Effortless Energy

May 01, 2005

Ken Alan shares how to find new inspiration for choreography and why setting up a class like an orchestra improves performance.

1989 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Ken Alan witnessed the birth of the aerobics craze. Not only did he see it with his own eyes, but he helped shape it with inspired instruction and inventive choreography. His wit and wisdom are legendary. He still has a front-row seat, from which he continues to teach in addition to running his own consulting company.

Alan has a soft spot in his heart for program directors. “Whoever receives a Program Director of the Year award will find me standing in front of her, bowing, dropping to the floor and kissing her feet,” he says. “In my opinion, anyone who can manage a fitness staff deserves respect. Future recipients, be forewarned. Fortunately, all recipients have been women so far.”

I didn’t actually win an IDEA award; I was the recipient. It was an honor, as there were and are many instructors as deserving, and more so, of such recognition.

To point out just one change can make the others seem less important. Maybe the biggest change that hasn’t happened is the naiveté about fitness trade associations. When I talk to instructors and trainers about IDEA membership, some say, “I’m part-time; I don’t need to join,” “I’m certified by AFAA,” “I’ve been training 20 years; I know everything I need to know” or “Our club has workshops for us.” Some individuals still perceive IDEA as a certification organization. It’s their loss, but some of their practices aren’t enhancing industry credibility, and that irks me.

It has finally abated—the recurring nightmare of being eternally stuck with dull choreography, a symptom of posttraumatic stress brought on when ESPN Fitness Pros was canceled. My therapy for getting creative juices flowing again includes watching cheerleading competitions, line dancing and the National Ballroom Championships. A few minutes at a Gymboree® always yields an idea or two.

Students also spark new workouts. For example, my “Who’s the Biggest Kid?” class started that way. Participants bring their kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews. The kids lead the adults around in London Bridge, the Virginia Reel, Grand Right and Left, and other formations.

The breadth of inventiveness in the industry is a major inspiration. Every year I ask myself, “Now, why didn’t I think of that!” I marvel at Candice Brooks’s seamless systematic choreography breakdown, Greg Hurst’s brilliant athletic-drill formations and Gin Miller’s revolutionary gift (no, not Step . . . laughter!). It’s been a pleasure watching Len Kravitz’s evolution as a PhD who still gets down and sweats in the trenches. Jeff Vandiver’s joy of movement and Petra Kolber’s poetry-in-motion are both inspiring. Lawrence Biscontini’s “Circle Step” soared, and Carrie Ekins’s ball drumming (“Drums Alive”) was thunderously fun therapy. Exciting, multifaceted and emerging talents like Shannon Griffiths also floor me. I feel blessed to work among so many creative people. That keeps me going.

Having advanced students take over the front of the room, with intermediate students behind them and beginners floating around in the back doesn’t facilitate multilevel instruction. It doesn’t help the students either. Multilevel classes are better managed with vertical grouping—for example, with low-level students standing on the right, intermediate in the center and advanced on the left. This way, you don’t have six beginners scattered everywhere while you attempt modifications. If they’re positioned together, you can communicate with them more effectively. Modifications become reality.

Vertical grouping is beneficial for all because most people prefer to be surrounded by others with similar fitness abilities. Participants who march in place don’t like to be surrounded by people who jump to the ceiling. It’s hard for the beginners to concentrate, they feel unfit, and they can do without being sprayed by sweat. Likewise, advanced students prefer to have people near them who know what to do, which leg to be on, what comes next and how to nail the transitions.

People feed off the energy of other people. Organizing participants by energy (fitness) level in orchestra-style (vertical) sections is key for me in dealing with multilevel workouts. The only drawback is that some advanced “animals” can no longer hoard the front row. They will complain. You’ll get dirty looks. These reactions eventually dissipate.

I went bald. I’m not bald; I’m “follically challenged.” My eyes aren’t blue. I’m not very tan. My hair’s not blond. I’m from Indiana, not California. In other words, Gilad from “Bodies in Motion” has nothing to worry about. Certain people look good in front of a camera. I’m not one of them. It was smart not to pursue it, because I’m much better behind the camera. I love bringing out the best in others, and I’m getting pretty good at it, too. Working with Kathy Kaehler, Richard Simmons and others has been more enjoyable and rewarding than I could have ever imagined. I’d do it full-time if I could.

I’ll get in trouble if I mention only one or two. It may sound dorky, but almost all of them have been inspiring—once I’ve gotten to know them. Even the hard bodies have intriguing stories behind their stealth motivation.

There are new instructors? Where? I don’t see them. They aren’t around here. Everyone wants to do personal training. Nobody wants to teach classes. I’m afraid we’re losing the passion, energy and excitement. Where is the love of movement? Except for select formats, group exercise to music may become a relic faster than you can say, “I can’t find a sub who can teach high-low for me.”

Many of us had a pivotal moment when “the calling” came, and it was likely triggered by an influential instructor. Now it’s our turn to ignite a spark. Every 15 years or so, there’s an explosive change in our industry. Freestyle choreography exploded around 1980 because it was different from the choreographed aerobics of the previous 15 years. Kickboxing exploded in the mid-1990s because it was different from the 32-count high-low combinations of the prior 15 years. We have about 5 more years until—let’s hope—the next trend entices the next generation.

I finally figured out that in order to develop a strong body, you must develop a strong body of knowledge. But use extra caution when listening to [veteran experts] Peter and Lorna Francis. Most everything they warned us about years ago I have recently experienced myself. It must be psychosomatic.

I discovered a benefit of sciatica—it masks plantar fasciitis pain. The latest rebellious zone is my hand. My fingers recently started cramping up. Must be overuse syndrome. No more finger snapping. Classes will be really dull now.

1. Treat everyone like they’re a “somebody.”

2. Keep Binaca® or Certs® nearby.

IDEA Fitness Journal , Volume 2, Issue 5

© 2005 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

1 Comment

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  • stevie larock

    Wonderful tips. Love the insight he shares. Thanks for this article. Going to share some of the ideas with other staff.
    Commented Oct 13, 2010