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Go ahead, people, take it all off

Special to The Times

I’M bumping. I’m grinding. I’m taking it off. But there’s no two-drink minimum and nobody’s waving dollar bills at me. I’m in a gym, not a strip club.

It had taken some courage to show up at 24 Hour Fitness in West Hills and pull off clothing -- as a dancer, I’m more of an old sofa than a Chippendale. But cardio striptease is supposed to be the newest way to get fit, so there I was at the new “24 Tease” class on a recent weekday evening. (I’d worn a couple of extra layers, even in the steaming Valley heat, just to have something to peel off.)

One other male -- and 16 women -- had gathered in a large room with a polished wooden floor surrounded by mirrors, the usual home of step and aerobic classes, to learn striptease moves and get a workout. I tried to hide in the back of the room, next to the spinning machines.

Although normally about 90% of the participants in group exercise classes are women, adding the strip element cuts male participation to 5%, instructor Tina Kendall said. “Men’s perception of group exercise is that it is dancing, not a workout,” she said.

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It’s true that for many men a liberal infusion of beer or the hope that dancing is foreplay is needed before they’ll get up and shimmy. And the Hair Toss is especially difficult for guys like me who don’t have tresses like Fabio’s.

But striptease workouts are gaining mainstream acceptance.

The exercise programs combining moves usually seen in topless bars with aerobic training have been around since at least 2001, starting in small, boutique exercise studios. The routines have also been available on DVDs, including several by Carmen Electra.

Now the general population appears to be ready for the sexy workouts -- if they are done tastefully, says Donna Meyer, corporate director of group exercise at 24 Hour Fitness. The club began rolling out the classes at nearly all of its 362 locations nationwide in June.

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Other local and national gyms offer similar classes, though not all are coed. Some, for women only, place more emphasis on the sensual than the cardiovascular, but all claim to make workouts more enjoyable.

“Being in touch with your sexuality is something that makes everyone feel better about themselves,” Meyer said. “It’s a fun way to get a cardio workout -- it’s more like a party than stripteasing.”

Jeff Costa, a dancer, choreographer and personal trainer who is often credited with having started the strip cardio fad, helped Meyer develop the classes. “It’s taken the last five years for this trend of cardio striptease dancing to become mainstream enough to where we’re doing it in Kansas and Missouri,” Costa said about the new 24 Tease classes.

The benefits go beyond the feel-sexy aspect. “Cardio striptease spanks yoga’s butt,” Costa said. “Just shake your booty, and you’re burning calories.”

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Although not all people might embrace booty shaking for exercise, the workouts mix flexibility, coordination and cardiovascular exercise with often-elusive fun.

“Any kind of class that’s interesting and innovative will make physical activity fun, and that means people are more likely to do it and continue to keep doing it,” said Rebecca E. Lee, an assistant professor of health and human performance at the University of Houston. That’s important because only 25% of Americans get the amount of exercise recommended by the surgeon general, Lee says.

But most newcomers, male or female, must overcome some mental hurdles before peeling off clothing in public and doing hip-circling moves such as the California Roll.

Myai Tran, 24, from West Hills works at a mortgage company and has taken several 24 Tease classes. She said that it took her a while to get comfortable. “The first class everyone felt a bit foolish and kept giggling, but you just had to get used to it,” she said. “Girls try on outfits and dance for five minutes in front of mirrors at home; this is doing it for a whole 30 minutes. It teaches you how to dance and makes you feel pretty and sexy.”

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Not everyone is comfortable in a coed setting. At the striptease and pole dancing classes at Sheila Kelley’s S Factor studios there are no mirrors, no windows -- and no men.

Kelley, an actress, says she fell in love with sensual dancing while researching her role as a stripper for the 1999 film “Dancing at the Blue Iguana.” She started by teaching friends in her Hancock Park house, and now has seven studios in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, with more on the way. S Factor offers seven levels of strip and pole dancing exercise. Like in martial arts achievement, levels are color-coded. But instead of a belt, beginners get a white G-string; top-level students earn the right to wear a black G-string.

Kelley’s women-only workouts combine elements of yoga, Pilates and dance. Learning “tricks” like the Snake and the Helicopter on the shiny chrome poles develops upper body strength, she says. The two-hour classes start with stretching and breathing exercises on the softly lighted floor, then progress to calisthenic-like movements and less inhibited dance and strip moves. The workouts get the heart rate up, but that doesn’t seem to be the focus -- it’s more about stretching and slow, sensuous movement.

At S Factor sessions, some women take nothing off, others might wear 6-inch heels and strip to their G-string. Kelley says the classes are as much about empowering women and helping them to be comfortable with their bodies and sexuality in a supportive environment as they are about exercise. And that’s great for your sex life, says newly married Renee Christopher, a second-level (pink G-string) student at S Factor.

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At 24 Hour Fitness, instructor Tina Kendall says the club’s coed class offers improved confidence as well, but with more emphasis on exercise than feeling sexy. The 24 Tease routine combines a cardiovascular workout with core training moves like the Butterfly that strengthen the abdominal muscles. Not all the moves are girly and feminine.

“We’re trying to pull more men into group exercises,” Kendall says, although that’s more likely to happen in classes that include strength training than in the striptease classes. Still, moves like the GoGo Boy -- pull your elbows into your hips -- work the waist and are supposed to appeal to men.

I didn’t exactly feel like a GoGo Boy as I wriggled out of my T-shirt and twirled it over my head to the sound of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Stripping in this class is limited to two layers, leaving a top. Below the waist is strictly out of bounds.

After the half-hour workout ended, I was tired and my tank top was soaked with sweat. I’d shed a few inhibitions along with the clothing. But, sorry girls, this is as far as I’m going.

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Still, maybe I’ll let my locks grow long, so I can do the Hair Toss.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where to strip away the pounds

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Southern Californians have a variety of ways to get in on the striptease-workout trend.

* 24 Hour Fitness offers coed “24 Tease” classes to members. Information about group exercise, club memberships and locations is at www.24hourfitness.com, where you can download a free 10-day guest pass.

* Jeff Costa offers private lessons and has a cardio strip DVD. For more information, go to www.jeffreycosta.com.

* S Factor has locations in Southern California, New York and San Francisco. Classes for women only run for eight weeks, two hours per week, and cost $444 in Southern California. Introductory classes are $40. More information about the studios, workout DVDs and books is at www.sfactor.com.

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* Poleates Pilates & Pole Dancing Studio in Westlake Village offers a variety of dance and striptease classes for women. The eight-week, two-hour beginning class is $400. A 75-minute introductory class is $15. Information is at www.poleates.net or call (805) 557-7020.


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