IRVINE — The first thought is: There's something wrong here. The black tights and dental-floss leotards are in place, but where did those cowboy boots and hats come from?
Welcome to "cowpoke aerobics." Hold the yeee-haws until you get a sweat going, y'hear?
It was bound to happen in the trend-happy Southland. Take the small but passionate subculture thrilled by Western dancing and mix it with exercise devotees and out comes "cowpoke aerobics," or the more serious-sounding "country-cardio," as Libby Franklin, the self-described creator of the fitness program, calls it.
Franklin, a 33-year-old from Lake Forest, has been teaching aerobics for 11 years, mostly in California. Everything was fine, there was plenty of work, but she found herself "searching for new ways to express myself." An avid Western stepper, both in couples and line dances, Franklin began looking for ways to combine her job with her nightclub hobby.
"It seemed so obvious to me; I mean, I was ready for something new, and I think aerobics (workout) rooms were ready for something new," said Franklin.
"I knew all these steps--there must be 4,000 or 5,000 (Western dance) variations--and I just started sticking them together in a well-paced routine. Pretty soon, an hourlong workout was in place."
Franklin introduced "cowpoke aerobics" at the El Toro Physical Fitness Center in October, where she continues to teach classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays. Franklin also leads classes Tuesday afternoons at the Sports Club/Irvine, all backed by tunes from the Judds, John Anderson, Hank Williams Jr., Garth Brooks and others.
While raising the pulse is a priority, Franklin said many of her students come to learn the moves they see in such clubs as Denim & Diamonds in Huntington Beach and Santa Monica. A typical session takes her yipping charges through such steps as the "electric slide," the "cotton-eyed Joe," the "jealous bone," the "boot-scootin' boogie" and the notorious "tush push."
"I do approach it like a class, but with not much down-time," she explained. "This is really a good place to learn the line dances because it's less intimidating than a club. I think people feel more comfortable in this setting, more so than going out on a dance floor at night. They should be able to take (what they learn) right into the club."
While some traditional exercise instructors may downplay the health benefits of "cowpoke aerobics," Franklin contends that it does the job--maybe not as well as a typical hard-body session but still good enough. For one thing, her classes last an hour, while most aerobics workouts end at 30 minutes.
"You see people afterward, and they're pretty beat," Franklin said. "The difference is that they're having a good time; it's like they're not aware of really exercising. Anyway, I think the main objective is to have fun--stomp your feet, yell yeee-haw!"
There weren't many of these Texas primal screams at the start of a recent class in Irvine, but that changed after a few minutes. Most of the students were women (Franklin says few men come out, probably because "it's difficult and guys get discouraged when they can't do it right off") and they seemed enthralled by the intricate steps and country tunes.
The word \o7 addicted \f7 invariably comes up when regulars are asked about Western dancing. Most go to clubs a few nights a week, and the aerobics workout is an extension of their fascination.
"The whole country-and-Western thing is so great because it's such a social experience," explained Frumi (who goes by one name, "just like Cher"), a Newport Beach woman duded up in tights emblazoned with bucking broncos. "It's really non-threatening for singles because there's almost a chivalry out there, not the usual heavy pick-up scene.
"As for the class, I love it because I get to learn new steps. Libby also really works us; you can't take it easy here."
Patty George, a Corona del Mar resident in sleek black boots and hat, said she's been a Western dancer for years. "It either gets into your system or it doesn't. It got into mine, and now I listen to country-and-Western all the time. It's really a passion.
"How else would you explain all the time I go to clubs and then also come and do this kind of aerobics?"
Franklin, who admits to having been "a country-and-Western snob" before "getting hooked" when a girlfriend took her to a club, sees a future in "cowpoke aerobics" that goes beyond the usual short shelf-life of most fads. In addition to teaching the class to other instructors, Franklin is marketing a couple of videos for the home.
"I'm an optimist," Franklin said, dismissing any thoughts of a brief stay in the aerobics corral. "Because of that, I think this will just grow and grow. Western dance has been around (a long time) so why shouldn't this?"