You’d think my only focus would be on executing the correct dance steps. They do not come naturally, as anyone can see. And yet, when I’m shaking it in one of Lem Houston’s cardiofunk classes at the Lake Norman YMCA, I end up pondering all sorts of things.
Like how Houston maintains his joyful energy, class after class, week after week. And whether I’ll ever learn to pop so it doesn’t look like I’m having a seizure.
Sometimes, I also wonder why I like the class so much. I’m a 54-year-old white woman, part of a demographic group not known for popping or locking. But it’s not just me: In cardiofunk classes all over this city, unhip women are attempting to drop it like it’s hot.
Aerobics classes that use hip-hop moves and music, or “a racy mixture of American black street dancing and rap,” as an Australian newspaper once described cardiofunk, have been around since the 1980s. In Charlotte these days, you can find such classes all over, in YMCAs and private clubs, in rec centers and even church gyms. They go by a variety of names, often with words such as “hip-hop,” “funk” and “urban.”
The recent popularity surge is national, boosted by reality dance shows and Latin-flavored Zumba classes, says Kathy Stevens, education director for the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.
In the Charlotte area, however, I’d argue that cardiofunk’s popularity reflects more than a national trend. It fills a longing. Our city boasts tree canopies and family friendliness and world classiness. But we suffer from a lack of cool. We yearn to get down. And by we, I mean people like me.
Houston, 39, may be Charlotte’s most popular cardiofunk teacher. Each week, he leads 10 or more classes in gyms from Mooresville to Fort Mill, drawing hundreds of students, some of whom follow him from place to place, like fans trailing the Grateful Dead.
“Lem created a movement here. There's no doubt about it,” says Nancy Jones, fitness coordinator at the Dowd YMCA.
As you would guess, he’s fit and trim – 5-feet-11, 190 pounds. He’s also unassuming, especially considering he gets his share of flirty female attention. He usually teaches in gym shorts, a T-shirt and a scully – a stretchy skull cap he wears to keep sweat from dripping down his face. “I sweat like a beast,” he says.
Just moving our bodies
When it’s time for class to start, Houston doesn’t bother with dance-step previews. He just plugs his iPod into the sound system and we’re off. Often, he begins by jumping, twisting and clapping to “Move Your Body,” Beyonce’s celebration of physical exertion:
Don’t just stand there on the wall
Everybody, just move your body
Houston provides a more strenuous workout than many hip-hop classes, Jones says. He builds choreography on aerobic moves – jumps, kicks, skips, squats – but includes enough hip-hop swagger to make a gal feel funky. In one song, we casually brush off our shoulders, the universal sign, according to Urban Dictionary, for It ain’t no thing. In another, we fan ourselves, because, hey, we’re hot, and not only because some of us are menopausal.
I’ve been doing cardiofunk for about 18 months, ever since I wandered into one of the first classes Houston taught at the Lake Norman Y in Cornelius. My performance that evening wasn’t pretty, but I had fun, and Houston assured the class we were burning at least 500 calories, and so I returned.
As did others. Weeks passed. The class grew to 30 people, then 60, then more than 70. I noted our diversity: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, a mix of middle-aged women, 20-somethings, teenagers, a few men. It was the most diverse exercise class I’d ever attended.
Often, I puzzled over song lyrics, especially one tune – I’ve got to move my jacket. I’ve got to move my jacket. My daughter finally set me straight. It was Maroon 5 singing about having “moves like Jagger.” Which made more sense than the jacket thing.
Other class members were similarly clueless. An over-50 friend assumed that Usher’s “Hey Daddy” described a father returning home to his children. This friend also announced “That’s my favorite piece!” when we danced to Nicki Minaj’s “Pound the Alarm.” As if she were attending a piano recital.
While we sweated, Houston always worked the room, dancing one-on-one with people, delivering high-fives and big smiles. I loved watching how people interpreted his moves. I imagined dancing like the woman in front of me who exuded cool nonchalance. Me, I have a different style, one that involves the sort of facial concentration you display while solving a calculus problem.
As months passed, I’d hear class members describe cardiofunk as the highlight of their week. One said she arranged her work schedule around the class. People arrived 15 minutes early to stand outside the door and rush in as soon as the previous class exited. My friend broke out a few moves for her college-aged sons.
Classmates also shared gossip. Someone told me Houston used to be fat. Another said he had a job as a banker. A banker! I decided to find out. I also decided that Funky Banker would be a great name for a band.
I met Houston in June in an uptown coffee shop for an interview. Earlier that day, he told me, he’d learned that he was being laid off from his job as a foreclosure prevention team manager at Bank of America.
He added, quickly, that he was fine with it. He knew layoffs were coming and had volunteered to be among the first to go. He had decided to become a full-time fitness instructor, doing personal training and boot camp-style classes as well as cardiofunk. He already had a company name and website: energyve.com.
Houston is a self-taught dancer. As a kid, he spent hours in his basement in Colorado Springs, Colo., watching videos and imitating all sorts of break dancing and hip-hop. But it was just a hobby. After high school, he went to community college, got a job, then became a massage therapist.
He moved to Charlotte in 1999, married in 2000 and had a daughter. He worked for a couple of corporations and also as a part-time massage therapist at Myers Park Country Club.
But in 2007, his life hit a rough patch. First, he and his wife divorced. Then, in 2009, he left a job to try day trading, sinking his savings into the venture.
“I lost everything,” he said. About that time, “the girl I was dating, she left.” He laughed and shook his head at the memory.
Exercise helped him cope. He began running and lifting weights. And he became a regular in Andre Hairston’s hip-hop-inspired cardio classes.
By 2010, Houston’s life was beginning to look up. He had a new job, and by midyear had dropped more than 30 pounds, from 223 to under 190. He still keeps a photo of his chubbier self on his iPhone.
The dance classes, Houston decided, were more fun than running. They also became a source of new friendships. “We’d call each other up. The plan is to go to cardiofunk, right? It was great experience for me to be engaged and get a workout.”
Releasing closet gangstas
In 2011, Houston decided he wanted to teach, to inspire people to get fit the way he’d been inspired. He earned his group exercise certification and began choreographing, drawing on his boyhood favorites – M.C. Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Michael Jackson. He led classes at a couple of smaller places before getting what you might call his big break, an audition at the Gateway YMCA.
When he finished teaching his audition class, Nancy Jones, then the Gateway YMCA’s fitness coordinator, hired him on the spot. She scheduled him for noon Friday and Saturday mornings. Both were usually slow times, but Houston drew a crowd. “If you bring Lem,” she says, “they will follow.”
People enjoy cardiofunk for many reasons. Brian Lopez grew up dancing hip-hop in New York. Now he lives in Union County and works in commodities at Wells Fargo. Yes, he’s a funky banker. He’s also married with young twins. “I’m not going out to a club any time soon,” he says. “This is my club experience.”
Glenda Birkner, who works in the mortgage industry, has lost about 80 pounds since starting Houston’s cardiofunk classes in mid-2011. “When you find something you love to do, you keep doing it,” she says. “I’m at a healthy weight. That’s my stress reliever. He’s cheaper than a therapist.”
Some people also find it thrilling, even transgressive, to gyrate to Kanye and Rihanna and Nelly when that’s not what anyone would expect them to do. “I always say I’m like a closet gangsta,” says Ashley Cates, a 33-year-old un-gangsta-like pharmaceutical representative.
And in a city where parts of town feel really white, some people appreciate the diversity that cardiofunk attracts. “It’s just a time where everybody’s on the same playing field no matter where they come from or what they look like,” says Dion Lim, a WCNC/NBC news anchor. “It’s really liberating. It really is something Charlotte needs.”
Do we twerk?
Houston’s gift is that he can smile and slap a high five and make the most rhythm-challenged woman believe, if only for a moment, that she is looking fly. Really, I don’t know how the man keeps a straight face.
My over-50 friend turned to me before class recently. She had just discovered twerking, thanks to Miley Cyrus’ performance.
“Let me know if we twerk tonight,” she said.
Sure thing, I told her. Then I got to thinking. Do I even know if we twerk?
Later, Houston informed me that we do, just for a couple seconds, when we dance to Usher’s “OMG.”
We’d been twerking for months. We just didn’t realize it.
Kelley: 704 358-5271.
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