When Jean Kelter Dills started teaching Jazzercise in Hood River, Ronald Reagan was president, she used 45-rpm records to play music, and Frank Arnold, one of her first students, was 58 years old.
Thirty-two years later, Jean plays her class’s daily music selections on an I-Pod. Her record player, purchased for $335, should probably be on exhibit in a museum. Her cassette and CD players (which followed the record player’s retirement) are collecting dust in her basement, and Frank Arnold is still attending class every week. At 90 years of age, his “jazz squares” and “chasses” may not be quite as graceful as they were in 1982, but what he lacks in form he more than makes up for in enthusiasm.
Frank and his lovely wife, Gloria, are part of a unique community of folks who get together three to five days a week to exercise. Jean is, and has been, their caring instructor for all 32 of those years. She’s taken some time off — to deliver two sons into the world and to celebrate her 50th birthday at the Eiffel Tower — but you can pretty much guarantee that at 8:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, her “regulars” will be filing into the Hood River Armory ready to move their bodies to peppy music.
Founder Judi Missett started Jazzercise in 1969 in her southern California backyard. Since then, it’s become a leading player in the fitness game. Basically, Jazzercise is a comprehensive exercise program that includes a warm-up, followed by light, medium and heavy aerobics, strength training and a cool-down.
Becoming an instructor involves rigorous training and evaluations. Instructors like Jean are assessed on a regular basis.
The people from Jazzercise Central who come to assess Jean don’t know what to make of her Armory class. They come to watch her teach, expecting to see a homogeneous group of hard bodies breathing heavily and perhaps even grimacing as they follow her through the routines. What the evaluators see instead is everything from flapping (sometimes flailing) arms to stylish dance moves. And what they are always sure to see, and hear, are smiles and laughter as the students banter back and forth to Jean and amongst themselves. The median age may be over 50, but these girls (and Frank of course) are having FUN!
In addition to exercising together, Jean’s class celebrates and supports each other. They mark birthdays and new babies with festivities. Janice, a 25-plus-year veteran of the class, invited them to her wedding, where they danced the night away. As a class they’ve supported fellow members who have faced serious illness and lost loved ones.
I asked Jean what she thought the reason was that the class had such a feeling of community. She said, “Everyone is so different, but they all come together. They’re all comfortable with their differences, comfortable with their different levels of exercise. I like the fact that we have one 26-year-old who really works out, and we have others who take it easier. Everyone goes at his or her own pace.”
Jean and her students visit with each other before, during and after class. There are certain subjects (such as politics) that they agree, with their silence, not to discuss. Otherwise, as Jean notes, “They know each other’s business.”
Central to that “business” recently was Frank’s birthday. They all got together and threw him a party worthy of a 90-year-old. Frank held the youngest member of the class, a 7-month-old baby, for a picture.
In celebrating Frank’s milestone, they celebrated their own achievements, including their regular sessions of fitness and fun. In taking care of themselves, they also take care of each other.
If you’d like to join the Armory classes, you are most welcome. Classes run Monday through Friday from 8:30-9:30 a.m. at the Hood River Armory. Cost is $35/month or $5 drop-in. Men are welcome, too.
(You may have noticed that Jean and I share some names. She is my sister-in-law, and I am her sister-in-law. I met my husband at the wedding that joined Jean and my brother Rick. Four years later Jim and I wed. We’ve been sisters, and close friends, for close to 40 years.)