Look closely at the photo above and you will observe the following: No two people are doing exactly the same thing. The movement ranges from the near-90-degree kick by the teacher (front row, center) and others, to both feet on the floor (back row, left) with plenty of variations in between. The women here range from 30-somethings to 70-somethings — and there is a guy off camera. Notably, the dancers are sweating. Yet everyone is smiling; everyone is having fun.
The sheer joy of movement is a key idea behind Kai (pronounce it like “eye” with a “k” in front), a new fitness modality Kelly Atkins created. By way of a disclaimer, I should acknowledge that Atkins is the mother of the Aerobic Grandma’s grandchildren, which renders me less than fully objective about her work. But, if you have read this column over the years, you know that I have repeatedly and passionately written that the best kind of exercise is the one you enjoy for the simple reason that you’ll do it. And the smiles on her students’ faces make that point more powerfully than anything I can say.
What exactly is Kai? It’s a dance-based form of cardiovascular conditioning with strong connection to the mind/body universe. Technically, it probably belongs in the same category as Jazzercise and Zumba and other kinds of aerobic dance classes. I mention that only for those of you who try to balance your workouts between cardio and strength and range of motion. Although Kai is all three, a genuinely comprehensive workout, I classify it as cardio — the one most of us need to do more of.
Beyond that, there are far more differences than similarities, starting with the music. Kai uses a far wider variety of music than your typical dance exercise class, including pop songs from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, reggae, rock ’n’ roll, techno and new age. Atkins chooses music primarily for its ability to support the desire for movement. The tempos are quick enough to make you sweat, but the sound is entirely different and the counts are varied, in contrast to the rigid eight-count pattern of conventional fitness dance. The result is music that is energizing but not pounding; rhythmic rather than relentless.
The choreography is likewise unique. Atkins has created a variety of original routines — she calls them “bows” — and says, “This is movement that anybody can do — a great way to stimulate the neuroplasticity of the brain so it forms new neurons.” The Kai website says, “Based on the latest research on brain function and neural plasticity, each Kai experience is designed to specifically target areas often not utilized in everyday, electronic-driven life.”
Visit the site kaimoves.com to read more about the science, or revisit the Nov. 7 “Aerobic Grandma” column about Dr. John Ratey and the neuroscience of exercise.
What I want you to take from this column is that the choreography is accessible to all. Atkins sees her classes as individual dance workouts in a supportive group environment. If you’ve taken fitness classes, you are aware of the subtle, never explicit but always present pressure to “do what the other guy is doing.”
It is simply not present in a Kai class. Look again at that photo. Everyone is doing his or her own thing — and clearly happy about it.
Atkins teaches Kai classes seven days a week at Sara Dance Center, 5000 Fruitville Road, Sarasota. Classes are $15 for each “walk-in,” with substantial discounts for packages. There are also immersion sessions consisting of 40 hours of in-depth training for teacher training or personal enrichment. The next one is May 2 through May 6, and space may still be available. There is also a combined Kai and yoga retreat set for June 7 through June 14, at the Pura Vida Resort and Spa in Costa Rica. Details plus a class video are on the website.
Perhaps the best description of Kai comes from Longboat Key resident Sharon Burde, who says: “I don’t miss a class unless I am out of town. It is the most fun I’ve had exercising in an hour in the whole week, and I go to it because I get a great workout and it’s fun. It’s a long drive, and it’s worth it. You forget you’re exercising; you’re just dancing and the mind thinks, ‘Oh, I’m dancing’ not, ‘Oh, I’m working out.’”
That’s a pretty compelling appeal. Truth to tell, only the camera hanging around my neck and an imminent deadline kept me from kicking off my shoes and joining this class. One of the many headlines I considered for this column was, “Free your inner dancer.” We all have one; it’s a shame it doesn’t get out more often.
Molly Schechter is an ACE-certified personal trainer with a specialty in older-adult fitness plus YogaFit Instructor Training, SCF Yoga Fundamentals I and II and Power Pilates™ Mat Certifications. She teaches classes at the Bayfront Park Recreation Center and the Longboat Key Club. Email her at mschechter@YourObserver.com.