Step: Still Alive When You Help It Thrive

Step has plenty of potential when instructors and programs cater to new recruits and experienced veterans.

by Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA

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“Step is alive and thriving.” “Step took a dive and is not reviving.” Odds are good you’ve heard one, if not both, of these conflicting statements. Many group fitness instructors, myself included, have been leading and loving this mode for years. Some program directors stay committed to step, knowing its benefits or wanting to keep longtime, loyal steppers happy. A few may wonder how to attract younger or newer exercisers. Others have given up, stacked risers into closets or back rooms, and taken step off the schedule.

Like the real estate market, the status of step’s popularity seems to be local. Instructors in Central America anecdotally report strong participation, while attendance in the U.S. is uneven. Even within a given city, some facilities pack multiple step sessions like it’s 1989, while nearby gyms schedule step just once a week for a handful of die-hards.

One vibrant program proves that step can be alive and well. “In my suburb, 20 miles east of Minneapolis, we have several super-popular BODYSTEP™ classes per week that are filled to capacity,” relates Diane Hansen Olivieri, a longtime instructor and trainer in Hudson, Wisconsin. “The local YMCA stopped offering step, so those instructors and members approached the owners of our gym, who took on the program. Step has an almost cult following. In our gym, people are either all about BODYPUMP™ and step or wanting old-school step to come back, though perhaps with a twist.”

What leads step to succeed in some places, while it shrivels in others? Perhaps the more important question is what can you, as a group fitness instructor or program director, do to generate strong numbers in step sessions?

Don’t give in to the rumors that step is done and gone! Instead, try some of the strategies from successful instructors and directors around the world. These step leaders all claim happy, energized, passionate step participants. Follow their leads to avoid the mistakes that longtime fitness pros warn will spell step doom.

Ditch the Dance: Mix and Match

Providing just enough variety may be why Tamara Grand, a group fitness instructor and online fitness coach based in Port Moody, British Columbia, is doing so well. “I’ve been teaching step for about 10 years now. Despite what I hear people at other facilities say about step being ‘out of vogue,’ my classes are always packed, and often we send people away because we’re at capacity well before the class starts.”

To keep step current and interesting, Grand uses techniques to appeal to step veterans while also making the program doable for self-declared nonsteppers.

  1. COMBINE STEP PATTERNS WITH OTHER CARDIO AND STRENGTH ELEMENTS. Grand alternates step choreography, Tabata™ cardio intervals and multijoint strength exercises into an hourlong session that typically looks like this:
    • 5–7 minutes: warmup moves on the floor and the step
    • 7–10 minutes: basic step choreography
    • 4–5 minutes: cardio intervals (typically on the floor to give people a break from the step: burpees, speed skaters, squat jumps, split lunge jumps, power-overs, etc.)
    • 4–6 minutes: strength, two sets of 12–16 reps of two to three compound movements (squat-to-press, lunge and biceps curl, deadlift and row)
    • Repeat from bullet #2, leaving 10 minutes for core and stretching.
  2. CHOOSE ATHLETIC OVER DANCELIKE MOVEMENTS WHEN CREATING CHOREOGRAPHY. Grand sticks to movements on the step versus the floor to avoid complicating the patterns. She always teaches in 64-count patterns and rarely veers from 8-count movements.
  3. ENSURE THAT EVERYBODY CAN DO THE WORKOUT. “Give beginners time to learn the patterns while layering more complex variations for more advanced steppers,” Grand advises.

Do the Dance: Follow Three P’s

In contrast, Alexius Coronado is famous in South and Central America for his popular and dynamic dance-based step programs. Creator of “Step Plus” and former National Sportaerobics Champion with 11 gold medals, Coronado has presented and offered multiple step certifications in his 28 years as a fitness instructor, first in Venezuela and now in Panama.

What are his secrets to sustaining devoted and large followings year after year in his classic, “pure” cardio step sessions? They boil down to three “P’s”: planning, personality and progression.

Begin with planning, Coronado advises. He recommends preplanning the majority of the choreography, with a backup pattern or combo block ready in case you need to adapt on the fly.

“I always introduce at least one new pattern in each session, whether it’s a level one, two or three class,” Coronado says. “When I teach level three, I use one block and two sequences, or two blocks, with a block consisting of 32 counts per lead-leg side and a sequence having 16 counts per side.”

Coronado notes that when his content is well-planned, he can focus more on the second “P”: personality.

However, progression is what Coronado promotes as the true key to filling step sessions. “Go one change at a time until all your students are able to perform the move,” he says. “Even with my level-three classes, I start with a simple or basic step, then I introduce my change—plane, direction—in order to give everyone a sense of achievement.” His progressions rely heavily on layering, substituting and cross-phrasing (a method adapted from Brazil), not just simply adding on.

Step Around Generational Challenges

Jennifer DeMarco, MS, brings young steppers into the fold as an adjunct professor in the exercise science and wellness department at both Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College and Southwestern College in San Diego. According to DeMarco, who has been teaching step for decades, exercisers in their early 20s face challenges learning step that baby boomers did not.

“Students who currently attend my college classes have not grown up doing rhythmic exercise,” DeMarco explains. “It is a real challenge for them to assimilate rhythms, match movement and music patterns, alternate lead leg, and be comfortable with options. They need the exact visual demonstration.”

DeMarco’s experience leads her to conclude that “with the 20-somethings, I have the most success with beats per minute around 120. I also recommend simple, strong choreography with minimum arm movements. Each class includes a walk-through of new steps with no music” so participants can practice.

DeMarco believes several factors led to step’s decline in popularity: music that got faster and faster, excluding and intimidating new participants; sessions characterized by complex, sometimes unsafe choreography; and programs that did not offer basic or introductory sessions during desirable time slots.

STEP MINI-HISTORY: Longtime steppers often heard how the activity originated from Gin Miller’s rehab for a knee injury. Step was a cure for—not the cause of—joint problems. Younger exercisers don’t know that story; they only see the result of years of classes that became too fast, with too many turns, on too many risers. Their conclusion? Step is dangerous.

This perception makes it harder to attract younger exercisers, says Yoreme Flores, ranch circle coordinator and concierge for Rancho la Puerta Fitness Spa in Tecate, Mexico. “More than half of my friends—mostly 30-year-olds—have the wrong idea about step classes. [They] think step is bad for their joints. When I ask if they have ever read about the benefits, they say most of the articles they’ve read focus on joint damage.

“My suggestion would be for the industry to make a point of informing younger folks on the history, benefits and safety of step. Oh, and the importance of . . . not doing a crazy 100-miles-per-hour step class.”

Unless we can attract new and young steppers, this exercise mode faces a future of generational attrition. Many classic cardio step programs are composed of die-hard enthusiasts who have remained dedicated since the beginning. In other words, experienced steppers are mostly boomers and older adults. They have been attending step programs for almost 30 years, dropping out over time as a result of aging bodies, changing needs and competing interests. Step instructors and programmers need to find ways to entice the younger generations.

Perhaps they already have, as evidenced by Grand’s course and many other hybrid adaptations like it around the world. For example, Emily Bosworth Harmer has been teaching Group Blast for 5 years with strong demand at Miss FIT in Ellicott City, Maryland. Group Blast, developed by MOSSA™, uses the step platform to train fitness, agility, coordination and strength for a high-energy, prechoreographed workout program.

Bosworth Harmer believes the step-based program is successful because “participants can anticipate what is coming, given its preset modules; the 4-week shelf life prevents boredom; and the athletic yet attainable movements do not look or feel like an ‘aerobics’ class, though [they] definitely demand cardiac output. The wide variety of movements and challenge draws all ages in and keeps people coming back,” she asserts.

Whether you are keen to bring in younger people, boomers, newbies, returnees or anyone who wants to go up and down on a step platform, be like Coronado, who brings a fourth “P” to all his step programs: passion. As he notes, “Once newcomers achieve the final product, they feel such a sense of accomplishment that they start believing in the magic that is step class.”

Meet our experts

AFM_author_Williams-Evans Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA, Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA has groups that are so chatty she has to flick the lights to get their attention to start class. She blogs at funandfit.org and teaches in Santa Barbara, California.

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