Swing, Shimmy, Sweat: Exercising Off the Beaten Path
Come November, a familiar jog or bike ride around New England streets can start to feel a little lonely. Where are the neighbors, fellow health nuts, and eager leaf-peepers? And is wind chill some kind of cruel punishment designed to keep dutiful exercisers from getting in their morning cardio? But the unique athletic energy of local rural life doesn’t fade away in winter. It just moves indoors (or to the slopes). Non-skiers seeking a little extra workout motivation this season can check out fitness options off the beaten path — and mingle with their not-so-long-lost neighbors in the bargain. Whether you’re twirling down a contra line with a brand-new dance partner, channeling your inner Gypsy Rose Lee while bumping and grinding at a burlesque class, or striking a warrior pose in a heated yoga studio, these high-spirited activities are guaranteed to get your heart pumping and help stave off seasonal ennui.
Cut a Rug
For a workout that feels more like a lively neighborhood party, try contra dancing, a traditional English country dance that’s been popular in northeastern New England for centuries. Not only does the fast-paced waltzing, stomping, and do-si-doing guarantee that you’ll work up a sweat in a matter of minutes: by the time the evening’s over, you’ll know everyone in the room. “It’s very social and community-oriented,” says Margaret Carlson, who organizes a contra dance the first Saturday of every month at Morris Memorial Hall in Chatham. Since contra dancers work their way down a line pairing off with other couples and often swap partners, Carlson says, “You don’t just dance with your partner, you dance with everyone.”
On a recent Saturday at Morris Memorial Hall, caller Nils Fredland led a packed room through the “Coconut Cream Pie,” a line dance done in groups of four, and taught moves like “duck for the oyster, dive for the clam” (an elaborate version of London Bridge) that culminated in a massive group circle as nearly one hundred people ducked under one another’s arms. Infectious Celtic- and Appalachian- inspired music by house band The Russet Trio made it impossible to sit out a dance.
In attendance were hoofers from all walks of life and experience levels, from families with young children to expert old-timers to twenty-something newbies. Since plenty of people go contra dancing solo or with friends, there’s no need to bring a partner. And with an additional monthly series in Lenox and Cornwall, chances are that most weekends, a contra dance is just a stone’s throw away. All that’s required are a pair of soft-soled shoes, an affable mood, and maybe some Dramamine—all that spinning can make you dizzy. Keeping eye contact helps, as does the move called “balance your partner,” a simple forward-back step that makes the world settle into place before you go whirling toward a new pair of arms.
Vamp It Up
“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world,” reigning burlesque queen Dita Von Teese once said, “and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” But don’t sweat the haters: Burlesque, a dance form equal parts brassy and seductive, encourages women to stop striving for unattainable ideals and start celebrating the bodies that they’ve got.
That’s certainly the ethos of the Diamond Street Dames workout classes held in the spacious, wood-beamed second floor of Club Helsinki in Hudson every Wednesday night. Burlesque dancer duo Brittany Thibeault and Kacey Quirk, also known as Moaning Lisa and Cocoa Channel, blast beginners through a sequence of chair work, sashays, kicks, and hip swirls. The classes offer a one-two punch of aerobic workout and girly glamour. Women show up with yoga mats and feather boas, sports bras and fishnets. All this helps inspire the kind of confidence and charisma that really sets hearts racing.
“Burlesque is really about finding out what you have inside,” says Thibeault, who’s been performing for 12 years. “The inner you who comes out sometimes after a few drinks of wine — that’s what we want to pull out of each woman.” The class’s safe, supportive environment draws even the shyest members out of their shells. One recent evening, each woman performed a saucy chair solo to Joe Cocker’s “Come Together” to resounding hooting and hollering.
In keeping with burlesque’s all-embracing attitude, the class draws a diverse mix of women: gay and straight, youngsters and middle-aged moms, size 0s and size 18s. “It’s not one size fits all,” Thibeault says, “It’s about the femme sexpot that’s in each of us.” To that end, dancers are encouraged to invent their own burlesque characters, complete with backstories, costumes, and quirks. They’ll have the chance to strut their stuff onstage at Helsinki’s community cabaret show in January. And this December, they’ll be learning the art of posing at their first professional photo shoot. To help the fledgling vixens get ready for their close-ups, performer Ophelia Nightly swung by after class on Wednesday to show them the tricks of the trade: how to shape a perfect cat eye, style vintage pin curls, and swipe bronzer over cleavage to boost a B-cup to a D-cup. Afterward, all were invited to traipse downstairs for another mid-week tradition: a glass of wine, a little night music, and the camaraderie that comes from helping each other discover they’ve all got ample va-va-voom.
Go With the Flow
In the Berkshires, yoga mats are nearly as common an accessory as a purse or a pair of sunglasses — a sign that the region is well-stocked with opportunities to twist, stretch, and salute the sun. But Radiance Yoga in Pittsfield (right, photo by Preston/Schlebusch), founded by owners Gillian Gorman and Scott Moraes in summer 2011, brings something new to the table. Practitioners limber up in balmy temperatures that range from the mid-70s to the mid-80s — warm enough to expand tense muscle tissue and get detoxifying sweat flowing, but not so hot that summertime in Miami starts sounding like a breezy alternative. The studio also stands out from the pack by offering Vinyasa yoga, which emphasizes fluid movements between poses, as an alternative to the Berkshires’ more dominant style of Kripalu.
At a Saturday morning Beginner Flow class, Gorman’s gentle, encouraging manner and clear corrections kept yogis motivated through downward dogs and pigeon poses. Her expertise as a trained massage therapist came through in firm re-alignments and quick but soothing temple massages. After class, there was plenty of bonding in the changing room as yogis commiserated over stretches that introduced heretofore unknown muscle groups like the mysterious left hamstring.
Radiance Yoga also offers specialty classes beyond Vinyasa, including Rockin’ Vinyasa, which gives yoga flow a high-energy jolt with hip-hop and rock music, and MELT Restorative, a self-massage technique that helps practitioners target and soothe trouble areas. Thanks to the warm atmosphere, yogis can count on leaving class refreshed, invigorated, and toasty enough that they may not even notice the winter chill. —Sarah Todd
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