The Happiest Workout on Earth

A couple weeks ago my friend Courtney asked me if I wanted to go with her to Richard Simmons’ Saturday morning aerobics class called SWEAT in Beverly Hills. I had heard about this class for years and was always curious, though way too lazy to go by myself.  Now, with someone coming to pick me up, I had no excuse.  Plus, his studio is called “Richard Slimmons” so it was an obvious yes because I’m a sucker for clever names.

We got there an hour early like suggested with towels, sneakers and ponytails to boot.  The Richard Slimmons studio is in the heart of Beverly Hills; a large lobby and one large exercise room make up the space.  Pastel pink and blue walls, framed VHS tapes (that’s right), t-shirts on sale and letters that classes and fans have written to Richard decorate the lobby.  The very nice woman working at the desk looked like a throwback to the step aerobics teachers of the ’90s – tan tights, thick white socks and a leotard.  We loved her immediately.

We filled out the paperwork, paid our twelve dollars and waited with baited breath.  What do I know about Richard Simmons besides his “Dancing to the Oldies” series and his hilarious relationship with and frequent visits to Letterman?  Not much.  But I do know that the ’80s and ’90s had their fair share of fitness gurus, and most of them aren’t around anymore.  Remember Susan Powter? Tae Bo? Buns of Steel? I personally liked doing my mom’s Kathy Smith jazzercise tapes before school.   Where are these folks now? Not sure.  But Richard Simmons is still here, and not just here, but with literally a hundred or so people lining up every weekend for SWEAT – hence us having to show up at least one hour early.

When Richard arrived, I did a double take –  it’s a little hard to tell in the picture, but he was adorned in a unitard covered entirely fake leaves with bright orange tights and orange butterflies on each shoulder.  Thick white socks and sneakers along with his signature curly hair made the look complete.  Apparently he comes to class every weekend in a different one of these get-ups made by himself and a designer from Beverly Hills.  I wondered if some people attend every week just to see what he’s going to wear. I have a feeling he rarely disappoints.

There were almost a hundred people in the studio, bouncing up and down, clapping and so incredibly excited to get started.  I decided in that moment  I hated everyone – especially Courtney for making me come to this. I mean, who gets that excited over working out? Gross. There was barely any room to move and you had to stake your space quickly, but before I could make up an excuse to leave the building, the sweet sounds of ’80s contemporary adult hits started and we were off!

SWEAT is essentially an hour of cardio with weights and abs at the end.  As Richard started leading the warms ups, he said hi to people by name – obviously his regulars – who had claimed their spots right up front.  The first thing he said (shouted) to everyone was “I LOVE YOU GUYS, THANK YOU FOR COMING TODAY!” … Well, that was nice.  I’ve never had a workout teacher say they loved me, and guess what?  This sounds corny, but I could sort of tell he meant it.  I’ve never seen so many smiling faces doing cardio in my life.  And within four minutes or so, I became of those smiling dopes, too.

The workout itself is nothing out of the ordinary.  There were a lot of knee and leg lifts, grapevines, turning grapevines and step touches.  Your basic stuff.  It seemed pretty clear that Richard was making it up as he went along but it didn’t matter to anyone because he loved every second of it. Plus, the class lives up to its title – maybe it was the amount of bodies grapevining under that shiny disco ball, but I definitely did sweat. Picture people from all walks of life, all colors, way more men than I thought, people with tattoo sleeves, the overweight, the fit and the 90-year-old woman that’s been coming for decades, all intensely following a little man in a forest butterfly costume’s every move.  I’ve literally never seen anything like it, or frankly felt anything like it – just pure joy.  The best part was when Richard called out “Cruise ship!” and on cue, the class made a gigantic dance circle, Bar Mitzvah style.  Richard jumped in the middle and would choose people to come in the center and do the moves with him.  Everyone cheered each other on, everyone clapped and everyone was having fun.  It took my mind a while to register the fact that I was enjoying myself while working out, two things that have never gone together in my world.

It became crystal clear why Richard Simmons is still relevant and successful in 2012. His staying power is JOY and LOVE.  Fear doesn’t exist in that pink and blue pastel studio.  Every three moves or so Richard would scream at us, “I LOVE YOU PEOPLE!”  What?!  Most instructors yell at their classes to spin faster or go harder and they definitely don’t smile or wear forest nymph outfits.  At one point he yelled, “YOU ALL MAKE MY LIFE SO WONDERFUL!” and I have to admit, I got a little emotional.  To have a place where everyone at every weight and station of life is accepted, appreciated and encouraged is truly special. And in Beverly Hills, of all towns!

After class is over, Richard sticks around to oblige the long line of people who want to take pictures with him.  And as you can tell from my photo, he doesn’t just pose, he mugs for the camera like any great entertainer would.  He decided to eat my ponytail in our picture, gave me a hug and asked me if I had a boyfriend.  I said no and he reminded me that when I get one, I should make sure he has a steady job.  It was as if the ghost of my Jewish grandmother had invaded the forest nymph man creature for a moment.  Nanny?  Is that you?  He had similar suggestions and hugs for everyone, and I left knowing we were best friends – but I have a suspicion that everyone leaves there thinking that.

I can’t say SWEAT was the best or hardest cardio workout I’ve ever done, but I can say it made me happy – I was in an amazing mood the rest of the day and thanked Courtney for inviting me.  I haven’t gone back yet but I do want to. It’s at least a one time, must do experience for everyone that can make it, if just for his Lady GaGa-ish outfits alone.

The class is offered every Saturday  at 11:15am at the Richard Slimmons studio at 9306 Civic Center Drive in Beverly Hills. Twelve bucks (less than most bootcamp, pilates or yoga classes). Bring a towel , water and an open mind.

Photo by Courtney Pape

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