'Glitz and ditz' roles anger aerobics buffs


If you're into aerobics and saw the movie "Made in America," you probably wanted to toss your unbuttered popcorn at the screen when Jennifer Tilly appeared as the bimbo aerobics instructor doing naked cartwheels.

You probably wanted to spit out your Diet Coke when she bounced around in those teeny, tiny, fanny-exposing leotards, or when she hugged her pink teddy bear while listening to meditation tapes -- or when she appeared on the screen at all with that screechy, high-pitched voice.

Ms. Tilly -- who played Ted Danson's live-in lady friend -- was no compliment to aerobics instructors or womanhood in general.

"Tilly played a part in this movie. This is supposed to be comedy," said Warner Bros. PR executive Dawn McElwaine from her LA office. "And, further, nobody at the studio will speak on this issue because this isn't an issue."

It may not be an issue, but "aerobics instructor" does seem to be a code for "bimbo" in Hollywood movies. And it's definitely being noticed by real aerobics instructors. Barbara Schiff, co-owner of Workout Company in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., points to other movies that promote the stereotype: Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," in which a young, ditzy aerobics instructor steals a man from his wife, and the 1985 flick "Perfect," in which Jamie Lee Curtis is an aerobicizer who does sexy gymnastics for the camera.

"I teach aerobics, and this is not the way we are," says Ms. Schiff.

"That cute little girl [Tilly] is not the typical aerobics instructor. When you come to our place, you don't see anyone who acts like that. The aerobics instructors we hire are schoolteachers, doctors, nurses, occupational therapists --I'm a psychologist. Aerobics isn't about being pretty and looking in the mirror, it's about being strong."

Strong enough to handle being the object of scorn? Maybe not.

"I wait to tell people I'm an aerobics instructor -- until they get to know me," says Jacqui Chabot, who teaches for the Workout Company. "I'll say I'm an exercise coach or a personal trainer because, unfortunately, when I say I'm an aerobics teacher, nobody will take me seriously at first."

Ms. Chabot, who studies literature at Detroit's Wayne State University, says people's imaginations still fly if they hear you teach aerobics. "They just think you're a ditz, that you're stupid."

Rick DeLorme, instructor of exercise science at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., says, "It's no longer fashionable to stereotype races of people or gay people, so they're picking on aerobics instructors." He says 10 or 15 years ago, when aerobic dancing first became popular, there may have been aerobics instructors who were well built and knew little about exercise, but he feels that's not the case today. "Anyone who stays in the business has to know about all aspects of health science, weight control, safety in exercise,and many have to be certified by ACE (American Council on Exercise) to work at all because the level of instruction has risen."

Take, for instance, Helaine Rodin Keller, co-owner of Birmingham, Mich. aerobic exercise studio Fitnesse.

"I have a dance degree and a psych degree -- all my instructors know what they're doing and are educated," says Ms. Keller. "We're trained. We're educated. We don't throw on tights and just hop around."

But that still doesn't make it any easier for aerobics dance teachers trying to make an honest living. Especially when celebrities like Cher and Cindy Crawford impart more than aerobics in their exercise videos.

"I'd say Cher is promoting sex, not aerobics, in her latest exercise video where she has on that see-through lace outfit," Ms. Chabot says.

And Bev Chrzanowski, who owns Spunky's Gym in Clawson, Mich., notes that some aerobicizers perpetuate the negative image themselves through the skimpy stuff they wear in certain glitzy, well-known gyms.

"I don't know how they can dress in thongs and skimpy tops and concentrate on their workout," she says. As in most cases, stereotypical views are held by those with little or no firsthand experience with the subject.

A little time on the exercise floor may be all that's needed for a serious attitude change.

Ask Wayne Szostak, 52, a retired GM supervisor of engineering who has just finished a rough, low-impact, hour-long aerobics class Ms. Chabot teaches at a GM facility. "My experience is that most aerobic instructors are above average intelligence," says Mr. Szostak. "They are also disciplined and very self-motivated. They have to be. She does this four times a day. I couldn't do this four times a day, could you?"

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