Drag queens fix it for gym

Aerobics classes in the US get ever more bizarre as they fight for new members
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THE GOOD NEWS about "Aerobics with an Attitude", a popular workout class offered by Crunch, a gym with several branches in New York City, is that only the trainer is expected to get into character. The rest of us, thankfully, were just fine in T-shirts, shorts and trainers.

But our teacher Anthony Truly, once a dancer with the Tennessee Ballet, is expected to dress up - and how. As 16 of us waited for the music to start pumping to kick off our class, Truly was prepping himself in the workout studio's wall-to-wall mirror. He smeared on a last layer of lipstick, adjusted his long black wig and tied his leopard-spot chiffon scarf just so.

At the dot of 6 o'clock, he is ready. The remainder of his costume consists of squeaky-tight spandex shorts, fishnet stockings and a pair of preposterous platform plimsolls that give him at least another five inches. "I call this my beauty routine," he declares. "Well, darlings, watch me: because I am THIN!"

What follows is a 60-minute sampling of an aerobics course that has become one of the most talked-about in the city. It is an invigorating and muscle- shredding experience that offers participants both the opportunity to sweat out some unwanted calories and to enter, if only for an hour, the bitchy, man-hating (and, of course, man-worshipping) world of the New York drag queen.

Truly's lessons - he teaches another class called "Abs, Thighs and Gossip" - are examples of a series of fantasy aerobics routines on offer in New York. They are proliferating across the US as gyms struggle to find gimmicks to compete for members in an industry that, while it exploded in the past decade, is showing signs of flattening out.

The choices in Manhattan get dottier by the week. At the New York Sports Clubs chain there are classes taught by a former American football player who gets his students working on exhausting patterns of dodges and tackles. Elsewhere, you can find a ballet-themed class taught by a dancer with the New York City Ballet and - for those who really feel the need to suffer - a "boot camp" class led with a touch of sadism by a former US Marine. Most eccentric, perhaps, are the fireman workouts at Crunch, taken by Eric Torres, a real-life fireman. Classes begin with a tape of an emergency telephone call and the crackle and hiss of the dispatcher sending out the engines. Red lights flash and Torres orders his class to heft bundles of fire hose - the real thing, weighing up to 25lb - and begin stepping as if they are rushing up 80 flights.

Fantasy workouts are an attempt by gyms to keep their members from getting bored - and going elsewhere, to their sofas or to competitors. With more and more gyms entering the market, maintaining membership is a constant battle. On average, a gym will lose a third of its members each year.

The struggle comes against a backdrop of disappointing growth. According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, fewer than 10 per cent of Americans belong to gyms. In New York, the figure is 11.2 per cent.

"The gyms are beginning to understand that if someone has been exercising for a few years, they want to keep their workouts invigorating and experience something new," says Maeve McCaffrey of the IHRSA. "Now they have these choices. Men who may feel a bit awkward in the ballet class, who might worry that their feet will never keep up, are going to feel more comfortable with the firefighter."

Truly himself is not exactly modest about his classes, which are also broadcast weekly on the ESPN sports cable channel. "My people want me," he vamps. "They depend on Truly, they live vicariously through her, because they see she's so wonderful."

Of the only two other men joining me in Truly's class the other evening, one, Juan Fortino, who is a singer, is a loyal regular. "I like it, because he has no fears about his own body," Mr Fortino enthuses. "He is totally without inhibitions and that helps me feel more comfortable with my body".

This reporter would like to be able to say the same.