Aerobics: Disco seeks a sporting chance: This weekend a British team of seven will be taking on the world's best in Japan - Mark Burton meets Johann Felsinger, who wants aerobics to be recognised as a competitive discipline

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The Independent Online
TEENAGERS reading a poster advertising a disco in the school gym might envisage an evening of pounding music, gyrations and contortions that would be absorbing enough to mask memories of the exercises they had been put through in that very environment.

They should expect something similar if they go to watch competition aerobics, a combination of gymnastics, dance and fitness routines in which exponents aim through choreography to dispel the image of its sports-hall origins and replace it with that of a dynamic sport.

It is big in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, where this weekend the cream of competitors will be aiming for the pinnacle of their sport in the Suzuki World Cup. Johann Felsinger, who will be competing as a pair with Beverley Holmes in the seven-strong British team in Tokyo, was drawn into this young sport three years ago, progressing from the aerobics practised at health and fitness centres.

'Here's an activity we can all participate in,' he enthused. 'You don't have to be a supreme athlete, unless of course you want to get to top competition standard', whether in the men's or women's individual, the pairs or team event.

He accepts there is a lot more hard work to be done if aerobics is to gain wide acceptance as a sport. Its fundamental problems are that it requires judges and is too easily dismissed, like synchronised swimming, as art and play masquerading as something serious. Felsinger readily admits that the public has suffered from 'a bad education' about aerobics.

Those who adhere to the school of thought that anything without a clearly identifiable, indisputable score cannot be a sport are going to take a great deal of convincing. The fact that to compete at international level requires dedication and arduous training cuts no ice with them.

There is no doubting the physical ability required to perform complex two-minute routines at the top level. Reducing those performances to their basic elements, they are merely combinations of gymnastic exercises - jump jacks, which are more or less the star jumps of old-fashioned army-style physical training; push-ups; sit-ups; high kicks and combination sequences.

However, the need to outdo rivals means there is nothing basic about top-class routines. Push-ups? Simple, aren't they? But try it with one arm, and off one leg, and add a little lateral movement, dipping the chin first one side, then the other, of the sole supporting arm. Then do it in synch with a partner and the quickfire pounding beat of the music. Oh, and the body must be perfectly aligned all the time, too.

Body alignment is an essential element of all manoeuvres, whether high kicks or the straddle, the sort of leap with for which Cossack dancers are admired. Then again, the horsemen of old were not worried about impressing with variations in arm positioning or even with a mid-air spin and a one-footed landing.

Choreography, a word that brings the critics round to comparisons with ice dance and all its current image problems, is essential to lift the performance. The dance element was always there but it has been pushed ahead by the likes of Brett Fairweather, the New Zealander who has twice won the male individual title at the World Cup. It is as important as the gymnastic and aerobic content of the sport.

It is a long haul to approach the highest standard, to develop the requisite physical ability and flexibility, so many of the leading lights of this young sport are relatively old. Felsinger, who fits his training and performing round his work as an engineer, is 31, and Holmes, a typesetter who has put work to one side in the build-up to Tokyo, is 29.

If the sport blossoms, that will change, because to break through the barrier of doubt it must develop a youth following. 'It requires greater support from schools and education departments,' Felsinger said.

With the increasing worries over children's fitness and fears that they spend too much time on such inactivities as computer games, the time could be ripe for aerobics, the sport. Schoolchildren could be drawn into an activity aimed primarily at health and fitness by bringing modern scientific methods to the boring old knees-bend routines and adding the disco beat. Take that]