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It's hip-hop -- till you drop

An accountant leads step classes in a high-energy dance style. But watch out: It's not for the fainthearted.

August 02, 2004|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

By day, he's a CPA, understated, buttoned-down and reliable. But by night Izett Barnett, 39, sheds his suit, climbs onto his step and leads classes of fitness junkies in a high-energy, hip-hop-style workout he created in his spare time.

It's called Xtreme Step, and devotees from all over the city are donning their cross trainers to get to his classes. He teaches at Bally's Total Fitness in Hollywood and Culver City, and Bodies in Motion in West Los Angeles. Now, he's trying to break out on his own. And after 10 years, with demonstrations and classes at Nike-sponsored fitness events from Hong Kong to USC, he seems like a man on the verge.

At 8:30 on a recent summer evening I am here at the MaDonna Grimes Dance Fitness Theatre Company in Hollywood to check it out. The class, for beginning students, is in a second-floor studio at a nondescript mini-mall on Sunset Boulevard, across from Hollywood High School. The walls are orange and purple, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors cover the front of the room. We pull out our steps and a mat to make sure we don't slide on the dance floor. That will turn out to be important, because we have a lot of fancy footwork ahead of us.

The class is like street dance on a step. Barnett blasts the sound, a throbbing hip-hop beat (a DJ mixes all his music) and we are off. Even though this is a beginning class, I can barely follow. There are crazy moves with fun names such as: Skip to My Lou, Mambo, Walk the Plank, Running Man, Kick and Bounce, and Pogo. Putting them together is like learning a new language in three dimensions. Fifteen minutes into the class my brain is as tired as my body.

Barnett is patient, taking the time to help stumbling students, but he expects you to pick it up fast. And except for me, everybody does. They all have quick feet, energy and style. I try not to look in the mirror.

We warm up for 10 minutes, cool down for five, and the rest of the time we are moving -- fast. Even turning the wrong way, stepping on the wrong foot and jumping on the wrong beat, I burned 400 calories in an hour.

"I have about 70 moves," Barnett said at the end of the class. "You all learned about 10 tonight."

Barnett has been coming up with new moves for the last 10 years. A decade ago, he was sidelined from basketball by a sports injury, so he tried a step class during a lunch break. He liked it, and decided he wanted to become a teacher. Right away, he says, he created different steps and his classes started to evolve. He started throwing in some riskier moves the aerobics industry might frown upon, like approaching the step backward.

"A lot of it was collaborative," he says. "A couple of us would get together and say, 'This is fun,' 'Let's try that.' But there was no name attached."

He didn't come up with a name for his class until 1999, when he realized that the more challenging workout and good music might be appealing to step-class students and others looking for something different.

After the Wednesday night class, Barnett invites me to come to the advanced class on Friday at the Bally's in Culver City. Then I can really see what Xtreme Step is all about.

I show up early and students already are lining up outside. People drive from all over the city to get here.

Bonnie Yang, a woman in her 30s, drove 90 minutes in rush-hour traffic from her office in Long Beach for the class that, she says, "keeps me going."

"You see the energy,'' she says. "I don't want to drive all over, but I follow the teacher."

Barnett is decked out like a basketball player, in a red, white and blue jersey. He used to wear bike shorts, like an aerobics instructor, but found that dressing with a hip-hop flair makes men more willing to try the class. Out of the gym Barnett is quiet, almost shy, with a sweet smile. He is well-mannered and professional -- more like the accountant he is by day -- than your typical fitness guru. But crank up the music and he is transformed.

Barnett stands in the middle of the room and calls out the moves with an explosive energy that feels like a cross between that of a preacher and a rapper. The class feels like a revival meeting, with its call-and-response. "I used to be really timid about calling out the steps," Barnett said after the class. "One day I just let go."

Back in the gym, the class is spinning and tapping and stepping and skipping and yelling out. The moves seem to derive from basketball, football, dance and aerobics. After five minutes, unable to follow along, I drop out. I can't even understand what he is saying, because the music is so loud, the words unfamiliar. So I watch, and it is unlike anything I have ever seen.

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