Four years after a neurosurgeon advised her to find another line of work, Laguna Beach's fitness guru still teaches a lively aerobics class--and stars in her own exercise video, to boot.
In 1984, Zahava suffered a herniated disk in an automobile collision. The injury required surgery, 3 months in bed and--according to her doctor--the end to her profession as an exercise instructor.
"I was very depressed," Zahava said. "But in the back of my mind, I knew I could come up with a solution."
Her solution was to follow doctor's orders, while at the same time setting her own rules. Zahava designed what she calls a "non-impact workout," which blends dance, stretch and yoga.
"We slide and glide, we don't jump and jog," she said of her technique.
For the past 9 years, six times a week, Zahava (her last name is Skafte, but she doesn't use it) has taught a dance-oriented aerobics class at the seaside Veteran's Community Center in Laguna Beach. She and the city share a mutually beneficial arrangement: The Recreational and Social Services Department provides her a spacious dance floor in return for a small percentage of the $7 she charges each participant.
"Her class is one of the most popular that we offer," Deputy City Manager Rob Clark said. "She has developed quite a following."
Many Zahava faithfuls have been with her from the start, and saw her through the class's abrupt change of pace.
"I had been teaching a high-impact class, though coming from a dance background, I was never crazy about it," she said. "But that's what my clients wanted; high impact was a nationwide mania in the early '80s."
However, when Zahava revised her style, her fans enthusiastically submitted. "I think people are becoming more educated about the dangers of high-impact exercise," she said.
Zahava's specialized "non-impact" method also differs from the typical health club instructor's in that she and her students do their sliding and gliding barefoot.
"I need to feel the floor underneath me," she said. "Smooth and sensuous moves are impossible to execute in shoes. And I believe in activating the muscles, nerves and bones in the feet, as well as in the rest of the body."
Irvine podiatrist Michael Heaslet, immediate past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, agrees that low- and non-impact exercise reduces the risk of injury.
"The trend to minimize up-and-down bouncing makes a big difference as far as injury potential," he said. "Yet you can achieve the same degree of cardiovascular workout with low-impact exercise as you can with high-impact--without the same degree of shock to the body."
Heaslet, though, believes that "the foot can still get plenty of exercise in a shoe."
"But shoes may not be necessary in a strictly non-impact aerobics class," he added. "Dancers don't wear shoes."
Zahava's new, improved method was such a hit with her students that she decided to package it. With a little help from her friends, she created the recently released video "You'll Stay Forever Fit With Zahava."
"Hello, my name is Zahava, and I wasn't born yesterday," the lithe, petite instructor says as her video begins. No, she was not born yesterday, but her 45-year-old body looks as if it were born 20 years ago.
In a condensed, 1-hour version of her class--which in real life runs at least 90 minutes--Zahava (a Hebrew name meaning "golden one," she said) leads her cadre of demonstrators through a vigorous yet graceful workout.
As she does at the end of each class, Zahava closes the video with select words of wisdom passed along by her mother, a yoga instructor in Johannesburg, South Africa.
"Be silent and your heart will sing," she soothes, with a proper English accent. "Be gentle and you will need no strength. Be patient and you will achieve all. . . ."
The video materialized from the joint brainstorm of Zahava and two of her students--Doug and Leslie Thompson, who run a Laguna Beach-based company that produces documentary films.
"I approached her one day and said, 'why don't we make a home video together?' " Doug Thompson recalled. "It turned out that she'd had that idea in mind for years."
Unlike most, Zahava's fitness video features unpaid students rather than professional dancers. She enlisted seven volunteers, choreographed a spiffy routine, then rehearsed with her moving stars for 3 months before shooting the video.
"The production cost was high--$90,000--because we wanted a high-quality product," Thompson said. The $29.95 videotape is available at Nordstrom and video stores.
"We have 5,000 videotapes on the market throughout the United States," Leslie Thompson said. "So far, we've sold about 4,000, which is not enough to break even.
"Most of our success has been in Orange County, where people have heard of Zahava, but I think her popularity will snowball.