When Gwen Taylor turned 50 this month, she wanted to celebrate the milestone with something other than the typical dinner and drinks.
So one recent Saturday afternoon she and about a dozen girlfriends and relatives headed to a Catonsville fitness studio to sweat and burn off some calories in honor of Taylor's half-century.
Dressed in black fitness tights and brightly colored sport tank tops, they shimmied and shook at Taylor's Zumba birthday party.
The women are part of a growing legion celebrating life's important moments with fitness. Brides-to-be are raising their hands into sun salutations at yoga parties. Teenagers are pedaling to the beat of the music at birthday spin parties. And women like Taylor are dancing until they sweat at Zumba and Jazzercise parties.
"Fitness is a lifestyle," Taylor said. "It's even more important as you get older to stay active."
The popularity of fitness parties is being driven by a national movement to live more healthful lifestyles. Others are simply looking for different ways to celebrate birthdays and other events.
"You are doing something active and fun rather than sitting around just eating and drinking," said Shelley Sharkey, manager at Transformations Fitness for Women, where Taylor recently held her party. "As people become fitness enthusiasts, it is a great way to share that with people in their lives."
The fitness party scene at Transformations is evolving, Sharkey said. The gym has hosted other Zumba birthday parties and recently hosted a hip-hop dance party for a group of teenagers. Sharkey said she is also exploring the possibility of having bachelorette parties.
Charm City Yoga hosts events that have become popular with bridal parties. After months of intense wedding planning, many brides are looking for some peace before the big day, said Allison Korycki, the yoga chain's director of community relations and operations.
Bridal parties sometimes come to one of Charm City Yoga's studios, or instructors will come to the hotel where the group is staying. The instructor teaches for an hour to 75 minutes, and guests celebrate with food and drink when it is done.
"It's a nice way to de-stress," Korycki said.
Korycki said the studio has also held parties for a group of college students and a group of Girl Scouts and their moms. The yoga studio tries to fit teachers with the personality of each group, she said. Some want a restorative session, while others might desire a more active and intense power-yoga party.
The Maryland Athletic Club, or MAC, has also seen growing interest in fitness parties. Some of its members will start off the night with a spin or Zumba class before heading out for bar- and club-hopping.
"They sweat together and they shower up in the club before heading out on the town," said Sharon Nevins, MAC vice president of marketing.
Shelia Barksdale was looking for something different when she held a Zumba party to celebrate her 40th birthday at Transformations. She had T-shirts made that read "Zumba Party" and invited her closest friends. She decorated with balloons and streamers and gave out party favors before the dancing began.
"I wanted to get my girlfriends to do something different," said the program analyst, who lives in Catonsville. "I wanted to expose my friends to something new."
Fitness instructors said the parties are a good way to introduce people to exercise. Partygoers are often a combination of the very fit and those who would rather get a manicure than sweat in a gym.
"It lets people see that you can exercise and still have fun," said Valerie Stewart, a fitness instructor who led Taylor's Zumba party.
Taylor's niece, Tyra Mills, conceded that she was a little worried about being able to keep up. The party did get intense at times, she said.
"But I liked it," she said. "I would do it again."
Taylor decided to host a fitness party after two of her girlfriends had Zumba parties. One of those friends, Renee King, said she loves to dance but also wanted to do something healthy for her birthday.
"It's nice when it doesn't feel like a workout," she said. "You're still getting the health benefits, but having fun as well."
Prices of the parties can vary depending on the location. Some charge per person, while others charge a group rate or a fee to rent a room.
At Taylor's Zumba party, the women were led through a series of mostly Latin-inspired dance themes. They danced salsa, the merengue and the cha-cha to songs by Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj, among others.
When things got intense, instructor Stewart shouted out words of encouragement to get people pumped up again.
"It's going to be OK," she said. "You can handle it."
It was a little too intense for at least one participant, who found her way to back of the room to sit down.
The party ended with a free-style number as the ladies did the popular wobble line dance.
They then noshed on bananas and other fruit and drank bottled water.
No cake and soda at this fitness party.
"It's all about living a healthy lifestyle," Taylor said.