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The “Perform or Create” Continuum…

Do prechoreographed formats help instructors achieve consistency or instead stifle their creativity? The answer may be a little bit of both.

Group fitness instructor #1 picks out a favorite step CD, thinks of a few base choreography patterns on the way to the club, and then teaches a freestyle class that he creates on the spot, based on the skill and energy level of the students who are in class that day. Much of his mental energy is focused on creating unique and stimulating choreography.

Group fitness instructor #2 goes through her collection of prechoreographed notes and music to match, mentally rehearses the timing and moves while driving to her club, and then teaches a program designed to encourage her students to maintain or improve their ability within a predictable, familiar framework. Much of her mental energy is focused on entertaining her group strength training class with a combination of coaching and jokes.

At first glance, these two teachers might seem to be polar opposites: Instructor #1 is a creator, whereas instructor #2 is more a performer. One is teaching a completely unique class, designed and executed on a one-time basis, while the other is using the strength of her personality to teach a prechoreographed program that might be familiar to students worldwide. But what if both these instructors are just at different points on a continuum that incorporates all teaching styles?

Defining Terms

Before we attempt to answer that question, let’s first define “freestyle” versus “prechoreographed.” Whether it’s step, high-low, strength training, dance, core training or some other format, a class is considered freestyle if the teacher puts the choreography together in a way that is unique to that specific class. Prechoreographed, on the other hand, refers to any program that involves a series of prescribed moves performed in a specific order that can be reproduced by any qualified teacher who is in possession of the “script.”

Since these are opposite concepts, it may be helpful to envision each anchoring one side of a continuum, as follows:

Freestyle Prechoreographed

This continuum is designed to include the many different kinds of programs that currently exist in the world of group fitness, with each program having its rightful place. Along the continuum there are also myriad opportunities for today’s instructors to emphasize creativity and performance within different formats.

So where do you stand on this continuum? Do you consider yourself a performer? Do you purchase prechoreographed programs, trusting in the program’s designers to offer you a pretested format that you can teach to your students with confidence? After memorizing the steps or moves, do you feel free to let your personality shine? Does being part of a prechoreography “network” alleviate some of the stresses of teaching?

Or are you more comfortable in the role of creator? Maybe you like to make all your own choreography choices and decisions. Rather than spending your preparation time memorizing someone else’s programs, do you prefer creating something that uniquely reflects you? Do you have the knowledge, training, experience, time and confidence to design all your own classes?

Perhaps you find yourself somewhere in the middle of this continuum. Like a lot of instructors today, some days you may feel more creative, while other times you might prefer performing. Many instructors want to be able to move at will across the continuum, teaching both styles of programming while blending their creative and performance talents.

What’s the Appeal of Prechoreographed Programs?

No matter where you see yourself as a teacher, there is no denying the influence and impact that prechoreographed programs have had on the fitness industry. Over the past few years in particular, prechoreographed programs have risen in popularity among teachers, program directors and participants.

Jazzercise®, headquartered in Carlsbad, California, has been offering prechoreographed programs for more than 35 years. It is a global franchise that touts more than 6,300 instructors teaching more than 20,000 classes per week. Les Mills International, out of Auckland, New Zealand, introduced BodyPump® in 1990; now the company boasts 55,000 licensed instructors teaching seven different prechoreographed programs in almost 10,000 clubs in 55 countries. In addition to these two industry stalwarts, there are thousands of teachers offering programs by other companies, including 24 Hour Fitness, STOTT PILATES®, Powder Blue Productions, Silver Sneakers and many, many more.

Phillip Mills, founder of Les Mills International, says the appeal of prechoreographed classes can be attributed to the “quality and consistency that consumers love,” which is achieved by the instructors’ “membership [in] a huge international fraternity of fellow professionals delivering the same classes.” According to Mills, “Our teacher-training system includes elements from exercise science, drama training and personal development.” By combining these three elements, Mills puts the emphasis on the performance aspect of prechoreographed programs—an intentional emphasis he dubs “exertainment.” Mills says this exertainment factor is what draws members into group fitness classes and helps make a visit to the health club an “exciting experience.”

Chalene Johnson, chief executive officer of Powder Blue Productions in Laguna Hills, California, is the creator of Turbo Kick, PiYo and Turbo Jam. She believes prechoreographed programs allow instructors to “connect and respond to [their] students, foster success and create an ‘experience’ in each class.” By having someone else do the choreography, Johnson says, instructors are freed from “making up choreography in the car up until 5 minutes before class begins,” and they are then able to focus their attention and energy on their students’ needs.

At 24 Hour Fitness, Donna Meyer, corporate director of group exercise, says that students are attracted to prechoreographed formats in part because the programs are predictable and familiar. Now that 24 Hour Fitness has been offering prechoreographed programs for a number of years, Meyer sees another unexpected, yet welcome, outcome: “As a result of the consistency, without even realizing it, students have come to embrace predesigned programs with an expectation of quality.”

The Evolution of Prechoreographed Classes

So what does this bode for traditional fitness classes? Does this mean the end of individually designed freestyle workouts, or can both options peacefully coexist?

Johnson thinks the latter is possible. She likens prechoreographed classes to other business tools, such as the TurboTax® software program. “Why spend the hours and money it takes to become a certified public accountant just to prepare your own tax return?” Johnson asks. “There will always be a need for CPAs, but there are also programs that simplify and condense the information.”

If prechoreographed programs are a necessary evolution, what caused them to evolve? After all, most were designed by group fitness instructors! At 24 Hour Fitness, Meyer says, they originally implemented prechoreographed formats as a way to provide members with consistency from club to club.

“Our instructors are seeing the advantages of having more predesigned lesson options presented to them,” Meyer says. “This allows them to teach a variety of formats and to remain current in their skills without having to work totally independently.” At 24 Hour Fitness, the evolution went from having approximately 5,000 instructors at 350 clubs teaching almost all freestyle classes to most of the classes now being predesigned. (But each instructor retains the ability to “cut and paste” from a series of drills and then present those drills in the order preferred by the instructor.) According to Meyer, 24 Hour Fitness is more concerned about consistency across classes, and less about whether any given class focuses on creativity versus performance.

Launching BodyPump, the first of seven prechoreographed formats, Phillip Mills and his father, Les, had a slightly different motivation. “We saw a demand for new exercise formats that would make it more enjoyable for people to go to the gym and fulfill their instinctive desire to be fit and healthy,” says Phillip Mills. Based on their experience that group exercise classes worldwide were a “mixture of good, bad and indifferent,” the Mills family made it their first concern to ensure quality control. “Quality and enjoyment don’t happen by accident,” says Phillip Mills. “A great advantage of a branded program is that successful techniques that are learned over the years can be built into a system that anyone can use.” From the family’s perspective, creativity and performance are both an inherent part of any BodyPump class. “Not only do we train our instructors in the technical side, [but we also provide] motivational, physical, personal development and theater training.”

According to Johnson, the shift to prechoreographed classes was inevitable. “In the ’80s, my mom taught Jazzercise, and I saw how easy it was for her to learn the routines,” she recalls. “The expectations and demands on instructors are far greater now than they were when my mom was teaching. To be marketable, today’s instructors are expected to teach multiple formats, which can be expensive and time-consuming.” After realizing that instructors needed time-saving tools so they could focus on helping clients, Johnson came up with her own prechoreographed formats. “I created Turbo Kick and PiYo because I saw the need to have exceptional choreography and music without the hassle of piecing everything together.” In Johnson’s view, teachers were already doing individualized versions of prechoreography by putting together bits from here and there, and she tapped into a way to streamline the process. In this same vein, many of the current prechoreographed programs evolved as a way to ease the increasing demands on instructors.

A Boon for New Instructors

As prechoreographed programs have become ubiquitous, there has been much debate about their value and whether they will ultimately lead to the so-called “dumbing down” of instructors. Let’s look at this debate by assessing some of the pros and cons of both freestyle and prechoreographed programs.

For new instructors, teaching a prepackaged program can boost confidence. Seasoned instructors know how to design and structure classes, but in this age of diverse programming, novices need to get past many hurdles when starting out in the fitness business. It can be very reassuring to teach a format that has been pretested and preapproved.

Audrey Linville, a newer instructor living and working in Tecate, Mexico, says, “Prechoreographed classes make it easier and more feasible for me to be prepared. [Since I am] at the very beginning of my fitness career, these types of classes not only provide me with a basic class structure that is good to build on, but also [give me] confidence in regard to the content of my class. With prechoreographed programs, obviously a large part of the work of creating the class has already been done. [Even if you] don’t like that particular program, there is plenty of versatility and creativity to be had in putting the program in action. I can’t think of any predesigned program that could have choreography and guidelines rigid enough to repress a good healthy bit of personality.”

Not every newbie shares this view. Janna Young of Honolulu, Hawaii, has been teaching for less than a year, yet she is not afraid to create her own freestyle classes. She likes to be “challenged and pushed beyond [her] comfort zone” by “the freshness and excitement of each class.” That’s what drew her to teaching group fitness in the first place. “Freestyle classes offer more variability, spontaneity and challenge to the body,” she says. “In addition, freestyle classes leave me room for creativity. I can make up new moves and create combinations that reflect my individuality and personal style.”

Educating Experienced Instructors

Taking advantage of prechoreographed programming can help a new instructor get a foot in the door, but what happens after that? What if an instructor who has been teaching only prepackaged programs tries to branch out to a different club or format?

Some clubs are known for developing and training their own teachers, whereas others hire only instructors who have several years’ experience. With more than 5,000 instructors, 24 Hour Fitness saw the need for an in-house education program that would train as many instructors as possible. Meyer says that’s one reason the clubs let instructors cut and paste moves in the order of their choice: It gets new instructors teaching quickly and safely, while allowing the club to roll out new formats in a timely fashion.

In contrast to this approach, the RiverPlace Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon, offers only freestyle classes. This means that any instructor who wants to teach there must be able to design his or her own class on a consistent, recurring basis. According to program director Amy Stone, RiverPlace does not currently have a standardized training program in place and hires only experienced teachers. Therefore, any teacher who wanted to make the jump from 24 Hour Fitness to RiverPlace would have to find a way to close the gap between memorizing and designing by gaining further education in both program design and body mechanics. Conversely, any teacher wishing to go from RiverPlace to 24 Hour Fitness would need to attend the latter’s in-house training program to learn the company-specific choreography and formats.

But what are the implications for seasoned instructors who stick with a particular prechoreographed format for a long time? Deb Edwards of Guelph, Ontario, has been teaching Jazzercise for more than 20 years. She is a veteran of the format who can still remember what it was like to be a novice. When Edwards started teaching Jazzercize, she was a time-pressed mother who found the routines easy to learn and a great time saver. Even though her children are now grown, and her time demands are less stringent, she has continued teaching Jazzercise because she likes the access to prepackaged routines and music, as well as the business information provided by the franchise’s website. “I am able to concentrate on many aspects of my business, such as promotions, advertising and community work,” she adds.

Making Modifications

When it comes to offering modifications, freestyle proponents point to their ability to respond immediately to participants’ needs by altering movements mid-class if required. Freestylers say they can turn on a dime in their self-designed classes, whether to alter an exercise for someone at risk of injury or simply to up the fun factor when students are bored or tired. That’s because a knowledgeable and competent instructor can adapt workouts to the students, rather than having the students adapt to the workout.

On the other hand, the designers of most prechoreographed programs feel just as strongly about the need to strictly adhere to the prescribed routines and music in order to achieve consistency and quality assurance. After all, it’s the designer’s name and reputation that are at stake.

Phillip Mills is adamant on the subject of modifications: “Instructors present our programs on the condition [that] they do not modify the choreographed moves,” he says. “This is key to ensuring the quality and safety of the classes.

STOTT PILATES of Toronto falls somewhere in the middle of the modification debate, depending on the type of instructor attending the trainings. Each exercise must be done in a specific way, but not every exercise within the suggested sequence must be used. According to program director Beth Evans, “The workshops we teach at industry trade shows are primarily targeted to non-Stott Pilates–certified instructors, and are commonly delivered in a specific sequence to demonstrate how an instructor would move participants through a typical class. We always include tips on how to modify certain exercises.”

Implications for Program Directors

Program directors are in a unique position to assess the pros and cons of all types of formats, to ensure that they meet the needs of their membership.

Sheryl Nay is the fitness director for Broadwater Athletic Clubs in Helena, Montana. As a fitness industry veteran, she has thought a lot about the need to balance freestyle and prechoreographed classes to achieve a well-rounded programming schedule. When deciding what types of programming to institute at her clubs, she asked herself these questions:

  • “What is the experience level of my instructors?”
  • “How much money is the club willing to invest in prechoreographed programming?”
  • “Does prechoreographed programming fit the mission statement of our group fitness program?”
  • “What type of members do we have?”

After pondering these questions and doing research, Nay decided not to pursue any prechoreographed programs. “As I looked into predesigned programs, I realized the emphasis was on choreography, stage performance and execution of moves,” she explains. “These are all important, but [we wanted to place] the emphasis on education, adaptability and relationships.”

Still, Nay does remain open to the possibility of offering prepackaged formats in the future. “I never close my mind,” she says. “And if I found that prechoreographed programming better met the needs of our members, or became more adaptable [to modifications], I would reconsider.”

At the Decathlon Club in Campbell, California, group exercise and aquatics director Michele Mandell has seen an increase in numbers since she began offering Les Mills programming. “BodyPump is much more popular with our membership than freestyle group strength training classes,” she says. “Members love the familiarity. Attendance has improved in the classes that I replaced with BodyPump.” When deciding which classes to offer, Mandell considered the club demographics and chose to retain most of the existing freestyle classes. However, she is now adding another Les Mills format to her schedule.

At the RiverPlace Athletic Club, Stone made a decision last year to remove prechoreographed programming from the schedule because the mixed response from members didn’t warrant its continuation. “We had three prechoreographed programs on the schedule,” says Stone. “We had a noticeable [attendance] increase with one class, a decrease in another, and less than a handful of participants in the third. It also was becoming rote for some of the instructors, which I felt was a disservice to the members. In addition, members were plateauing, and a few were becoming injured due to the high volume of repetitive exercises.”

Even though the program directors interviewed came to different conclusions about prechoreographed versus freestyle programming, they shared one opinion: All fitness classes have value, and directors must consider all types of formats before deciding what works best for a particular club’s members and instructors.

What Members Want

So what are your members looking for in a group fitness class? As a participant in many different types of programs, Patti McKinney of Portland, Oregon, may be typical of members worldwide. First and foremost, she wants an enjoyable workout that helps her achieve her goals. She also wants to feel part of a group, and she wants to trust the teacher to keep her safe. To McKinney, the issue isn’t whether freestyle or prechoreographed is better; it’s more a matter of which workout fits her needs.

“I like the consistency and predictability of the prechoreographed programs because you can really refine your workout routine and push yourself further when you know exactly what to expect,” she says. “I also like the freestyle programs because it seems that the instructor’s creativity, freedom and personality can come out more. You can have fun [in any class] as long as you have a good instructor who is smart, knows the body well and can notice when someone is in pain or is just doing a move wrong.”

In the end, it’s your members who should drive the programming. If a workout is fun and students are getting the results they want, the class will have participants. It is up to the instructors to know the benefits and limitations of any program they choose to teach, and to offer a safe workout within the parameters of that program.

Looking Ahead

With the ever-evolving nature of exercise, there will always be a place for talented instructors, whether that talent lies more in creativity or in presentation. Chalene Johnson sees freestyle and prechoreographed programs as symbiotic points in a circle, and she believes there is a place for any program that challenges teachers to use their talents.

“Even though my business is centered on prechoreographed routines, I also teach my own freestyle classes,” she sums up. “I believe it’s the creative choreographers and fitness renegades who are talented and daring enough to try new steps, create new workouts and invent new toys who push our industry forward.”

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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