Baltimore's self-described fitness diva has sashayed and stomped her way into living rooms this season with a local cable fitness show and two powerful new videos.
The exposure is raising Althea Lawton-Thompson -- by many accounts one of the area's best fitness instructors -- to fitness celebrity status.
Get ready to get "Altheatized."
Lawton-Thompson is, as she says, part diva, part entrepreneur and part mom. And the 33-year-old mother of two, who is black, has carved a successful niche in an industry dominated by white women.
Lawton-Thompson, a 5-foot-10-inch hardbody with luxurious braids, peppers traditional aerobics with her signature blend of sexy funk, hip-hop and soul moves.
"Afro-Brazilian, swing, '60s moves -- they're all hooks," she says. "I teach women they can be sexy and fun. If exercise isn't fun, no one is going to do it."
The Baltimore County resident released her first video, Altheatized Volume One: A Funky Dance Aerobic Workout, in 2001. It went on to become one of Essence magazine's top video picks last year.
Lawton-Thompson teaches several classes at Baltimore's LifeBridge Health & Fitness club, but it was last fall when she really began to be noticed. She released two new videos then, and in December her morning fitness show, Altheatized, debuted on Baltimore's public television station, TV21.
"We get calls about her every day," says Marilyn Harris-Davis, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, which produced her fitness videos and the TV show.
The cable show airs Monday through Friday at 7 a.m. There are currently five taped segments that incorporate different aerobic workouts. TV21 reaches about 115,000 to 200,000 city residents, says Harris-Davis.
According to Jill Ross, co-owner of Collage Video, a major national fitness video distributor, Lawton-Thompson's weight-training and cardio-interval tapes (she has a total of three videos available) are "a draw. She has a growing following," Ross adds.
While exercise was essential in the Lawton household -- both her parents were marathon runners -- Lawton-Thompson never considered athletics as a career move.
Growing up in Florida, she was a runner like her parents. But after graduating from college with a business degree, she gave up competitive running to pursue a career in the financial world. By the mid-1990s, she was traveling the country as a credit manager for General Electric Corp.
In 1995, she injured her knee training for a marathon, and turned to aerobic dance for exercise. By then, she says, GE had asked her to move for a fifth time, so she decided to leave the company and stay in Randallstown. Unemployed, she tried teaching aerobics.
"It was a fluke," she recalls.
It turned out to be a fortuitous fluke.
Lawton-Thompson went on to earn national certifications for teaching aerobics, spinning, yoga and aquatic fitness. She also became a personal trainer.
She began teaching at small clubs, and in 1997 landed a job at LifeBridge, where group exercise director Shelley Seff says Lawton-Thompson has had a "tremendous impact" on the club's aquatics programs.
"When we put Althea's name out, we get a great turnout," she says. "She has infectious energy. I joke that she doesn't even have to say anything -- the energy just shows in her face."
During a recent Cardio Pump class, her microphone didn't work. But Lawton-Thompson, dressed in a barely-there top and black yoga pants, lit up the room. Within minutes, class members were laughing, even as they cried out that she was "killing" them.
To maintain her own fitness level outside of teaching, Lawton-Thompson favors yoga, aerobics, weight-training and running. She says she gets her best "definition" from yoga.
"She's very focused, very committed and always does what she sets out to do," says fellow instructor and friend Gia-Ninh Chuang.
What Lawton-Thompson didn't figure on, however, was having children. She planned to teach aerobics "forever," and to hang out with her husband, Maurice, 34, who works for Verizon Wireless. But when she found out she was pregnant with her first son, Maurice 3rd, now 5, she says her life changed. Malik, her other son, is 1.
After her children were born, Lawton-Thompson slowed her traveling and cut her work hours. She also began to focus on children's fitness. She currently teaches StrollAerobics, LifeBridge's class for parents and their children. She also leads a teen exercise program funded by Johns Hopkins Hospital.
A new video later this year is in the planning stages, possibly a "mind-body" workout with a tribal flair, she says.
With her still-hectic schedule of teaching, training and media appearances, she should be frazzled. But she isn't.
"That's the yoga," she says, laughing.
Her family also keeps her grounded, she adds. Lawton-Thompson scoffs at peers' comments that she is a role model, saying her goal is simply to live the best way she can. "What I put out in life, I get back."
Althea Lawton-Thompson teaches at LifeBridge Health & Fitness, in Baltimore. Her regularly scheduled classes are:
* StrollAerobics, Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 a.m.
* Aqua Fit, Wednesday and Friday at 9:30 a.m.
* Cardio Muscle Fusion, Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
* Yoga, Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
Lawton-Thompson's cable show, Altheatized, airs Monday through Friday at 7 a.m. on Baltimore's public television station, TV21.
For more information, contact LifeBridge: 410-484-6800; www.lifebridgehealthandfitness .com. Lawton-Thompson's videos can be found at www.altheatized.com or at Collage Video: 800-433-6769; www.collagevideo.com.
* To get motivated and stay in shape, Althea Lawton-Thompson advises, choose a sport that's fun.
Find something that does not feel like work -- roller-skating, dancing or swimming, perhaps.
* Eat smart. Don't skip meals. Eat what you like, sensibly, at frequent intervals throughout the day rather than eating too much at a few sittings.
* Stay active. Move throughout the day. Park at the back of the mall parking lot and race-walk to the doors. Take the stairs instead of the elevators at work.
"It all adds up," she says.