It is difficult to fight the mid-autumn blues. Midterms and cold, grey weather conspire to suck students into the fluorescent depths of Cross Campus Library. A Machine City subsistence slowly drains the good cheer out of life for the hunch-backed victims crammed into their weenie bins.
But on the fifth floor of Payne Whitney Gymnasium, midterm stress meets death by Step.
Sweating to the souped-up beat of Christina Aguilera’s “I am Beautiful,” a room full of women step-and-spring in unison to an odd barrage of commands. They “Tick-Tock,” do the “Rocking Horse,” clap, and then journey “Around the World.”
“Awesome, guys!” their instructor, Andrea Maikovich ’05, shouts into her headset.
The class moves into synchronized lunges and Flash Dance-esque running steps. A small crowd of curious on-lookers gathers outside the double doors and stands captivated, as if watching a Jennifer Lopez music video.
You won’t find this class in the Blue Book. There are no papers, tests or blackboards, and the teacher is an undergraduate herself. In many ways, Maikovich’s aerobics class and the 68 other basic and specialty physical education classes offered by the Athletics Department serve as escapes from the typical Yale schedule.
“I think this is a really important part of a balanced life,” Maikovich said. “It’s a good study break.”
Finding the time for fitness is no easy task. Yale students are notorious for living lives like soccer moms on speed. When you’re married to schoolwork and extracurriculars and the cashier at Starbucks greets you by name, leading a “balanced life” can seem like a distant dream.
When it comes to getting regular exercise, many students find the ordinary grind of the Adrian C. “Ace” Israel Fitness Center less than compelling. The solitary, repetitive workouts can sometimes lack the snazz necessary to drag busy people to the gym.
In order to get their tired rear ends off the futon, many Yale students turn to the Athletics Department’s classes, which provide specialized workouts in a structured setting. And despite the fact that the Athletics Department introduced a fee for its basic physical education classes this year, many students are willing to pay to get away from the monotony of machines.
“It’s not like running on a treadmill in one place for hours,” Genevieve Essig ’05, who is currently enrolled in a jazz dance class, said.
Stepping up the cost
With its peppy music and even peppier instructors, step aerobics classes attract many students looking for a snappy fitness alternative.
“It gets you there; it’s motivating to be in a room full of people,” said Brittany Craiglow ’04 who teaches two step classes. “When you get on a machine, it’s easy to get off, but it’s not so easy to leave class.”
Craiglow has taught step aerobics — which falls somewhere between running bleachers and performing a dance routine — for three years at Yale, but this is the first year her students had to pay for her class. Last year, and for as long as most administrators can remember, regular physical education classes were free to students.
Larry Matthews, the associate director for sports and recreation athletics, said the department was simply no longer able to continue funding a wide-range of classes for free. Out of the Ivy League, only Harvard still offers free classes, Matthews said.
Basic fitness classes now cost students between $10 and $30 for a semester. Specialty classes have remained fee-based and cost between $40 and $165. Matthews said the money goes to the Athletics Department.
“[I thought], obviously, we’re going to see a decline in enrollment,” he said.
But out of the 44 previously free classes, only two had inadequate enrollment this year and were cut, he said. Although Matthews said the department received more requests for refunds than in the past, on the whole, the implementation of fees has not harmed the program.
Maikovich said some of her students were annoyed with the fees, but attendance in her class has increased this year.
“I think psychologically — because they paid, a greater number of people come on a regular basis,” she said.
Despite the sustained popularity of classes, Maikovich said she thinks the Athletics Department does not do as good a job promoting its physical education programs as it could.
Matthews said that each semester the Athletics Department prints 10,000 copies of its schedule and places them in the gym’s lobby, the Fitness Center and the Ray Tompkins House.
“If I didn’t already exercise or go to the gym, I wouldn’t have known that classes existed,” Maikovich said. “I think they do a good job once you set foot in the door, but not on the whole campus.”
Nevertheless, all the step classes filled to capacity this year. Craiglow said she was supposed to teach only one class, but too many people showed up at registration, so another class was added.
“I love it,” Melissa Jeffries ’05, a student in Maikovich’s step class, said. “She varies it every time we go. She keeps up the pace so you can be challenged.”
A $30 fee has hardly deterred Yale’s yoga enthusiasts. The Athletics Department offers 10 Hatha Yoga classes, all of which filled to capacity within a few hours of registration, athletics administrative assistant Karen Parady-Raucci said.
“Different activities at different times have gotten hot and exciting,” Matthews said. “Right now, yoga is where people are focused and where the interest is.”
For stressed-out students weary of “Jock Jams” and clapping, yoga presents an enticing alternative.
“It’s such a break from the routine that becomes your life at Yale,” Zoe Blacksin ’05, who has taken two yoga classes at Yale, said. “I think the people that teach [Yoga] really understand that and indulge you in relaxation.”
Every Tuesday evening at Maureen McGuire’s Hatha Yoga class, students dutifully roll out their mats and settle into a cross-legged meditation position. The room becomes quiet — no pop music is needed for this session.
“Probably, most of us woke up this morning — we forgot to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m alive again,'” McGuire said to a room full of students at her Tuesday evening class this week. “We boldly take it for granted because it happens every day!”
Although slower paced than step, Blacksin said Yoga should still be considered fitness because it works muscle groups.
McGuire, who teaches eight yoga classes at Yale, said she has watched the program grow from 30 students when she first began to well over 100.
“When someone says, ‘I wait for the five minutes after class from week to week to feel good about myself,’ I think that speaks volumes,” she said.
En guard, you waterfowl!
On the steamy seventh floor of the gym, however, feeling good about yourself has nothing to do with inner peace, and everything to do with acting like a duck.
“Enjoy the life of the duck!” fencing instructor Henry Harutunian shouts to a class of four duck-footed students.
After being “drunken sailors,” the students walk in the squatting position across the floor of the room without batting an eyelash.
Unlike yoga and aerobics, only a small number of students sign up for the two fencing classes Harutunian has taught for many years. Several of these students are looking for a new hobby, and the Athletics Department classes allows them to experiment.
David Tian ’07, a student in Harutunian’s beginner fencing class, said he has learned a lot from fencing and hopes it will become one of his main hobbies.
“When I came to college, everyone said it was time to try new things,” he said. “Fencing has actually taught me to present myself better.”
Harutunian said learning about posture and coordination are key parts of fencing, and these exercises help his beginning fencing students learn to control their bodies. He said the fencing classes have helped him recruit for Yale’s varsity fencing team in the past, and he can always tell if a person has potential.
“Fencing is an unbelievable sport for developing coordination and concentration,” he said. “It’s a sport which doesn’t have any ages.”
Matthews said he hopes that the Athletic Department classes, like fencing, allow students to explore a range of fitness options.
“We have a very unique, very diverse range of activities,” he said. “I think there are a lot of opportunities, a lot of ways a person can recreate in their medium of choice.”
Or species of choice.
“Now you go to the life of the frog,” Harutunian shouts. “Enjoy the life of the frog.”