Live Blog: Fitness Instructor Excellence

Diana Stewart went from failing her first Zumba instructor audition to now leading the development and refinement of the same company’s instructor training program. In October 2014, she even won the Charlotte, NC, Creative Loafing Best of Charlotte Critic’s Choice Best Zumba Teacher award. To make the leap, she did (and still does) a lot of self-analysis and hard work to constantly improve her skills. She has used her company’s best practices, lessons learned from her mentors, continual training, and her own experience to refine her instruction, as well as mentor the company’s new instructors who have joined over the past four years.

The small group discussion started with Diana introducing herself and her backstory.

Diana: I just wanted to start with the foundation of teaching. For me, I always try to remember that at the core of what we’re trying to do, it’s easy to lose sight of it, because you get caught up on other things like how can I get my class to have more fun, what outfit should I wear, and if you just remember that at the core of it you are trying to get people a good workout. That’s something that always keeps me grounded when I start going off on tangents, because when you get really into it you start analyzing a lot of different things, you start getting caught up on how do I engage this class, and how do I make sure these people are having a good time.

And beyond that, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Simon Sinek, he has this really good book called Start With Why, he has a really good TED talk too, it’s really amazing. He says if you wanna motivate people, you have to start with why you’re doing it. So for me my alternate goal is to try to put a little extra positivity out into the world, and try to make sure my clients have a better day. And it’s as simple as that, because you don’t really know what people are going through in their regular lives unless you really start talking to them and you hear how bad their day was, and they wanted to go home and cry in their bed, but instead they came to class with you, and I take that as my responsibility to help that person feel better and have a moment where they can just be free, be in the moment, and have a good time and do something for themselves.

Do you guys have alternate goals like that?

Kate: I moved to a new city, and didn’t know anybody, and when you are our general age you meet new people at bars, and you’re drinking, and you just don’t need it. And then I found fitness and found these incredible friendships, so my goal is really always to create that for people who haven’t really met anyone. And a lot of people that come into my class as newbies, and they are embarrassed or scared or whatever, and so I try to connect them.

Lena: Speaking of community, I teach spinning and TRX. These two formats are traditionally scaring people off for some reason. My goal in every class is to have them come back. That’s what I work for. I want them to come back. Even if they have a high heart rate, or if it was anything that they didn’t like, I want them to give it a try. That’s what I’m trying to get across.

Diana: Engaging your class and your participants is something that I’ve actually struggled with a lot. I’m kind of an introvert and I don’t actually like being on stage in front of people like that. When it came to the dance fitness, partially because I’m passionate about it, and partially because I’m well-trained and I practice all the time.

And two, because it’s something I’m very passionate about, but when it came to engaging the class I didn’t really know what to do.

Two of my instructors were great at this, one used to be on the dance team of a basketball team. She was great, and she would like make faces, and she was really out there because it was really natural for her. And she told me Diana you don’t have to make faces at people, you just need to have a good time. So I did a lot of soul-searching like that, because it’s sometimes really awkward staring at people. You don’t wanna be weird engaging, you wanna be fun engaging them.

What I realized that it came down to was enthusiasm and letting loose. When they can tell you are passionate, they believe you. People are scared, and in my first class I was scared and stayed in the back of class and thought everyone was staring at me and that I wouldn’t know what to do. And I told myself to stay and maybe it would get better. And I try to remember that people will come in and are terrified and maybe haven’t worked out in ten years, and when you engage them you are trying to help that person have a good workout. You wanna make them have fun and make them feel comfortable and like they can do it.

My instructor Sara, the dance team girl, asked me who I would wanna see in concert. And that’s a really interesting question when it comes to engaging with people, if you think about who’s concert you’d wanna go to, who’s style of engaging really resonates with you? Are you more of a Britney Spears, or like a Beyonce? So I look at people whose concerts I really like and I try to channel them. I saw Lady Gaga in concert and she is a great performer, she puts it all out there – and so when I teach I try to put it all out there but in my own way. Let that enthusiasm shine through in your way.

Ivanna: Years ago somebody gave me a word, because people don’t believe I’m an introvert when they come to my class. It’s exertainment. You can try too hard to entertain and forget about teaching a class. I’m personal with my class. I make everything personal. Like if my class hears Michael Jackson they know I’ve had a bad day. And they feel like I’m for real, I’m there for the class, and I am there for them. We’re in this together.

I’ve been teaching for years and I still walk into class wondering if my playlist is okay. But this instructor once told me, teach to the people in the middle. There are people who come because your name is on the schedule, there are people who will come to the class because it’s TRX or Zumba – but there’s people that you are never going to please. Don’t try too hard to engage the people who are never going to like you, and teach to the ones in the middle.

Lena: I’m famous at my gym for taking my time with newbies. I take my time to setup their equipment (spinning), and I tell them to stay after class to ask questions. Because when they walk into a busy class, and they’re late, they’re not going to ask for help to setup the equipment. Instead of getting into your head thinking she’s late, just get out there and help somebody. That’s the most rewarding thing when you get them to come back. I overheard members talking about if you’re new to spinning go to Lena’s class, and that’s the best think I can hear in my career.

Diana: There’s a fine line between performing and engaging, and it’s really about making that person have a good time, it’s not about showing off your moves or whatever. So one thing I do a lot is be really congisent of what these people do that makes me feel comfortable or confident. I went to a training, and one of the really experienced instructors there, she just went up to lead some simple little move, and she turned around and looked at me winked. And it made me feel special. I really like if the instructor is moving around the room and come in front of you and give you a genuine authentic smile it makes you feel like you’re having a better time. So I really try to do stuff like that, even if it’s something silly. If it works on me, I try to do that back to them.

One of our instructors is not super intense with her moves, but she’s so engaging and giving back with positive feedback and she’ll scream over the music like “you got it”. It didn’t seem like much but it made a difference. You don’t know what’s going on with something and you saying they got it, it could make their day.

Kate: I teach surfset and flo-yo classes and it’s 60/40 new people coming in to try this new workout, and many of them have never tried it before, and I kinda have to strike this  balance, and I struggle with, we only have a small class, I struggle with not singling people out by making them feel like an idiot by correcting them.

Diana: If it’s later in the class and people are getting tired, I don’t wanna single them out, because it’s embarrassing and I don’t wanna do that to people. But this one zumba instructor is amazing and there’s this merengue move where you want your arms to be strong, but sometimes when it’s later in the playlist I will do floppy arms, and I will remind people to do their arms right.

Kate: It’s either that I know they can go stronger, or they need a modification to make it easier, and you can’t tell them you know they can’t do what they’re trying, so I try to give the correction to the whole class even if I know it’s just one person.

Nina: I teach pole dance classes, so I have to start every class saying that if I give you modifications it is for your safety. I might have to call you out and make you stop what you’re doing because you’re gonna hurt yourself, but if you set that up at the start of class and make it part of the expectations, it’s not “critique”, it’s me helping you.

Lena: When I teach a TRX class there might only be 6 people in class, so if I say they can go down to their forearms in plank no one wants to be the one person who’s weaker than the rest so they over-push themselves. So I think it’s helpful to say that at the start of class, but also offering physical corrections.

Diana: People always want to follow the lead instructor, but sometimes you have people in class who are experienced. So sometimes I’ll do the lower level move and show that someone else is doing the more advanced version which also makes that person feel special. But then there are others who will see that if the instructor isn’t doing the advanced they won’t either.

Tasha: It comes down to our egos. I don’t need to prove that I can do the tricks, you know I can do them, but sometimes it’s worth showing it to new people. This is not my workout, this is for me to teach you. And I take a break when I see that one person in the back who needs a break. When you hear a correction, assume I’m talking to you. And I want to give thumbs up or a “good job”. And it’s you, in between all the people you know, and the new people in the back. I tell people if you wanna stay back there and step-touch and leave, hang out and finish the class and then decide if you hate it.

(Brief discussion on people taking selfies in class – conversation moved quickly back and forth and the general consensus is that people should respect the class and leave their phones alone.)

Lauren: To get back to what we were talking about, I teach BodyPump, and spinning too, and one of the biggest issues I have with BP – and I love teaching it – I usually have 40 people in my classes, and a lot of people in their 40-60s and they are hardcore because everyone’s like that in Boulder, the problem that I have is that I’m up there teaching, and so many people have horrible form, and I never call anybody out but try to give general corrections, and some times I try to show people how to do it correctly after class and some people are great about that but some people get offended. And with new people I try to tell them before class that it’s okay that they’re going to be a big mess but it gets better.

Lena: 15 minutes before class once a week invite everyone to a form clinic where you can show proper form of the basic moves.

Lauren: I lived in Maryland and taught there for 5 years, but the culture here is so different. There are a lot of road cyclists who come in and it’s part of their training, and it’s different in MD because people just come in for a fun workout.

???: I’ll go stand next to people in the room out in the middle to remind people how it’s supposed to be done, and you’re getting down off the stage and onto their level. And towards the end people are getting tired, just say things like “but you can do anything for 15 seconds”, and it often helps. But sometimes people are know-it-alls and some take constructive criticism but others don’t. And if you’ve said something several times and they’re not listening, what more can you do?

Lena: Here’s a cue I would use: If you lose your form, you have to scale down.

Tasha: There are so many classes, and the schedules are stacked, and many gyms don’t have the time to add those 101 sessions. Classes are too stuffed.

Diana: I have the good fortune of having time after my class, but there are three main things I’ve done that work really well: One was like you said the mini-workshop, and I say it’s free, it’s fun, I’m going to do this for you, and this was inspired by The Go-Giver which says you should go above and beyond and give more of yourself. So I thought how I can give more of myself; well I can stay after class and give them my time and knowledge. And I don’t ever wanna critique anyone’s dance style.  The only things I critique are squats or things where they can get hurt, not their dance.

I one time taught a class that’s a mix of yoga-pilates-toning, and I took one song and right before I went over squat form, and my company’s motto is “if you’re moving you’re doing it right”, but I told them I wanna talk about squats because it’s important for you to have good form so you don’t hurt yourself. And then do squats at your own pace during this song, and I went through the room and corrected them. And I told them it’s about them getting the best workout they can.

Another thing I did was a 9 week challenge, because one of the complaints with dance fitness is that it’s not hard enough – and it’s because they’re not doing it all the way. And before class every week we did like a short intro and I took one or two little things, like merengue arms, and I showed them how to do it right and how to engage, and it was just a quick thing before class, and it was a way that I could educate them but I put into little digestible pieces. I told them that it’s something extra I’m doing because I want them to get the most out of this workout and have it be more effective, and so people wanted to do it.

I went to a really great presentation by this guy named Steve Boedt called Be The Inspiration. And I don’t know if you guys ever have this, but you’re in class and you’re doing your thing and this one person goes like this (blank face) and you assume they hate you. I always think I’ve done something wrong. He said that he had a master class and this woman came in and showed up late and was half-way doing things in the back, and took all these breaks, and it deflated his confidence and really got to him, and he taught a really bad workshop because of this one person. And the person came up to him after and said she was so excited to be there and was just recovering from an injury, and apologized for not doing everything full out but she just had to come see his class. And he realized that he projected all these negative thoughts based on what this person was doing. So don’t let it get you down, regardless of whether they are upset with you, you can’t let that make you give a bad class to everyone else.

Last year these two new girls came to class and I was showing off these new moves, and they were goofing off and laughing in the back, and I thought they were making fun of me, but I thought of Steve and moved on. And it was funny because a lot of the time new people don’t come talk to you after class, but these two girls did come up to me and said how much fun they had and apologized for goofing off but said they were trying to stay on top of the moves and having fun. So Steve was right!

???: You never know what’s going on with someone else. And honestly, it’s not about you, people are in their own headspace, so you can’t take it personally.

Ivanna: I’m not a very smiley person, but people think I’m stuck up or mad but I’m happy on the inside. You just have to give them a good workout whether you are smiling or not they’ll come back. I don’t have to change myself to be fake and bubbly, because I’m enthusiastic but I’m more in a militant way. Not everyone’s going to like you, and that’s fine, there’s five more people who will.

Kate: I run media relations and social media for our company, and there are some people that just want to talk at you – they don’t wanna talk with you ever. So it doesn’t matter what you offer, they just want to get their voice out there.

Lauren: The other problem I’ve had, I had people texting during class, and this one girl would listen to headphones, and just rudeness. And I would say people should put their phones away, but they still wouldn’t do it. So I ended up not teaching that class anymore.

Lena: I have another cue for you, you get talkers in the back, you get people who put their headphones on who do their own thing, and for those just tell them there are stationary bikes on the floor so they can leave- and the cues that helped me is in the beginning of the class, you say this class runs like a movie theater, all conversations have to be stopped, cell phones have to be put away, if there’s an emergency just step outside but don’t disrupt the class.

And that wrapped up the small group discussion. 

This session was captured by Nina Reed.