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Not Too Old to Tumble : Gymnastics, the competitive domain of the young, provides the workout of choice for adults at a Chatsworth facility.

March 26, 1993|SAMUEL GREENGARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Samuel Greengard writes regularly for Valley Life

While other people are pumping iron or doing the latest variation of step aerobics, Dr. Arthur Harris is bouncing, flipping and spinning through space.

Harris, a 44-year-old anesthesiologist at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, knows that he doesn't always look graceful. He knows that he will never win a gold medal for his acrobatics. But his goal is entirely down to earth: to keep himself in shape by participating in gymnastics. Two nights a week, he and half a dozen other adults show up at Li-Ning's International Gymnastics and Dance Academy in Chatsworth for 1 1/2 hours of stretching, strengthening and tumbling.

"It's fun, it's challenging; it's a great way to exercise," said Harris, who lives in Northridge. "I am doing things I never dreamt I could do. Even though I am older, I am pushing my body to new limits. It is a continuous mental and physical test that I pass each week."

Think about gymnastics and incredibly agile youths training for Olympic glory come to mind. But for this group of adults, gymnastics is simply a way to get a regular dose of exercise, increase body awareness and enjoy themselves.

At the moment, the Chatsworth gymnastics academy is the only one in the San Fernando Valley to offer classes for adults.

"Anybody can participate in gymnastics. It isn't something that has to be limited to kids who have the talent to be gymnasts," said Yong Yan Chen, general manager and assistant head coach at Li-Ning. "The idea is to make it enjoyable. Everybody sets their own goals, and we work with them so they can achieve what they want to. Most of the adults are amazed at the skills they develop in a relatively short period of time."

The state-of-the-art facility is owned and named after Li Ning, a Chinese gymnast who won six medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and who has taken a place in history as one of the sport's great competitors. The 17,000-square-foot gymnasium, graced with the flags from half a dozen nations, is filled with the latest and most modern equipment, including vaulting horse, parallel bars, uneven bar, high bar, balance beam, rings and trampoline.

Chen, who won a silver medal at the 1981 world championships in Moscow and a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, began offering adult classes in January. Most of the gym's classes are geared toward children and teen-agers. But "we figured there are a lot of people who love watching the sport on television, who have always wondered what it was like, but have never had an opportunity to try it," Chen says.

On this evening, half a dozen students from their mid-20s to mid-50s spaced across a huge mat begin twisting and turning into a mind-bending assortment of positions under the guidance of dance instructor Kimo Keoke and accompanied by contemporary dance music.

After half an hour of warming up, the students head to the trampoline and then proceed with tumbling and acrobatics. They don't use the more advanced equipment--such as the rings, bars and vaulting horses. "We keep things at a fairly basic level," Chen said.

Nevertheless, it's a workout many say they can't duplicate elsewhere. "It's never comfortable, but that's the point of it," said David Wolf, 28, of Palms. He runs an import-export business and attends class twice a week. "This is the sort of thing that exercises the body and the mind--the mental aspect is a lot of fun. When I began, I couldn't even imagine being able to jump up and down on the trampoline. Now, I am able to do that fairly well."

Wolf, who is at least 6 feet tall, looks more like a linebacker than a gymnast. As he watched the rest of the group do handstands, he admitted: "There's still quite a ways to go. If I were out there, they would be calling, 'Timber!' and trying to get out of the way."

Patty Beck, a 33-year-old registered nurse who lives in Northridge, took the class when her daughter became interested in the sport, and she remembered how she herself had enjoyed it as a child. "I don't like going to a workout club, where you have to wait for machines and there's nobody to explain how to use them properly. You get a tremendous workout, and the class helps build your confidence."

Instructor Roy Whilhite, 22, said: "This isn't competitive. . . . A lot of them wind up learning flips and tumbling much faster than they thought they could. They constantly wind up wearing a look of amazement on their face."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Adult gymnastics.

Location: Li-Ning's International Gymnastics and Dance Academy, 9700 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth.

Hours: Adults, 8 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; young adults (mostly high school and college age), 8 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Private instruction also available.

Price: $70 a month for adult and young adult one-hour-a-week sessions, $45 a month for one-hour, once-a-week children's sessions.

Call: (818) 727-9222.

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