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Exercise with an edge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Boston hipsters Hilken Mancini and Maura Jasper spent much of the '90s in clubs and bars.

They drank. They smoked. They stayed out late at punk rock shows.

And when the new millennium dawned, these two veterans of the New England punk scene saw that they weren't just worn down, they were badly out of shape.

"We were realizing that we were in our 30s and that we weren't looking or feeling so great," Mancini said.

But their mental picture of aerobics classes -- mirror-wrapped rooms filled with beefcake instructors and gym-bunny types -- kept them away from conventional fitness centers.

"Our options [were not good,]" said Mancini, who added that she and Jasper were daunted by what, to their minds, was a cookie-cutter workout culture.

With no suitable alternatives, the two self-described "doughballs" decided to make their own punk-rock exercise program.

"Much of what punk rock is about is to look at the status quo and say, 'yuck,' " explained Mancini. "What we did was just that. We just created [a solution] ourselves."

And so it was that the newly released book Punk Rock Aerobics was conceived.

The punk-influenced workout moves (think pogo jumps and Pete Townshend-style guitar windmills), set to some of the genre's classic songs, got a public debut in 2001 when Mancini and Jasper held the first punk rock aerobics classes -- P.R.A., as they're known -- in a Boston nightclub.

The weekly sessions attracted a loyal following that, in turn, engendered the book, which went on sale last month.

The 208-page text is an illustrated and often hilarious manual of "killer" exercise moves accompanied by fitness-focused Q&A; interviews with an impressive selection of punk rock legends.

A comprehensive discography is also included, so that P.R.A. practitioners can choose their own punk soundtrack for a raucous at-home session of lunges, head shakes and knee bends.

The authors' tongue-in-cheek tone is displayed in the photographic demonstrations of moves (one is named the "Transient Squatter") and the related info-bits. Skull and crossbones aerobic intensity ratings, for example, show one skull for "lo-fi," or the lowest-impact moves, and three skulls for "hi-fi," or high-intensity maneuvers.

This irreverence has mostly been well-received, the authors say, but some in the punk community, which prides itself on going against the grain, have criticized Mancini and Jasper for going mainstream.

The authors take the criticism in stride, and have even included some hate mail in the book. They remain firm in the belief that P.R.A. is a good way for fitness-minded punks -- and anyone else -- to get active with a workout that they enjoy.

"The whole point is to do it to music that's inspiring, that's great," said Mancini. "And doing a leg lift to 'Submission' by the Sex Pistols is a lot more satisfying than if you're doing it to some lame Britney Spears song."

Mancini and Jasper, 33 and 38, respectively, said their own physiques have benefited from the workouts.

"We have gotten into such great shape. We feel better, we look better. It's become a part of our lives that we exercise," said Mancini, who added that other P.R.A. participants have had similar results.

"When people come to the class, they always come out [exhausted, and] saying that they love it," noted Jasper.

The Boston scene may be wild for the punk workouts, but the verdict is still out on whether the book will catch on in Baltimore, where there is a thriving punk community.

Though he was surprised to hear that side bends were being set to tunes by punk / hardcore band Husker Du, local bike courier and self-described punk Mike Riley is comfortable with the punk-fitness combination.

"I'm all about people expanding their ideas of what is acceptable and what is not," said Riley, 28, a Hampden resident who's been a bike messenger for about two years.

"Keeping a DIY [do-it-yourself] attitude and not having to use mainstream resources is what punk is about," he added. "And as far as I can tell, that's what they're doing."

While Riley doesn't think the book is a gimmick, local punk record store clerk Tony Pence questioned the authors' motives and said the book is a mainstream parody that flies in the face of true punk and its alternative culture.

Although he noted that their adherence to the DIY ethos is admirable, Pence commented by e-mail that the book has a "subject matter and photos [that] seem really cheesy."

"I would certainly pass it by on the bookshelves," he added.

"It doesn't surprise me at all," Jasper said, that some fans of today's punk are turned off by the idea of a punk workout book. She believes their distaste comes either from insecurity or an unwillingness to break out of the stereotypical mold that mainstream culture has created for punks.

Fitting in is counter to the movement's original ideal of individualism set forth more than 25 years ago by seminal bands like the Ramones and Iggy & the Stooges, Mancini noted.

But being true to punk rock, she explained, is "about letting your freak flag fly and not caring what everybody else thinks."

The authors' free-to-be-me sentiment is what led former Minutemen bassist and punk legend Mike Watt to become a P.R.A. fan.

Watt, a one-time guest DJ at P.R.A. classes who is also featured in one of the book's Q&A; interviews, called the concept gutsy and said the book works because it doesn't fit neatly into any commercialized music or fitness category.

"I wish I could impart that kind of confidence on people. You don't have to belong," said Watt, 46, who includes cycling and kayaking in his weekly activities.

At a time when pop culture and major record labels have watered down the punk concept, Watt said it's important to promote the DIY ethos.

"Kids, they don't understand punk. They get away from this idea that all that stuff [the music, the philosophy, the style] is more about taking things into your own hands. If this book makes the idea of punk a little deeper, more than just a shallow image, then I think it's a good thing."

Aerobics, Watt added, may not be the workout of choice for many punk rockers. But it's important for everyone to find some exercise that fits.

"There's a lot of ways to express yourself punk" through fitness, he added. "You can still deal with your body on your own terms, in your own way."

"Everybody finds out eventually that it's important to do something physical," Jasper said. "People do wake up to that."

No-joke exercise

Hilken Mancini and Maura Jasper admit that their book, Punk Rock Aerobics, has comical overtones, but they say the workouts are legitimate -- and challenging.

"It's not a joke," Mancini said of the exercises. "People come to our class ... for a really good workout."

The authors, who have become certified aerobics instructors, said they based many of the punk-influenced moves in the book on traditional exercises.

For example, the "Gene Simmons" mouth and jaw stretch, named after the Kiss bass player known for his on-stage tongue wagging, is taken from a yoga pose known as the lion posture. Other moves, including the leg-lift / arm-crunch combo called the "Transient Squatter," are based on classic aerobics moves that work more than one muscle group at a time.

Punk Rock Aerobics (Da Capo Press, $17.95) is available through online sellers and at various local chains.

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