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Aerobics Training Oriental Style

--by Devra Swiger

Remembering tricky choreography, being consistent and timely with cues and keeping your classes new and exciting are daily challenges for all aerobic instructors. Now how about managing all of that while teaching in a foreign language, dealing with specific cultural attitudes and keeping your nicely toned buttocks out of jail. Juggling all these things in a day is not easy, but I have learned to do them effectively and efficiently.

No Speaka English?

I moved to Taiwan in early 1991...pregnant, confused and terribly homesick. I decided to start teaching aerobics shortly after the baby was born when listening to a group of ladies complain about the shortage of good fitness instructors in Taiwan. Why not? I had many years of dance training and I was a regular "front row" participant in classes before I left the States. I invested in video tapes and music, worked out a few basic routines and spent a lot of time learning the tricks of the trade from pros like Karen Voight and Gin Miller.

Most of my students were American, British or European, but there were several local Taiwanese who didn't speak a word of English and my Mandarin was at the "How are you," and "How much does this cost?" stage. And you thought teaching the mambo was difficult! Needless to say, I learned the names for the parts of the body very quickly, although I'm sure I confused the knees with the shoulders and the head with the butt on more than one occasion.

Hot Water Anyone?

Now that I'm living in Malaysia, a country where English is understood by most people, I don't have to worry about the verbal communication. I no longer make silly mistakes like telling people to raise their ankles to shoulder level, or keep their noses in neutral position, but I now have the good fortune of hearing (and understanding) all sorts of international views of fitness topics. For example, many Chinese believe that drinking water during and after class is bad. They also believe that warm water is far better than cold. It isn't unusual to be offered a glass of cloudy, lukewarm water after a long, exhausting work-out.

Look Like a Bodybuilder in Six Easy Lessons

The reluctance to use hand weights - no matter how light - is also an issue among Asian women. Not all, of course, as I've seen some very strong and muscular Oriental females. However, the average client is concerned that even very light handweights will cause large, bulging muscles. Reciting information to the contrary doesn't help diminish their strong beliefs. I overheard one woman saying how her friend took aerobics classes for three months and now has the musculature of a female body builder. The women listening shook their heads knowingly and glanced suspiciously at me - a potential body snatcher.

Not the Americans Again!

The local population also has attitudes towards foreigners - especially Americans. I used to work at a club where I was the only certified aerobics instructor. Some of the classes taught by other instructors were downright dangerous...inadequate warm-ups, no cool-downs and enough contraindicated moves to fill a book on how not to teach aerobics. To make matters worse, it was these same instructors who regularly told members that my classes were too slow and ineffective. Their philosophy on fitness was to fling your arms and legs until you drop from exhaustion. In a sincere effort to inform, I distributed articles on how to get into terrific shape without killing yourself. None of this impressed them. In fact, my actions further proved their theory that Americans were a bunch of know-it-alls who had lots of money, but not much common sense.

Go Directly to Jail. Do Not Collect $200

Then there are the legal issues to attend to. After teaching in Malaysia for nearly two years, I found out that I was working illegally. The penalty was a large fine, imprisonment and possible deportation. I didn't fancy the idea of spending a few nights in a Malaysian penitentiary, nor the humiliation of being thrown out of the country, so I decided to check out the necessary procedures to make myself legal. Assuming I could find someone to sponsor me and assuming the government would approve the paperwork, I could pay a huge fee, cut my monthly wages in half and then lose most of that in taxes. No thanks. I like what I do, but I also like having some income.

The difficulties of working in a foreign country are many, but there are also plenty of rewards. I've made friends from all over the world and have made a difference in their attitudes towards fitness and exercise. One Norwegian student of mine said, "I've never really liked aerobic dance until I took your class. Now when I go back to Norway, I'll try and find an instructor like you and keep it up." Hearing something like that makes all the other nuisances seem trivial.

Now if I could only find a nice cold glass of water.

--Devra Swiger is an ACE certified aerobics instructor who has published fitness articles in Malaysia and Taiwan. She writes a regular fitness column for Destinations, a Citicorp publication.

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