At 7:30 on a Tuesday night Robert Owens' aerobics class at Bally Total Fitness in Hollywood is already near capacity at about 80 people, some standing behind poles or squeezed into corners. Once the frenzied dance music starts blasting, legs and arms begin pumping wildly, and the intensity is palpable.
Even with this many bodies there are no high-speed crashes but some worried looks as people keep a wary eye out for a flailing arm or leg that might thwack them. Find a popular class with a following and you'll also have people angling for coveted front-row spaces, banging into their classmates or fighting about someone's dumbbell being three inches closer than it should be.
Not every invasion of personal space ends in a hair-pulling brawl. But what should be a time to de-stress occasionally turns into a time to re-stress. Marcos Prolo, group exercise manager at the Sports Club/Irvine, has had to separate members who yelled at each other about going the wrong way while doing a step movement.
Amy Wold has been attending Prolo's classes for almost two decades and says she and her friends make sure that their areas are saved with a towel or equipment (hers is front and center). "We're very protective of each other," says the Huntington Beach high school guidance counselor.
Newcomers are welcomed, but they should know the etiquette: Newbies go in the back and don't venture forward until they've been there a while. "I'm just shocked," she says, "that someone who is a newcomer will come to the front row. There is detailed choreography, and a new person wouldn't know the teacher's routine." Typically a novice won't hog the front, Wold says, but when they do, it makes for great locker room gossip.
"Peoples' workouts are so important to them," says Heidi Carignan, group exercise director at Gold's Gym Venice. "And they feel successful in the spot they're in, they feel comfortable, they feel important. I think people get territorial in their comfort zone."
The trade-off of exercising with 90 sweaty people is that the energy can carry you through a challenging yoga class or demanding kickboxing workout. Some instructors walk the room to check on all students and tailor their choreography to help minimize accidents.
Lisa Balyan has been coming to Owens' class for seven months, starting in the back and working her way up to her current spot near the front. The Los Angeles nurse says it's an amiable group with just a smattering of spot-hoarders: "They don't want anyone to go near their spot. And if you do, they'll look at you weird."
Members of 24 Hour Fitness clubs have demonstrated more mature behavior in recent years, according to Donna Meyer, corporate director of group fitness. The bigger challenge these days, she says, is making members understand that although they may desperately want to get into their favorite class, squeezing in people over capacity can be a dangerous thing.
"They'll say, 'I can fit in there,' but limiting the number of people in the room is for their own safety. Occasionally we'll have somebody who couldn't get into a class, and they'll stand outside the room and kind of pout. Some situations, you just can't win."
The 24 Hour chain and Bally Total Fitness gyms allow members to reserve a space in popular classes ahead of time for a dollar or two, a policy that has greatly reduced the number of I-must-get-into-this-class-or-I'll-die squabbles.
Our culture is partly to blame for those feelings of territorialism, says Brian Lickel, a psychology professor at USC, who says that each culture allows a certain amount of space between people for interactions such as conversations. People can sense when someone's too close. When that invisible line is crossed, he says, "you feel it in a visceral kind of way."
Since Angelenos aren't used to bumping up against hordes of people, we might be a tad more intolerant of encroaching exercise mats.
"The sort of folks going to yoga classes in West L.A. are not for the most part people who are suffering a lot of interpersonal crowding," says Lickel, since they have their own cars and don't live in crammed apartments.
But all is calm at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, says yoga instructor Vinnie Marino, whose weekend Vinyasa flow classes are so packed that the sweat you bear may not be your own. Those who desire a particular spot might wait 45 minutes before class.
It's easy to play Spot the Newcomers -- they're often the ones who insist on having space around their mat.
"They're saying, 'I'm not moving,' but there will be another 25 people walking into class, and they will be moving," Marino says. "It's a rude awakening, but they're going to have to roll with it."
Jeannine Stein can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.