Aug 1 2010

Aqua Aerobics in Riga

There are countless reasons Peter is the perfect husband for me. Here is just one of them: he came with me to a Latvian aqua aerobics class.

As previously noted on this blog, one of my absolute favorite things to do is going to exercise classes in foreign countries. So, naturally, when we pulled into Riga (the capital of Latvia) for a few days off the bikes, I started looking up local gyms. It wasn’t long before I’d discovered “City Fitness,” a New York Sports Club-esque chain with branches throughout the city. Putting our cell phone to good use, I called three of them to see what classes were on offer – and discovered that, in addition to usual standards like “Fitness Yoga” and “Total Body Workout,” one branch offered aqua aerobics.

Now, after my traumatic memories of high school swim (I still have dreams about my co-captain berating me for skipping practice in favor of cabaret rehearsal), one might think I’d have gone for “Abs and Back” instead. I did not. I have done everything from Cardio Striptease to some weird fad, popular in Berkeley CA circa 1999, where you wear slippery booties and pretend to speed skate in place. But I have never in my life done aerobics in a pool.

It’s safe to say that an obsession with fitness classes is not something that Peter and I share. In fact, on the rare occasions when I have strong-armed him into joining me, disaster has ensued – most notably when we attended a Croatian pilates class on our honeymoon and Peter lost the use of his left thumb (he needed emergency hand surgery to get it back). I was sympathetic, but still wanted him to come to kickboxing. What is it they say about physical exercise? “No pain, no gain”? I mean, come on. It was his left hand.

Regardless, I was very surprised when Peter did not immediately recoil at the idea of joining me in the pool. In fact, he said that, if pushed, he “might actually do it.” That was all I needed. I settled on a class at six o’clock the next day, timed so that if I really wanted to, I could join yoga at 7:30 as well (“I’m only going to one class,” said Peter preemptively, upon seeing the look on my face). And then began 36 hours of anticipation.

When we got to the gym – a later one than planned, since while I knew the club was in a Radisson hotel, I hadn’t realized that Riga is home to four of them – the woman behind the desk assumed that I was just signing up for me.

“No, two people,” I said, gesturing at Peter, who was standing directly beside me with swim trunks in hand.

Two people?” she repeated, ignoring Peter as she glanced around for my mystery companion.

“Yes,” I said, “Two.”

The look she gave Peter made it pretty clear that while Abs and Back might be co-ed, aqua aerobics was not. In fact, I got the sense that never, in the entire history of pool-based fitness classes, had there been a male participant under the age of 85. But money was money. As we waited for her to give me change, I noticed a closed-circuit television on the desk, the camera for which was trained on the pool. The screen showed a group of grainy black and white heads bobbing in the water, arms splashing as they tossed plastic balls in the air – the 6pm class that we had missed (there was another class at seven).  I told Peter to look away.

We emerged from our respective locker rooms to the sounds of Cher’s “Do You Believe In Life After Love,” accompanied by the sounds emanating from the teacher, a blonde, spandex-clad woman named Olga who bounced energetically on the edge of the pool – not in the water herself —  as she demonstrated moves to the class. She appeared to be yelling things in Latvian, though given the acoustics of the pool, it could have been Russian, Lithuanian or even English. I couldn’t tell. But I did know this: she was yipping.

I mean that exactly as it sounds. Whenever she wanted the ladies in the pool to do a differerent move – and they were all ladies – she made a high-pitched barking sound, the same timbre and intensity usually associated with a chihuahua. When demonstrating a favorite exercise – say, extending the ball to one side and your legs to the other – Olga let out an entire series of yips, occasionally finished by a blood-curdling “yoooo!”

Aqua aerobic spy cam

Though she was not actually in the pool, Olga never stopped swimming. When it was time for rest between sets, she shifted her weight from side to side as if kicking, swirling her hands by her hips to keep herself afloat – an aqua-aerobic tic that I wondered if she were able to control in the rest of her daily life. Did Olga tread water in line at the post office? Did she practice her flutter kick under her restaurant’s chair? Who was this woman? And how had she come to this career?

Regardless, she seemed to be enjoying it. We watched as the class ended with a series of easy-looking exercises – the tossing of beach balls back and forth, a series of choreographed stretches set to the Latvian equivalent of Leonia Lewis, a round of yips and applause. And then it was our turn.

The previous class was barely out of the pool before Olga began again – no rest for the weary – restarting the same cd and beginning her side-to-side faux-water-treading move with a smile beaming from her face. Our class, made up of a combination of young women in bikinis and several rounder women in one-piece suits – and, of course, me and Peter — followed along as best we could. But it quickly became apparent that moves that are very easy in air become much more difficult in water – and there was no way to keep up with Olga’s pace. Grinning, she began doing front kicks while simultaneously swinging her arms back and forth at her side, timing her moves to the music’s pulsating beat. I tried to do the same, but failed – not only was the water too thick to maintain a speed anywhere close to that of Olga, but it was difficult to move all of my limbs forcefully through the water without, well, actually swimming somewhere. My kicks pushed me backwards; the awkward movement of my arms kept throwing me off balance.

Olga did not care. Now we were to use two feet at once as we kicked to the side, to the front, to the side, to the front. Too fast! Too fast, Olga! What do you think we are exercising in? Air? I felt like I was doing aerobics in a vat of Jello. I tried using just one foot, balancing my other on the ground so that could perform both movements without dunking my head underwater. Olga saw me, held up two fingers, made a telescoping gesture toward my legs. I see you, she mimed. Two feet. Two! She sat on a stool to demonstrate.

Oh, I got what Olga was saying. I just couldn’t do it. Bizarrely, though, given my clumsiness, I had also begun to develop a fantasy of becoming a professional synchronized swimmer. Wouldn’t that be an unusual skill? I thought, trying to perform front to back leg sweeps without getting water up my nose. And such a good workout, too.

It turned out that Peter was having the same thoughts. From my perspective, he was giggling as he, too, attempted to kick his feet front and back through the water without drowning. But that’s  not how he described it afterwards. “I was really good,” he said, as we walked back toward Old Town. “Did you see me? Did you see me do those kicks?”

Whatever kicking glory either of us achieved was short-lived; Olga was now tossing small, rainbow colored balls at us, the same balls that had looked so ridiculous in the hands of the six pm class. I had thought that perhaps they were medicine balls – you know, the weighted ones so popular in American abdominal classes. But these were simply filled with air – and, weighing about five ounces each, seemed like ridiculous accoutrements for a class already taking place in the buoyancy of water.

Oh, Catherine. Yes, it’s true that tossing the balls out of the water might be pointless – especially when Olga had us do a 360-degree turn before catching them gain, which  just made me dizzy and got water in my eyes. But holding the balls under water was a different story. The balls did not want to stay under water. They protested, fighting for the surface as if they were small animals we were trying to drown. Olga, not satisfied with just having us row with the balls – a more challenging exercise than you might think – demonstrated that we were to hold them between our thighs while peforming two-legged side kicks, side to side. This awkward movement was too much – the balls rebelled. The pool began popping with rainbow explosions as, one by one, they escaped from our thighs.

Undeterred, Olga held a ball in one hand and began to run in place, high knees, moving her hands up and down in rhythm with her legs. It looked ridiculous but, as I realized as my ball escaped to the surface yet again, that most movements that are funny on land are even more ridiculous when attempted in water. Olga may have looked silly, but we were the clowns.

As all this was going on, I noticed that Peter – who was high-stepping with the best of him (he claims his larger hands helped keep the ball submerged) – was no longer the only man in the pool. He had been joined by an older gentleman who, but for the fact that he was wearing reflective goggles and a bathing cap, bore a striking resemblance to a walrus. A dirty walrus, it turned out, who decided that of all the times he could take a swim, he would show up when there were a bunch of bikini-clad women in the pool doing side kicks. He was soon joined by another goggle-wearing younger man, and the two of them paddled in slow circles, lurking like sharks, until the churning of our movements made it too hard to see.

I thought aqua aerobics was an hour, but at 7:40 Olga changed the music to what I recognized as the “warm down,” and began what was clearly her favorite part of the class: synchronized stretching. Or, rather, synchronized arm positions. The moves – extending our arm into Vs above our head, touching one shoulder and then the other – did not relax any muscles that we had been working, but it did provide the temporary illusion that Olga was the captain of a particularly untalented synchronized swim team.

As I swooshed my arms through the water, trying to imitate Olga’s hand positions, I had a sudden flash to what Olga’s past might have been: a promising synchro performer under the Soviets whose chance at Olympic glory had been snatched away by the movement for Latvian independence. And now? Reduced to teaching aqua aerobics classes four times a day at the Radisson Blu Daugava. Cruel world!

Then again, Olga seemed quite happy; it was I who was wondering whether the wardens at Karostas Cietums had ever considered water ballet as a form of re-education for their prisoners. And yet, I loved it. The class ended the same way as the one before: with a round of yipping (on Olga’s part) and applause (on ours).  We left, hungry and wet and – on my part at least – willing to do it all again.