I’m one of three men and 30 women awaiting direction at the start of a Saturday morning Zumba class, the group fitness program that combines Latin and World music with hip-hop dance moves. Judging from the leg warmers and fuchsia halter tops, there are no straight men in the room, myself included. Like everyone else, I’m here to sweat; but I’ve also come to investigate a bigger question: Why are group fitness classes so gendered?
“Shimmy!” shrieks Chellie Thomas, our enthusiastic instructor, as Jennifer Lopez’s “Dance Again” erupts from the overhead speakers. On cue, the entire class leans back and shimmies their shoulders a la Hillary Clinton at a 2016 presidential debate, thereby answering the above question within the first 10 seconds: Because it’s really fucking emasculating to shimmy your shoulders like Hillary Clinton at a 2016 presidential debate.
When the track flips, the entire class (minus one intrepid reporter with two left feet) starts “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in a seemingly rehearsed Afro-Cuban salsa routine, which every so often elicits an “oooo-wee, oooo-wee!” from the crowd. I shoot a glance at one of the other two Y chromosome in the room — a middle-aged guy in the front row — expecting him to be similarly hapless. No such luck. In fact, he’s got some of the room’s fiercest moves and is responsible for the falsetto yelling.
Defeated 20 minutes in, I take a knee and watch the rest of class from the back of the room, resolving to hit the elliptical in the morning.
Afterward, I compliment the guy — a 53-year-old executive assistant at a major film studio named Jim Molinaro, who says he never misses Saturday morning Zumba with Thomas. He did musical theater back in high school, which he credits with being able to pick up the routines so quickly. “Most men don’t view Latin dancing as exercise,” the Wisconsin nativesays, proudly displaying his sweat-drenched shirt. “Guys tell me they’d rather get their cardio by running on a stationary machine for 45 minutes. I think this is way more fun.”
Thomas has been teaching Zumba for seven years and also trains instructors at the American Fitness and Aerobics Association in L.A., where she promises they don’t actively encourage instructors to exclude men from group fitness classes. “It’s just that guys are scared of looking uncoordinated and are too embarrassed to put in the work,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s an ego thing: Nobody likes doing things they’re not good at.” (This is exactly why I’ve vowed to never attend another Zumba class.) On the flip side, Thomas explains that women want to connect and build relationships, and are often uncomfortable around gym equipment. Thus, a group fitness class feels safer since they likely have plenty of experience dancing with friends. Men, on the other hand, feel more at home around weights since they probably learned to bench press in high school and are confident they won’t screw it up and look stupid.
Group exercise — aka “the quest to not look stupid” — has been gendered for millenia. Yoga was developed by Hindu priests 5,000 years ago and remained a male-only practice until Indra Devi — the “first lady of yoga” — was accepted to study under Sri Krishnamacharya in the early part of the 20th century. Meanwhile, Catherine Beecher, an American educator in the 1800s, devised fitness programs and calisthenics specifically to meet the needs of women. By the 1930s, though, many of those women were homebound with young children and unable, unwilling or forbidden to publicly exercise. It wasn’t until the arrival of a handsome, charismatic 5-foot-6 bodybuilder named Jack LaLanne that this began to change.
The Jack LaLanne Show started broadcasting nationally in 1959. Designed specifically for stay-at-home moms (or “girls” as he called them), LaLane taught modified, repetitive workouts using household appliances like chairs, books, towels and broomsticks. He spoke directly to the camera — “I consider myself your personal physical instructor and health consultant coming into your home every day,” and “Please keep your dial right where it is because I want to become real good friends with you” — encouraging his female audience to stay active and learn the science of eating right from the comfort of their living rooms.
About a decade later, in the late 1960s, when health clubs were mostly male, a dancer named Jacki Sorensen created “Aerobic Dancing” for other Air Force wives on the Puerto Rico base where she and her husband was stationed. Returning to the mainland, Sorensen’s playful brand of fitness choreography attracted legions of followers, and she launched a fashion line featuring her signature “stretch white shorts” and “support pantyhose.” In 1969, another dancer named Judi Sheppard Missett devised Jazzercise, an hourlong group fitness class comprised of cardio, strength and stretch moves that incorporated elements of jazz dance and kickboxing.
“That was the beginning of group fitness classes specifically designed for women,” says Pirkko Markula, professor of socio-cultural studies of physical activity at the University of Alberta and a group fitness instructor herself. Sorenson and Missett were frustrated by the dirge of outlets for women to get fit, Markula tells me, and both believed fitness programs for women had to include music and had to be fun. “That’s been ingrained in people ever since,” she says: “Fitness classes with music and dance are for women.”
The same for body image-related support groups. In September 1961, a 214-pound housewife named Jean Nidetch called a group of friends over to her house and confessed that eating cookies was her obsession. The friends not only understood, they shared their own “Food Frankensteins” at weekly meetings at Nidtech’s house. The “Weight Watchers” meetings took off, going from every week to multiple times a day. Nidetch incorporated the business in 1963, and two years later, she began exporting franchises worldwide.
Jane Fonda’s Workout in the 1980s cemented the notion of music and dance-based fitness programs being primarily a female pursuit, eventually selling 17 million copies and becoming the most popular home-exercise video of all time. Fonda’s choreographed routines were demonstrated by a number of other women, with only one or two men tucked away in the back, back row.
Gendered or not, there are plenty of critics of group fitness classes. “Group fitness has a culture that favors volume and perceived intensity over correct technique,” explains Jeff Jalaba, a personal trainer in L.A. who cautions that without proper technique, much of what’s done in these classes is more harmful than helpful, noting that while it may create quick changes in the body, Zumba et al aren’t designed to make a lasting impact.
Sam Dworkin, MEL’s senior designer, says his disdain for group fitness stems from a burning desire not to be bothered in the gym. “Working out is a form of meditation for me,” he explains. “After a long day of work, I don’t want to Jazzercise or faux-compete with amped-up strangers in a mock Tour de France. Leave me alone, please.”
I audited a handful of other group exercise classes at my gym — pilates, yoga, “booty blast,” etc. — and invariably the female-to-male ratio persisted, roughly 10-to-1. I ask the general manager, Robert Crosby, why that is, and he explains that there are four kinds of people who go to the gym:
- Members who dislike working out, but understand it’s necessary to achieve aesthetic or health goals.
- Members who know exactly what they’re looking for and don’t require assistance or coaching.
- Members who appreciate all aspects of the gym — group classes, cardio, personal training, strength training, etc. — and likely have multiple memberships elsewhere.
- Members who only participate in group classes.
Group four is predominantly made up of women, Crosby says, because — echoing what Thomas told me earlier — they’re looking for caloric burn in a safe, cardio-based environment and welcome a “family” dynamic. “That’s why more and more women, young and old, are flocking to CrossFit having never set foot in a gym before,” he says.
This surprises me. Given man’s predilection for pumping iron, I expected CrossFit — which incorporates competitive high-intensity interval training and Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting — to be the one group fitness program men would favor more than women. I’m not necessarily wrong, though. As Jessica Suver, a veteran CrossFit coach in L.A. tells me, statistically the gym is only 35 percent female. But Crosby isn’t wrong either — i.e., that number is growing steadily, Suver says, due to “a support group that doesn’t exist when you put on headphones and stand on an elliptical for two hours. Some women find friends for life at CrossFit. Others find husbands.”
Still, I’m determined to sweat in a room with more dudes than ladies (story of my gay life). And so, I find what looks to be the most badass class on my discount 24-hour gym’s schedule: Body Combat! “This martial arts-inspired full-body workout helps deliver superior fitness, strength and coordination,” the description reads. “Punch and kick your way to fitness with moves from Karate, Taekwondo, Boxing, Muay Thai, Capoeira and Kung Fu.”
But alas, the gender ratio is exactly the same — the whole thing resembles a Rockettes rehearsal more than a boxing ring. The only difference is this time I’m showed up by a female septuagenarian instead of a middle-aged bald guy. “My classes are definitely more female,” explains Owen Alabado, the class’s instructor, who thinks it’s because women embrace rhythm, while men avoid it. Like me, Alabado says he gets lots of men drawn to the class because of the name. “When I tell them it’s a mixed martial arts class, guys get excited because they think it sounds bad-ass. But if you’re not a dancer or somebody who moves well, these classes aren’t for you.”
Not that they don’t have ideas on how to make them better. In addition to leading the class in a series of jabs, foot sweeps and roundhouse kicks, Alabado incorporates motivational speaking in the middle of class — e.g., revamping your life, starting from scratch, overcoming obstacles. “A lot of males come up to me after class and give me advice on better quotes to use or books to reference, which I never get from females. Women will come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for helping me.’ Men will say, ‘Y’now it’d be a lot better if you used this quote instead.”