Over the past 6 years, step aerobics has gone up and down the popularity ladder, according to the latest IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey. From a peak of 86 percent of clubs offering step classes in 1997 to a low of 66 percent in 2001, the number rebounded to 82 percent in 2002—a whopping 16 percent increase in one year! So what’s fueling step’s new popularity? It could be that today’s formats are a far cry from your mother’s step classes in terms of choreography, class elements, music speed and equipment choices.

Current Choreography

“Most step instructors (including myself) have erred by trying to create complex choreography without paying attention to the importance of the technique, methodology and simple movement breakdowns. That’s why many instructors have turned to less complicated classes,” says Diego Puras, who teaches at various clubs in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “But I am convinced that you can teach advanced, complicated step classes if you have the right methodology.” Toward that end, Puras has developed an approach he calls “Step in Motion,” which involves “a continual alternation of legs” so that the student doesn’t have to stop and figure out what the instructor is doing. “It’s not your typical ‘Watch me first and then try to do it with me,’” he says. “This method allows the student to do the moves along with you and feel successful.”

Yoav Avidar of Tel Aviv, Israel, says he has always stressed choreography in his step classes but does so even more now that he has honed his own technique and teaching skills. “The result is that my classes today are much more creative and more difficult, plus they do include more directional changes,” he says. “But I never forget the reason people come to my classes, which is for the workout, so I put a lot of effort into creating fluid transitions.”

Rob Glick, a Southern California-based instructor, also notes that choreography has become more difficult. “But breakdown techniques have evolved considerably, making more complex choreography seem only moderately difficult,” he says.

Carol Murphy, a step instructor in Fairport, New York, concurs. “The building-block method of teaching enables most participants to feel successful, even with the added level of difficulty,” she says. “By layering style, rhythm and direction, you can teach all levels, but this style of teaching requires a more skilled instructor.”

Based in Paris, Fred Hoffman also relies on building techniques (e.g., “addition, pyramid and layering”) to help students succeed at advanced choreography, which in his classes may include numerous directional changes, power moves and cross phrasing. “I also teach more ‘tapless’ step. This has become very popular, especially for teaching basic step patterns to beginners and seniors,” he says.

Essential Elements

In terms of what’s new in class elements, some instructors now favor shorter or longer warm-ups and cool-downs. “The cool-down is shorter now, for sure,” says Cida Conti, who teaches in São Paulo, Brazil. “The [length of the] warm-up depends on the weather.”

Puras bemoans the lack of appropriate warm-ups in some of today’s step classes, attributing it to limited class time. “But [an adequate warm-up is] important, especially when the weather is really cold,” he says.

Murphy spends the same amount of time on warm-ups as she did in the past. The length fluctuates depending on class intensity and participants’ fitness levels. “But we are spending much more time on cool-downs now, owing to the increasing need for flexibility training in our aging clientele. We have also created hybrid classes that fuse 45 minutes of step with 30 minutes of Pilates to meet this need.”

Glick offers a separate 15-minute core-training class as an adjunct to his step classes, whereas Hoffman sometimes ends his classes with a “yoga-based cool-down and stretch.”

Modern Music

Nowhere is there more diversity of opinion among step instructors than in the area of music speed. Considered the industry bible by many, the 1997 revised Step Reebok guidelines recommend that music speed not exceed 128 beats per minute (bpm)—and be that high only for advanced students taught by a “regular and skilled step trainer.” However, some step instructors prefer to teach at higher speeds.

“For sure, [speed] has accelerated since step first came out,” according to Puras.“I step in my club at about 132 [bpm] using dance club tracks,” says Glick.

Using “motivating, current music,” Hoffman prefers to maintain music speeds of 128 to 130 bpm. “As an educator, I prefer to be an example of how you can work correctly, get a good cardio workout, teach creative choreography and still adhere to industry guidelines for safe stepping.” Even though some of his speeds slightly exceed the Reebok limits, at times Hoffman is taken to task for using music that is too slow—especially when he’s teaching master classes and workshops in countries where the most popular instructors prefer “top” speeds. “I often get asked to speed up my music,” he says. “I refuse to and instead give the participants other options to increase their intensity, such as [upping] platform height, [adding] power moves, etc.”

“We have always tried to stay within industry guidelines for safe music speed,” says Murphy, “but do feel that we can appropriately and safely go up to 128 bpm, especially in our [more advanced] step dance mix classes. Participants have become more proficient in step than they were 10 years ago, when we were stepping at about 122 to 124 bpm. We do keep to 124 bpm in certain step classes, such as those that add the challenge of a [stability] ball.”

When it comes to music selections, today’s classes reflect popular tastes. “I always try to bring the latest music available in different styles, like house dance,” says Avidar. “Sometimes I even do musicals and insert special theme blocks into my regular choreography.”

Conti has abandoned old dance music in her step classes in favor of techno and progressive techno. “I present a lot in Europe, where this kind of music is the ‘bomb,’” she says.

Current Challenges

Today’s step classes may have evolved a lot since the early days, but they are not without their challenges.

“My biggest challenge is keeping my classes creative but still safe—breaking down the choreography in a way that everyone can follow, while keeping the workout balanced,” says Avidar.

According to Glick, the trick is creating a class in which everyone can succeed. “The challenge is finding the right blend of choreography and intensity to keep a wide range of participants engaged.”

Hoffman also tries to appeal to a full spectrum of students in a creative but safe environment. “I’m trying to satisfy everyone in one class, from beginners to those who just want a good cardio workout without a lot of choreography to those who seek challenging choreography,” he says.

According to Murphy, the only way to meet this kind of challenge is to rely on experienced teachers. “It is difficult to keep the veteran [stepper] stimulated and challenged while keeping the choreography reasonable and realistic for the novice exerciser. This kind of multilevel teaching is a skill that must be developed.”