A step away from Fridays…

My final Friday with Bob.
My final Friday with Bob.

“Happy Friday!”

My step aerobics instructor called out his traditional end-of-the-week greeting before beginning the warm-up.

And then he added, somewhat softly:

“For the last time.”

Bob had informed us a few weeks ago, once he had come to grips with the loss, that this Friday would be the last. Next week, a new class, Body Combat, will take the place of the step aerobics class that has been a Friday feature at the health club for about 15 years. A “fiercely energetic program … inspired by martial arts disciplines such as karate, boxing, taekwondo, tai chi and muay thai” will replace Bob’s creative advanced step moves. He will continue teaching step on Monday and Wednesday mornings, but dwindling numbers have called for the replacement of the Friday class.

I began attending this advanced step aerobics class about 11 years ago, at the advice of my weekend instructor of a basic step class. My now 17-year-old senior had just finished first grade. I was one week away from my summer break from teaching; one week of teacher post planning and I would be free. I started immediately and fell in love.

Bob’s class was unlike any other class I had taken previously. While he called common step moves, they comprised intricate patterns that were tricky. While I knew the basics, this was so much more. The patterns were challenging; they moved quickly, and I both failed and succeeded quickly as well. I had moments of embarrassment, feeling completely lost, and moments of personal glory, mastering the new moves. When my first class was over, a few of the regular attenders came over to tell me I did well, as did Bob. I felt welcomed and encouraged — and determined to learn the routines.

Once Bob knew my name, I was in trouble. He had no problem whatsoever calling out “Sara” to draw my attention to a move I had found difficult previously. (He still does, 11 years later.) He allowed me to arrive before class for tutoring sessions to learn some of the steps, and if he noticed I was having difficulty with a pattern, he would park himself on the floor in front of me during class to make sure I had a front-row step for learning it. Any embarrassment I might have felt quickly evaporated as I became aware how much Bob cared, and I made mental note of his teaching style to employ with my own students.

If you were new, it was best to start Bob’s class on a Monday. On Mondays, Bob would use a selection of his routines; if new people were in class, he would be sure to go a bit slower and repeat the patterns until students picked them up. On Wednesdays, Bob would add a routine to that selection, remaining conscious and considerate of newer attendees. But on Fridays, Bob let loose. Woe to the newbie! He would increase the tempo and flow through the routines. Once I had gained some confidence, Fridays were my favorite; they also seemed to draw in crowds of those who liked a challenge. The exercise room would be packed.

My classmates were raucous, yelling out certain calls or responding to Bob’s calls, but they were kind; I quickly considered them friends and found within the relationships motivation to become a regular myself. Unfortunately, I knew that summer would end and so would my ability to attend Bob’s class.

At this time, my daughter had graduated from the private, Christian school where I taught and was enrolled in a K-12 Christian school for 9th grade in the fall. My two younger sons and I would continue at the other Christian school; the older of the two would be in 7th grade, and I would be the middle school teacher. The school had changed location two years prior without consulting the students’ families, and disgruntled parents had chosen to leave the school, often influencing others to leave as well. It was a painful time, and enrollment was still gravely impacted.

My youngest son happened to attend a Vacation Bible School at the school where my daughter was enrolled for fall, and he had Mrs. Nelson, the second grade teacher, as his teacher. At the end of VBS, Adam said to me, “Mommy, I want Mrs. Nelson to be my teacher next year.”

“Well,” I said. “Then you better pray for a miracle. We are already enrolled at another school, and Mrs. Nelson’s class here is full.”

Likewise, I was praying for a way to continue to attend Bob’s class. Within weeks, everything changed.

First, my school contacted me to let me know that my position as a middle school teacher had been eliminated due to diminishing numbers. My son A.J. would have to attend elsewhere, and when I was offered a combined 5th/6th grade class, I decided I would have to go elsewhere too. When I left my school that morning, I drove immediately to the Academy, where my daughter was enrolled. I asked for a job; I was hired on the spot. The school had space in 7th grade for A.J., and because I was teaching, Mrs. Nelson’s class could be expanded to include one more child. Mine. Adam had his miracle.

And my new schedule would allow me to continue attending Bob’s class.

Bob and his students have become like family to me at the health club. We greet each other; we keep tabs on each other’s whereabouts; we require “excused” absences and harass each other lovingly when we miss; we’ve shared in sorrows and joys. At Christmastime, we students secretly gather together cash to buy Bob a group gift. On Bob’s anniversary for teaching our class, he religiously blesses us with some gift — chocolate-covered strawberries, bubble bath, candles, foot lotion — though I’m fairly certain we should be congratulating him.

Through the years, I have had to adjust my morning schedule, sometimes attending the class one day a week, sometimes skipping for a month or so to give my knees or back a break (or prevent them from breaking), but I always consider myself a regular (and I always got “excused” from Bob prior to being absent). From what I can tell, the step classes are the last bastion to “home-made” teaching at the health clubs. The Body Combat classes — like the Zumba, Body Flow, and Body Pump classes — are what we teachers call “canned” curriculum. Routines are created commercially, shared via video with teachers, who then use them for about three months before the next batch of routines are created, taught, and used. I’m not saying the classes don’t have value; I’m just saying Bob’s an original, his choreography is his own creation, and I’m sad to see the more teacher-unique classes going away.

I know popularity drives exercise classes, and that types of classes come and go. That Bob’s class has remained a fixture in early morning prime time is a tribute to the quality of class it is. And he still rules on Mondays and Wednesdays; I just hope the loss of Fridays inspires more to attend so these are not lost as well.

Yesterday, as Bob led us through his portfolio of patterns instead of the usual chosen few, it was a happy Friday. It was a celebration of what was, but it was also the end of an era. And that is the hard part.

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