Buff Bride

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STORY BY Stephanie Shapiro      PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mary C. Gardella


Six months before her wedding last October, Emily Borja could not imagine walking down the aisle sleeveless. To cover up her less-than-buff upper arms, the Glenelg High School art teacher buff_bride_2planned to add sleeves to her gown, a glamorous frock with autumn leaves woven into the fabric.

At the very least, though, Borja wanted to do justice to the form-fitting dress. “I was looking for just a little more tightening and toning.” Minus the breathless aerobics: “I don’t love ‘perky’ or too much jumping.”

Getting in shape for a big event, be it a wedding, college reunion, retirement party or performance, doesn’t have to involve frantic step classes, heavy weights or long distances. Plenty of alternative workouts are just as effective and a lot more fun, as Borja discovered when she signed up for classes at Pure Barre studio in Columbia. After the first few sessions, “I couldn’t believe how good I felt,” she says.

A low-impact workout designed to lengthen and tone muscles, Pure Barre involves tiny isometric movements performed with light weights and other equipment while holding onto a ballet barre. Within weeks, Borja, 30, saw results. “My arms got nice and toned and I actually lost 25 pounds in about six months,” she reports. “I had to take in my dress a lot.”

With betrothed women like Emily in mind, Pure Barre offers a bride-to-be package that includes unlimited classes for three months. “We have a lot of success stories,” says Carmel McGuire, owner of the Pure Barre Studio in Columbia. Proof often comes in the form of clients’ photos of their well-defined backs in strapless dresses and other fitness triumphs, McGuire says.

buff_bride_1Brides aren’t the only ones who want to fine-tune their physiques for a wedding without committing to hardcore calisthenics. Pamela Schuckman, an Aqua Arthritis instructor at the Dancel Family Center Y in Ellicott City, recommends regular exercise in a swimming pool. A gentle water workout can mean the difference “between being able to dance at your granddaughter’s wedding versus sitting on the sidelines,” she says. The warm water “gives you more range of motion and flexibility,” says Schuckman, who took the class herself after extensive hip surgery. It’s easier for participants to “feel a level of achievement,” And that means, they are more likely to stick with the program, Schuckman says. “And that is huge for anybody who is planning a big event.”

While developed to ease arthritis pain and increase mobility, Schuckman’s class also meets the needs of people with Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, or who have had strokes, joint replacements and other surgeries, she says. “No two classes are the same. I mix it up all the time. I never want my students to get bored.”

Some alternatives to the treadmill or cross-trainer can’t even be classified as exercise in the usual sense of the word. Renu Gholap teaches Bollywood dance at Howard County Community College and in her home. Many of her students are from the local Indian community and are preparing to perform at festivals locally or in India. Gholap also choreographs Bollywood dance presentations for wedding party members – a la the exuberant closing scene of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” Participants get a good workout as she puts them through their paces, she says.

buff_bride_4Unlike classical Indian dance forms that focus specifically on footwork or hand gestures, Bollywood dance works the entire body, Renu says. “This is the perfect dance to have that hourglass waist.”

Choreography and fitness also go hand in hand at Genesis Arts, a Columbia studio for training in dance, fitness and musical theater. “We have several packages specifically to prepare for a wedding,” says studio owner Lori Struss. She and her staff choreograph dances for wedding parties and offer dance lessons to couples whether they want to glide across the floor in a lilting waltz or bust some hip hop moves.

Before their wedding last November, Cynthia Diamond and Hanock John (pictured at right) took dance lessons with Struss. “She was patient with us and understood our different styles. I love to dance and my husband has two left feet,” says Cynthia John, a database administrator at the Social Security Administration. Struss created the Laurel couple’s first dance, which took them from the swirling melodies of Coldplay to Usher’s suave hip hop to Maroon 5’s jazzy pop.

Although their sessions with Struss were not specifically intended as fitness training, they were an endorphin-lifting relief from more static wedding preparations, says Cynthia, 32. The lessons “helped us stay active and to do something active together.” And as they performed their first dance as husband and wife, “It was a great feeling,” she says. “We were floating across the dance floor and it felt natural, unlike our practice sessions when we always had to think about the next step.”

Struss also consults with future brides (and often grooms) to find out what their fitness goals are for their wedding day. “Most people, depending on their body types, hold weight in certain areas,” she says. “I’ll recommend yoga or barre to sculpt and strengthen. If someone is deconditioned, I’ll suggest a cardio or Zumba class.”

buff_bride_3The goal is not to become a perfect specimen, Struss says. It’s about well-being. “Don’t we all want to look good and feel good in our clothes? Honestly, it’s such a good feeling, especially as a woman, to have a new outfit on and you feel beautiful and you feel that you look your best. That’s what fitness should be.”

Matt Jones, a trainer at Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia, takes a similar approach. “The general trend of fitness, not just in climbing, but in the world, is toward functional fitness and alternative ways to get fit, not just going to the gym and using everyday machines.”

An activity like climbing is more enjoyable, Jones says. “You’re not thinking, ‘Oh man, I have to go to the gym today.’ And you’re burning the same or more calories and you feel like you did something fun, not a chore.”

Functional fitness encompasses more than weight loss, Jones says. Clients are “really happy when they get to go to that event feeling good about themselves whether or not they hit their weight goal.” Pursuing a challenging sport like climbing contributes to a more positive body image, he says. It changes “the way you stand, the way you carry yourself, your posture, your smile. Whether or not you lose the 20 pounds, you just look a lot better.”

What’s more, rock climbing is an upper-body exercise that will do wonders for a woman’s appearance, Jones says. “If you’re wearing a backless dress, people will notice.” *

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