rocknasium’s] schedules and wanted to try. Now, I have lots of students coming in and saying, ‘I saw a YouTube video/Instagram post of someone pole dancing and I googled where I could learn, and found you!’”

Latif is a climber, but she has a background in dancing, and discovered pole dancing as a way to continue practicing an aerial discipline upon moving to Davis years ago. She performed, competed, and even taught at the Davis Pole Dance Studio while also training at Rocknasium. Eventually, the manager at Rocknasium asked if she’d be interested in teaching at the gym. It was slow at first—only one pole in the yoga studio and one regular student; business picked up as people around town heard about the new classes at the facility. The gym soon bought another pole, and Latif says attendance has increased in the past six months.

Imani Latif has noticed an increased interest in Pole Fit at Rocknasium

Latif notes there is sometimes an erotic stigma associated with pole dancing, but she says that such notions are outdated—and she strives to fight that stigma. She says pole classes are more akin to gymnastics (“with a little dance and yoga thrown in”) and that the movement on the pole is heavily based on sheer physical strength and flexibility. “In regards to climbing, maybe superficially pole and climbing are completely unrelated but they complement each other so well,” she says. “I would argue that pole is better cross-training for climbing than yoga, or running, or weightlifting, or anything else. It works your upper body, core and flexibility more than climbing does. It’s all grip strength but doesn’t aggravate your fingers like hangboarding or campusing. It builds stamina and pain tolerance while actually being pretty fun.”

Getting Started

For any gym that wants to diversify its fitness offerings, holding some yoga classes is a solid initial choice. “At this point, I think most climbing gyms are offering yoga classes, but one way to promote and introduce yoga to the climbing community is through specialty workshops like Yoga for Climbers,” says Jessie Conrad. “Help them understand how it can be beneficial to their climbing in a sustainable way. And for something like yoga, you probably have instructors in your community who would love to teach a class or two.”

Latif agrees when speaking about pole fit classes: “Establish that pole-climbing connection,” she advises. “Having an instructor that climbs is a plus. Market your classes as ‘cross-training for climbing.’ Push it to people who love climbing and are looking for ways to improve.”

Latif says that every city has some sort of aerial fitness community—whether aerial silks, pole dancing, trapeze, acroyoga, or other cirque arts—and that enthusiasts are all connected, if a manager is willing to do a little networking. And when it comes to promotion, offering free classes can help expunge trepidation about a certain activity. “We offer free first classes, which is a great way to show people that pole is actually a fun way to change up their fitness routine,” says Latif. “Lots of people will say, ‘I don’t think I will like that. I don’t think that’s my thing.’ With a free first class, there’s nothing to lose by trying it. Word of mouth is huge too. You can bolster that with Bring a Friend for Free deals.”

Gonzales at Planet Rock specifies that there usually isn’t additional construction necessary for a gym to offer a silks class—two-way stretch silk can often be rigged safely from an exposed I-beam using a span set sling and a locking carabiner (and Planet Rock uses at least eight inches of floor padding). But she makes a point to mention that climbers’ confidence should be monitored when they try silks for the first time: “Although many climbers can do moves right away, it doesn’t mean that they are controlled and practiced,” she says. “The ability to perform a climb or pose within the first try does lull some practitioners into a false sense of security—‘If I can do this, then why not that?’ So having educated and quality instructors are a key part of developing a silks program. Maintaining a safe area in which to practice is also important. Just like a gym – fabrics, rigging and equipment need to be inspected before each class, rules and expectations managed for safe practices during class. That sort of thing.”

Conrad at Bridges Rock Gym advises managers to create a roster of multiple instructors in case the main teacher for one of the more unique classes gets sick or takes a vacation. And she says one of the best ways for managers to expand the fitness offerings—and meet potential instructors—is to actually go into the community and take various classes themselves—“get a feel” for the particular activity and see if classes would be appropriate at the gym. Also, she advises surveying gym members to see what type of classes they’d like to have offered, and possibly hold classes on a limited, trial-run basis to gauge interest and participation. Beyond that, managers should actively promote any tangential fitness programs.

“Give these classes the same amount of exposure you would for routesetting, comps, and any other climbing-related news and information in your gym and community—social media, etc.,” Conrad says. “This way you can give [the classes] a fighting chance to survive and have an impact!”

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