Volume 76, Number 46 | April 11 - 17, 2007


Julie Northrup, a co-instructor of Crunch’s “Fabric” class, demonstrates an inverted straddle.

Don’t try this at home, but at the gym, if you dare

By Cynthia Allen

Imagine streams of long, brightly colored fabric hanging from the ceiling on the set of a Cirque du Soleil show. Flexible acrobats effortlessly climb up the material, more than 50 feet in the air, and wind their way down in daring, intricate positions. Remove the performers, the fancy stage and the $60 ticket and the makings of the next fitness craze emerge.

“Fabric,” the new class that started in January at Crunch in Noho, at 623 Broadway, is not for the faint-hearted. But, it does add something seriously lacking in most exercise — fun.

It requires upper-arm and abdominal strength, plus balance and coordination that even the most dedicated of gym rats don’t usually possess. With awkward moves that leave inexperienced acrobats tangled in reams of elastic fabric, a healthy dose of self-confidence doesn’t hurt either.

Emily Venizelos, the instructor, surveyed the eight women waiting to take her class one late — and cold — February evening. Most were trim and generally in shape with toned muscles peeking through their spandex workout apparel. Only one had any experience on the fabric. The others talked about how they just wanted to try something new and “spice up their fitness lives.”

“I won’t lie. It’s a hard class,” Venizelos said. She removed her sweatshirt revealing toned muscles that resulted from years of training as a dancer, aerialist and contortion artist.

The next morning, the reality of her simple statement would hit participants square in the arm, back and stomach muscles — muscles that would knot and spasm in protest for days to follow.

The physical challenge of “Fabric” didn’t seem to bother the participants, though. They lined up, eager to start.

Venizelos and co-instructor, Julie Northrup — who had black, tribal designs tattooed around her eyes, forearms and throat — explained basic tricks as the novice aerialists waited for their turn on the “swing” and “ropes” stations.

To create the “swing,” Venizelos tied the fabric and attached it in two places to the ceiling using the mega key rings rock climbers use to secure themselves to cliff faces. The seat of the swing was 5 feet off the ground, with only a mat the thickness of a plush rug to absorb a fall.

The first trick was to sit in the seat. It required the participants to kick their legs up to eye level, put them through the opening of the swing and pull themselves up to sitting position.

Half of the women did it. The others laughed off the failure, embarrassed at their awkward attempts.

In “Fabric,” being strong takes on a whole new meaning. Acrobatics doesn’t rely on weights, resistance bands or other fitness paraphernalia.

“It’s just you and the fabric,” Venizelos said.

“Swing” may have been confusing, but the “ropes” station presented a bigger challenge, since the last time anyone had done a dead-weight pull-up was in eighth-grade gym class. The station had two pieces of red fabric secured at the top to the ceiling, 12 feet in the air. The leftover fabric sat crumpled in a heap on the mat.

“Imagine you are climbing a rope,” Northrup said. “Start with both hands holding the material above your head. Pull yourself up and twist the fabric around your leg and ankle and use it as leverage to climb up.”

Eight confused faces stared back at her. It was best to show not tell, Northrup said, as she encouraged the weakest of climbers, who only shimmied a few inches up the fabric.

“It is not something that you pick up overnight, but you will get there,” she said.

The 60-minute class flew by in a blur of flailing limbs, flying bodies and green and red fabric.

“I don’t think I will be able to move tomorrow,” one class member said as she gathered her jacket and shoes. “Hopefully, by next week, I’ll recover and actually climb to the top.”

It’s an ambitious goal.

Despite the awkward tricks and sore muscles, the pseudo-circus performers left chattering about coming back and maybe, just maybe, making it into the swing.

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