Make Fitness Fun

Sarasota's Best Fitness Classes

Why not break out of your exercise rut and try something completely new?

By Susan Chitwood January 16, 2020

January 2020. New year. New month. New decade. Why not break out of your fitness rut and try something completely new? No risk, no reward, no fun. Here are eight fresh ideas to reinvigorate your body, mind and spirit.

Swing Through the Air on a Flying Trapeze. Really.

Circus arts require a certain theatricality. And in the case of the flying trapeze, that performance starts 25 feet up a small ladder just to reach the platform. (Who said anything about jumping off!?)

It’s perfectly OK to get stuck, frozen with fear. It happens, says Andres Leon, training programs coach at the Circus Arts Conservatory. One woman in her late 40s quavered for 20 minutes, twice, after reaching launching position. But her third class was the charm, and off she sailed over the abyss—and a net. “She loved it,” Leon recalls. “She was elated, screaming. It was crazy.” He’s even had an 85-year-old student he calls “amazing.”

Scared or not, all students warm up and practice on the ground before ascending the ladder. And pull-ups on a bar are required. If you can’t hang on, you don’t fly.  Students also “fall,” although at first that means a slow descent into the net. With time come the knee hangs, the back flips, and eventually letting go of the fly bar and connecting to the catch bar on the other side. All safe, Leon says, because practitioners are always connected to safety devices.

While the trapeze builds your lats and shoulders, tightens the core and tones arms and legs, and provides an incredible rush, it offers so much more, says Leon. “Some people treat it like a bucket-list item. But whether it’s a one-time excitement or something enduring, you get to create this amazing art form.”  Sailor Circus Arena, 2075 Bahia Vista St., Sarasota;

Concentration at the ballet barre aids mental and physical health.

Image: Gene Pollux

Adult Ballet for Beginners

If you’re looking for a workout that trains brain and body and incorporates beautiful music, adult ballet classes offer a refreshing change from the gym. Easy, it is not. Underneath the façade of grace professional dancers project is a rock-hard foundation of strength.

Nonetheless, ballet for adults is entirely accessible, promises Christopher Hird, director of education at the Sarasota Ballet. “Basically, ballet is for everybody. It’s really attainable.” Not to mention addictive. One adult student traveled from Tampa to Sarasota to attend classes, until she persuaded her husband to move to St. Petersburg. Now a mere 36 miles away, she sometimes visits twice daily.

Part of the attraction is the concentration ballet demands. Remembering steps requires total focus, something many find meditative. In the Absolute Beginners classes, Hird gives easy-to-follow instructions on how to stand and the positions of the feet. After warming up, students spend 45 minutes at the barre practicing basic steps, before moving to the center of the room, where they carefully learn turns and small jumps.

Class ends with students moving across the floor, in a traveling step like a Polonaise, a simple folk-dance movement. This way, students can feel what it’s like to really dance. “Emote,” Hird urges his Thursday night class of 10 women and two men. 1400 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota;

Or try this: The class format is the same at the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School, which offers three levels of adult ballet. For those who have had no ballet, however, SCBS offers a bonus: dance conditioning. Artistic director Ariel Serrano strongly recommends it. “I see the change in postures and dynamics of movement,” Serrano says. “It’s basically therapeutic… like vitamins!” 501 N. Beneva Road, Sarasota;

Liz Howell, practitioner, standing, works with Ally Brandon to lengthen muscles and increase range of motion.

Image: Gene Pollux

Stretching Back the Years

The Stretch Zone, established in Miami in 2004, was born from an act of love. Founder and kinesiologist Jorden Gold wanted to help his aging, diabetic grandfather regain mobility. So he went to work with his hands-on methodology to loosen muscles, relieve soreness, and restore alignment and balance.

Today, there are dozens of Stretch Zone franchises across the U.S. Clients include athletes, golfers, people recovering from knee and hip replacements and those suffering from sciatica and Parkinson’s. And, of course, those looking to reduce the effects of aging who may be unable to do yoga.

“Our mobility decreases with age,” says Tamy Aronow, regional manager of the Venice and Lakewood Ranch branches. “We’re helping folks maintain their lifestyles for a longer period of time. That’s why we’re all down here in Florida, after all, to be outside and be active.”

The Stretch Zone system features a patented table and straps that provide stability. While clients relax, an accredited practitioner performs a series of exercises, lengthening muscles to relieve tightness and increase range of motion during a 30-minute session. Individual programs target each person’s needs, ascertained during the free 60-minute introductory evaluation. “We’re in a beautiful business,” Aronow acknowledges. “We see transformations.” 2466 Laurel Road E., North Venice; 8203 Tourist Center Drive, Lakewood Ranch;

A Camp Gladiator workout.

Image: Gene Pollux

Calling All Gladiators

If the great outdoors is your thing, and you like group workouts, Camp Gladiator is for you. For $65 per month, members can work out as many times as they like, whether locally or across the country. Better yet, it’s for all levels of fitness, offers a full-body cardio and strength workout, and every 60-minute session is different.

“We believe in the accountability and camaraderie of group fitness,” says professional trainer and area director Willie Thomas. “Our biggest thing is making fitness fun, and it’s a community. People come out to be with the people they’ve bonded with.”

Participants meet for a four-week program at churches, parks and elementary schools that provide cover should it rain. Certified personal trainers provide the equipment. Each week progresses, building on the week before. Whether it’s squats, lunges, pushups or firehose races, it’s always different. For early birds, classes start at 5:15 a.m. The latest is at 6:30 p.m.

Don’t be put off by the thought of pushups, Thomas advises, because everyone goes at their own pace, is pushed at their own level and is supported by their fellow gladiators. “People are cheering you on,” he says. “They remember when they were at your level.”

To guarantee safety there are always four trainers per hundred people; Sarasota groups tend to range from 15 to 20 participants with one trainer. Two weekly sessions are the recommended frequency for beginners, but for the gung-ho gladiator? That would be six.

Start dates in early 2020 are Feb. 10 and March 16. Every location has a set time and day. Go to and type in your zip code to find a workout near you, or call Willie Thomas at (813) 842-3230. 

A Sarasota Manatee Bike Club ride.

Image: Paul Petrus

Biking With Perks

Another great way to make friends and exercise outside? Join the hugely popular, convivial and frills-free Sarasota Manatee Bike Club. With 711 members, it is the biggest biking club on the southwest coast of Florida, and just celebrated its 45th year.

Despite its insider name as the “Disorder Eating Club” because of its fondness for post-ride events—cookouts at Myakka River State Park and ice cream socials at Rothenbach Park among them—SMBC takes cycling and community seriously. The club raises funds for the Legacy Trail while also supporting its own members, fixing flats and rescuing those too pooped to ride on; thus the designation as a No Drop Club.

Which is not to say this group of mostly retirees doesn’t chew up the miles on their road bikes, hybrids and recumbents. There can be as many as three outings a day, some covering 40 miles (with breaks). Riders are slotted into groups according to their individual pace, from 12-14 mph to 20-plus mph. Each ride is insured, and all rides are single-file, led by trained ride leaders.

While safety is the SMBC’s mantra, says president Bud Gaunt, camaraderie is just as important. “You don’t need to come out with a fancy ride bike,” he says. “It’s a safe ride and an opportunity to be outside and get healthy. We encourage people to come out and meet new people.” 

Pole dancing is a total body workout.

Image: Gene Pollux

Pole Dancing: Not Just for Sex Kittens

There are two myths about pole dancing: It’s exercise for stiletto-wearing sex kittens, and you’ve got to be a sex kitten with colossal…um, pecs. And biceps, triceps and deltoids.

Not so, says Stephanie “Frost” Romanello, co-owner of studio Iron X Fitness. Romanello, who’s performed at charity events like Pole for a Purpose to raise money for domestic violence victims, teaches all sorts of students. “There is this whole controversy when it comes to pole. We have strippers,” she acknowledges, “but we have nurses and mothers, too.”

The typical Iron X student is neither stripper nor gym rat. “The most common question I get is ‘Can I do pole?’” Romanello explains. ‘“My upper body strength is not good.’” But pole dancing is a total body workout. Dancers use knees, calves, thighs, shoulders and arms to hold on, ascend, descend and spin.

In Pole Kittens class, beginners learn pole-sits, pole-climbs and walking the pole, which means, simply, circling the pole. “It’s an art form,” Romanello says, “walking with confidence.”

Pole dancing can get interesting. Or sexy. In addition to Iron Abs and Stretch and Flex classes, there is Stiletto Sirens and Xotic Chair. Heels and sexy attire are encouraged. “But it’s not just about being sexy,” Romanello emphasizes. Yes, some women might spice up their partnerships by enacting the Vixen-on-the-Pole, but for others it’s about artistry, as in the case of the local ballerina who performed a Phantom of the Opera routine.

“It’s about power and creativity,” Romanello says, “about being strong and bold. That’s the beauty—it can be about whatever you want.” 713 Honore Ave., Sarasota;  

A windsurfer in action.

Image: Shutterstock 

Windsurfing Returns

Once hot, then not, windsurfing for adrenaline junkies is back, says Island Style Sport’s Laurel Kaiser. A teaching pro, eco guide and Sarasota native, Kaiser has been windsurfing for 40 years and teaching since 1987.

Thanks to a cool new innovation known as a hydrofoil, a below-the-board contraption that allows the board to rise several feet above the water, windsurfing has jumped to another level. “People who were too challenged by kite surfing are moving to windsurf hydrofoiling,” she says. 

Kite surfers are harnessed to the kite, which, out of control, can drag surfers across roads and into fixed objects. Windsurfers, not attached to the sail, are forced to let go when conditions become too strenuous. And Sarasota Bay, with its easy access and favorable wind speed and direction most of the year, is ideal.

While windsurfers must be beyond the beginner level to learn to hydrofoil, mastering basic windsurfing is a realistic goal. Beginner students, after a lesson in rigging the sail, mounting and dismounting, going forward and stopping and turning around—all on a beach simulator—enter shallow water at either Bird Key or Ken Thompson parks. Soon, they’re up and flying. “You don’t pay me if you don’t sail in two hours,” Kaiser promises. “It’s instant gratification.” 

Arlena Dominick, far right, teaches a Kundalini yoga class.

Image: Gene Pollux

Seek Awareness—and Lighten Up

Kundalini yoga incorporates breath, sound and movement, sometimes all at once. Teachers are clad in white, a protective color, and wear head coverings to keep thoughts separate from the room. The intense vibe can be off-putting to some. “You either love it or hate it,” says Rosemary Court Yoga teacher Arlena Dominick, and if you love kundalini, it can be transformative.

As one advocate summarized it, kundalini takes you into the light—and you stay there. Yogi Bhajan, who introduced the practice to the U.S., promised Woodstock participants he’d get them high without drugs or alcohol. Dominick says it’s the best gift she ever gave herself, becoming a better businesswoman in the process.

In one Saturday session led by Dominick, there were well-known poses, like cat-and-cow and child pose, but also sniffing, noisy exhalations, chanting and crystal “singing” bowls. The postures, sound and breath sets, called kriyas, are aimed at initiating mental and physical changes. In this class, the goal was to work on the glandular system and restore energy.

If you feel uncomfortable chanting, or sitting cross-legged, don’t, urges Dominick. “It’s very flexible. We’re allowing them to find their way, what works for their body.”

Students don’t need to take this esoteric practice too seriously, despite the references to the moon, the bowls, the incense and candles: “I really want people to lighten up,” Dominick says. 810 Central Ave., Sarasota;

Or try this: If kundalini feels a bit too cerebral, try Buti yoga, a high-intensity cardio yoga that includes plyometrics, tribal dance and music, and a lot of sweat. Right now, Body By Barre in Venice is the only fitness studio to offer it. 1952 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice;  

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