GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND — In places, Grand Bahama's interior looks a lot like my south Georgia birthplace, Swainsboro. The land is very flat, the soil sandy, and the trees are mostly spindly pines that seem to know how to grow "up," but not "out."
South Georgians, like islanders, put a big premium on ruggedness. Take my cousin Wayne and his friends at the Daniels Creek Hunting Club. Dressed in beat-up boots and beat-up clothes, driving an even more beat-up truck, probably fortified with some good whiskey, lots of beer and a chew or two of tobacco, the boys arrive at their leased 6,000 acres around 5 a.m. during hunting season.
The guys spend about five hours there, usually bag some game, then drive back to downtown Swainsboro (population 7,000 on Saturdays) just in time for their aerobic dancing class, conducted to the beat of Kenny Loggins music. I thought about Swainsboro as people gathered for the first aerobic dance class at my house on the island.
Laurie Hunt-Manning is teaching us. Laurie is slightly built --a wisp--and blonde. For a while, she dyed a small shock of her hair pink. Coupled with her smile, the effect was fun and indicative of independence rather than punk.
Her husband, Warren, and five other instructors from the Underwater Explorers Society--all men under 30--are also in the class. Three women over 40 have joined, too. None of them appear overweight to me, but all say they feel that way.
"Doc" Clement, my island doctor, has agreed to participate and serve as our official medical attendant. Doc's wife seems to be very glad he's participating, too. "She's been pushing me to do something about this," he says as he smiles broadly and rubs his stomach. Doc is tall, chisel-chinned and enormously jolly in a clipped British way. In my opinion, he has way too much hair for a man over 40, but he will not share it.
Everyone in the group says they want to slim down and firm up. Everyone says they want more energy. Those under 30 seem to want more energy to party. Those of us over 40 want more energy to function.
The men at first were hesitant to discuss specific body goals, but when I told the group about my desire for muscles that would cause swoons and incite lustful thoughts from the opposite sex, all of the men in unison said, "Yeah, that's it." Keith, considerably overweight, was the most honest and touching. "I want to feel better about myself," he said quietly.
The men were also a little nervous about the thought of aerobic dancing itself, of doing those "funny Richard Simmons" movements in front of others, as one person put it. That's when I told them about my cousin Wayne and his hunting and dancing pals.
If Chuck Yeager had been the first man to adopt and promote aerobic dancing, probably a lot more men would be doing it now. It is fun, especially with friends who are as rotten at dance as I am, and it is work. I lasted about four minutes of a 40-minute class before finding an excuse to make a very long phone call.
But Simmons--who is short, fuzzy-haired and wildly enthusiastic--is the person many men associate with aerobic dancing, and, unfortunately, he doesn't fit the physical image we dream of having, the Yeager image. Before you object to aerobic dancing as unmanly, I suggest you try it non-stop for even 10 minutes. You won't be able to raise your hand to swat a fly.
Our class meets three times a week for an hour. My living room, with furniture pushed against the walls, serves as our stretching and limbering-up room. I, like most of the men, am about as limber as a rock.
After about 20 minutes of warm-up movements to music, we move to my backyard and dance among the palm trees to fast music. Laurie demonstrates the motions, but I can't follow them too well yet. I try, but everything comes out like some funny version of "the twist," Chubby Checkers' favorite dance.
But my cousin and his friends would not laugh, especially Gary Curry. Gary belongs to two hunting clubs--a big deal in south Georgia--and is a darn good shot, too--an even bigger deal. But he's most proud of the 60 pounds of fat and 20 points of blood pressure Richard Simmons' funny movements have taken off him.
On second thought, Gary Curry really does have the last laugh, doesn't he?
Aerobic dancing is a good way to build your strength and stamina, make your body's engine and support systems work more efficiently and, eventually, reshape your body.
You can get hurt, though. "High impact" aerobics, the most common type, can put enormous pressure on your joints and back. If you plan to begin with this version, make sure you start out in a beginners' class.