Shake it or die"Let's get going!" booms our instructor, Ms. Koh, a hard-bodied 20-something with the energy of a kid on chocolate.
In front of Ms. Koh stands a room full of middle-aged women -- and a 26-year-old reporter. We have gathered for the morning dance aerobics class at a health club in Yongsan. This is my first time in aerobics and I am petrified to find that -- gasp! -- I am in with a group of women who could be my mother and or even grandmother, and who seem in a lot better shape than I am.
Maybe worst of all, the walls of the room are floor-to-ceiling mirrors.
Ticked off at my editor for sending me here, I feel gawky and embarrassed because I don't know any of the dance routines. Even though a slight bulge in my lower abdomen is covered by a baggy T-shirt, there’s no hiding my awkward footwork. I feel like a fish trying to walk on a frozen pond.
The ajumma nearby seem to be telling me that it’s all right. They glance at me and smile, even nodding approval at my apparent bravery.
From Ms. Koh, it’s a different story. “All right, newcomer!” she thunders. “Time get to work!”
With a gulp, I look down at the gleaming wooden floor.
Soon the music blares loudly and we begin to move. Or rather, the ajumma do. The first song is a pepped-up version of "California Dreamin’,” to which Ms. Koh shouts unintelligible cadences. Some women close to Ms. Koh are alarmingly good, dancing in almost perfect harmony. The song rattles my eardrums. I wonder if loud music and a loud voice can help me shed calories.
The choreography is slow for the first five minutes, then the music changes to 1980s disco. I look around and find that half the women in the class are wearing shorts and a T-shirt, the normal attire at this health club. The other half wear ridiculously gaudy leotards and spandex. One woman, who appears to be more than 50, is wearing a shiny, glow-in-the-dark yellow leotard with cobalt and pink flowery designs and a pair of blue leg warmers over her black spandex. I stare, for I haven't seen leg warmers since Suzanne Somers’ ThighMaster infomercials of the early 1990s. I am stunned to find they exist in Korea.
The faces of the participants express excited determination. A few women in the back of the room, me included, stumble now and then, and wear looks of frustration.
As I scan the room, Ms. Koh barks at me: “Concentrate! Look here and follow the steps.” An ajumma smiles. I swear I hear her mumble, “You’re doing fine, dearie.”
Fifteen minutes later, Ms. Koh changes the tape to a faster song -- the Korean pop singer Park Jin-young's "She Was Pretty." This results in some funky and sensual dance moves that I find impossibly hard to follow. I begin to perspire heavily as the routine gets more intense. I keep stumbling but I want to do well. Arrrgh. I’m so outta shape.
Hip-hop, jazz, and a pop music medley follow, boosting my enthusiasm in a strange but welcoming way. Meanwhile, Ms. Koh grunts louder: "Ha! Left and right! All together now!" During numbers, she yells to the ajumma, “Ma-mbo!" and slaps her hips like a gypsy. The ajumma repeats "Ma-mbo," and thrusts her hips this way and that while repeating the slapping sound.
As time passes, I am amazed to find myself smiling as I dance. I can actually feel the beat. Alongside me is an ajumma who is soaked in sweat but otherwise seems unfatigued. She wears a bandage around her knee to absorb the shock when she jumps up and down. I get tired looking at her.
After about 40 minutes of jumping, whirling and kicking, there is five-minute "cool down," allowing the class to stretch on the floor. Ms. Koh, not breathing hard, shouts, "What's worse than not coming to aerobics class? Not participating!"
Where does she get the drive? I feel like I’m about to die.
Forty minutes later, Ms. Koh announces that it's time for final stretching. The ajumma strut across the room to pull out gym mats. Some wipe sweat from their faces with towels. I watch a woman perhaps 30 years older than me sit down on a mat, push her legs in front of her and casually grab her toes.
When I try it, I make it halfway. Suddenly Ms. Koh appears. To force me forward, she sits on my back and I let out a whimper. Though I am the youngest here, I am the least flexible.
As the group stretches as one, Ms. Koh calls out "Two, five, seven, eight, stop.” I have no idea why she doesn’t count in a normal fashion and I’m scared to ask. Because I haven't brought a towel with me, perspiration floods my face. When I get up to leave, Ms. Koh bellows, "Where are you going? We're not done yet."
“I’m late . . . ” I murmur and rush for the door. Catching up with me, an ajumma hands me a yogurt drink. I thank her and head for the locker room. Moments later, the ajumma enter the sauna and chat merrily, talking about how much a singer’s wife left him when she died in January, how rude daughters-in-laws are, how hard it is to lose two grams.
As I leave the gym, two ajumma stop me. “We hope to see you again,” one says. “It’s nice having young people in dance.”
Then suddenly Ms. Koh shows up. “No more baggy shirts and shorts,” she says. “Get yourself a real aerobics suit. Like the one the actress Lee Young-ae wears.”
"Do I need spandex or leg warmers?" I ask.
"They're for the older generation,” she says. “You and me, we gotta wear young attire." She puts an arm around me and tells me what a good job I’ve done -- for a beginner.
That’s a lot better than being dead.
Over last 3 decades, a lot of leotards
Aerobics, a series of movements conceived in 1969 by the U.S. dancer Jackie Sorenson, arrived in Korea in 1974 when Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a cardiovascular specialist, was invited to give a lecture by the Korea YMCA on the benefits of a new form of intense exercise.
A year later, Lee Young-sook, 70, the current president of the Korean Aerobics Association, started teaching aerobics at Sangmyung University's physical education department, which signaled the acceptance of the activity.
"Aerobics, which was created as an answer to the boredom found in running, is different from the workout regimen started by Jane Fonda in the early 1980s,” says Ms. Lee. “It is a more scientific and systematic exercise that helps to boost the overall health of both young and old.”
Aerobics became widely popular in the 1980s as private gyms began opening everywhere on the peninsula. In the beginning, the choreography and music was influenced by the American aerobics style, but later Korean counterparts came up with a unique style of dance and music, adding Korean pop rhythms.
The Korea Aerobic Association -- different from Ms. Lee’s group -- was established in 1980 to train professional aerobics instructors. Since then, countless private associations related to aerobics have been established in the country.
Women young and old resolved to get in shape. The 1988 Olympics boosted aerobics here by sparking a national interest in fitness. Diverse kinds of aerobics -- not recognized by aerobics specialists -- became widespread, blurring the lines of dance and sports. In the 1990s, the fervor died down as people saw aerobics as more of a fun dance endeavor than a sport to help people get in shape or lose weight.
In December 2001, the Korea Aerobic Association came up with a "grade system" that emphasized the importance of teaching aerobics according to various skill levels.
Choreography of aerobic dances is created by instructors and taught at the association or other aerobic institutions. "Generally a warm-up is followed by a cool-down, which enables the body to become fit and healthy effectively," says Ms. Lee. Usually, it takes three months of training to become a certified instructor. There is no copyright issue related to choreography or music.
Special aerobics programs now exist for adolescents, pregnant women, toddlers and elders. Seoul’s two California Fitness Centers offer more than 30 kinds of aerobics classes, from power step to body combat.
Aerobics competition will be held at the 22d Universiade, to be staged in Daegu this August.
Aerobics attire, sometimes ridiculed for its tight-fitting styles, has moved from spandex and leotards to sports bras and tight cotton shorts. "The reason for the tight-fitting clothes is to make people more aware of their bodies,” says Choi Young-han, secretary general of the Korea Aerobic Association. “Both men and women need to see where they ought to get rid of fat. And they need to see the changes while they do aerobics."
by Choi Jie-ho