Sydney, 11th-12th October 2019
As someone who only uses the group fitness studio in a gym that means I do a lot of Les Mills classes. And have continued to do so for a dozen years. I like them because of the variety, the consistently high quality, and their ability to make you feel happy to be there without quite realising you are working out reasonably hard. All their dozen-plus programmes are pre-choreographed to specific music tracks with the moves linked to the beat, flow, and intensity of the tracks. The instructors receive a new set of tracks along with an associated video and choreography notes every three months which they learn and then teach at the gym. The filming of the video is called a masterclass and is usually presented by the programme directors themselves. It’s a chance to see behind the scenes, view a preview of the release that will be out six months from now, and join a lot of your fellow fitness friends in doing the same thing.
For the first time in almost thirty years of making these videos there was one being held in Sydney. Anyone was allowed to buy tickets which was ideal for someone like me who wasn’t an instructor but a keen participant. Tickets went on sale at 8pm on a Saturday evening. I was on the site three seconds later. Within 55 seconds all the tickets for the RPM (cycling) class had gone. I wasn’t interested in that but I did end up with tickets for the remaining seven filmings. The 600 tickets for the most popular programme – BODYPUMP – went within four minutes which left a lot of people non too pleased.
The tickets were purchased through Eventbrite which gave very specific instructions on what could be brought along – a small bag to hold phone, wallet, and keys which could be taken into the filming room. Those instructions were very quietly changed later (although the original could still be seen on Google) to ban pretty much anything. It was also very specific on tickets not being transferred as it warned ID would be checked. It also strongly suggested keeping your tickets electronically on your phone. You can probably guess what’s going to happen.
On the Friday I arrived, walking past the gap that is the no-longer present Sydney Football Stadium and the still-present Sydney Cricket Ground. A left turn into Fox Studios and past many the barriers partitioning off the big top of the Cirque du Soleil and the registration area appeared. I walked up to the counter and started to bring out my phone to show the tickets. “No need for that”, was the reply. “What’s your name?”. Providing that was enough for me to be given a selection of bands.
You can’t argue with the simplicity of that approach but it did indicate a disconnect between what people had been told to prepare for and the reality. The next step was being told that the small bag I had wasn’t small enough despite my attempts to cram a change of clothes and some snack food into as small a space as possible. Fortunately they had a cloak room – despite the original instructions saying there would not be one. Spotting a pattern yet? I slipped my keys, wallet, and phone into the small hard plastic container I use during classes (it amazes me that people leave their phones on the floor next to them when doing a BODYPUMP class. All those weights coming down from a height…) and walked through the herding area waiting for BODYBALANCE. Since I was late getting there the line was non-existent so I walked through the door to see… a road. I had to cross that and then another one before a long ramp up to the actual building.
“No phones”, I was informed at the entrance. Too late for me to go back and there was no way I was going to leave it out of my sight. “OK”, I said, and walked in, the plastic container held with the towel draped over it. Phones are expensive and contain a lot of personal data. Even though it’s securely locked down I want to minimise the chance others have to access it. Which means keeping it nearby.
The inside was big. Old industrial. That meant a hard black concrete floor. My knees were already aching at the thought. The lighting rigs were obviously more modern as were the two cameras pivoting on large beams and swooping around. I found a spot at the back and rolled out my mat. Taking off shoes and socks and then steeping on to the mat showed that the concrete floor wasn’t black only from paint – there was a lot of dirt on it.
There were around 300 people in there and they tried to listen to the MC but the acoustics weren’t great. A bit muffled and a touch of echo. But they cheered when the presenters came on stage. They ran through two versions of the introduction, one for the video that will go out to instructors and another for the version that will be used in their streaming on-demand product. There was no Jackie Mills – the usual presenter – as we were informed she’d just been in hospital. Also, her daughter didn’t appear as she was back in NZ playing a dutiful caring role to her mother.
I hadn’t done BODYBALANCE for a while and quite enjoyed this. The music was generally good (even though I barely knew any of it; I don’t listen to the radio) and the moves seemed a bit simpler and less frenetic than in previous releases. I won’t give a description of the individual moves or music because:
There were a couple of retakes which necessitated doing the last thirty seconds of the previous track and then continuing on. The annoying part for me was one of them involved the Balance track which is my least favourite given that my ankles have all the stability of an Italian Coalition government. But this was brightened by one stoppage after a boom camera moved towards the stage while the presenters were holding a pose of legs wide apart. “Is it my crotch?”, asked Kylie Gates.
At the end there were a few people taking selfies with the phones that no-one had taken into the place.
To me this seemed fine. People want to take pictures with their friends. I can also understand Les Mills wanting to keep the surprise. However, their business is built on a heavily social aspect of life – group fitness – and trying to stop that at certain times is going to cause some resentment and problems. I think most people are happy to do the right thing and would be more than willing to bring in their phones to take a picture at the start, put them to the side during the class, then pick them up to take snaps afterwards. That seems to me to be the more sensible compromise. If we get airport-style metal detectors at the next filming they probably haven’t listened to me.
I’m starting to see Les Mills as a bit like the rock legends AC/DC. When they started they were exciting and brash with a lot of attitude. But with massive success a touch of the larrikin attitude was lost. It’s still fun, brilliantly produced, and massively successful but all that polish seems to smooth out the quirks that so enraptured people in the first place. Or perhaps that’s me just getting old.
I ran into one of my instructors afterwards who was delighted to have ended up in the front row so she should be able to spot herself when the video comes out.
Everyone had to exit the room and head back to the corralling area. The line was already longer this time as BODYCOMBAT was obviously more popular. I ran into a few more of my instructors and we chatted away while waiting. The same walk back to the hall and this time we ended up closer to the stage. As did everyone else. Out came the presenters and Rachel informed us that Dan wouldn’t be there as he was home for the birth of his third child. A slight disappointment but she and her team soon removed that. With the first shuffle forward and back the tightly-packed group dispersed enough to give everyone a sensible distance in which to punch and kick. I liked this release. There seems to be a trend away from the drills of doing 32 reps of a kick and that makes the programme far more enjoyable. I’m still not keen on the training with sprawls used in track five even though I do concede it’s effective in boosting fitness quickly. The one thing I was thankful for on that surface was no jump kicks. Having to do the bonus track five after a cool down seems somewhat unusual but it’s probably better than the alternative of doing both of them in a row.
Rinse, repeat, and we’re back in for BODYATTACK. And my Saturday morning instructor is next to me. Again, I liked the release (“the short abs track” was liked most by some instructors) although it’s hard to truly appreciate the running track with 600 people slowing to a trickle as they funnel around the side of the hall. The power track started and then stopped for five minutes as we were all instructed on the amount of space that should be left at the front. It won’t be an issue for most classes but when you’ve got such a large crowd and not been able to do a dress rehearsal with them it leads to these problems. The annoying part is by the time you’re ready to go again you’ve cooled down. But these are the issues faced when you’re an audience member.
Day one now over. I didn’t sleep as well as I thought I would. Sort of like on the night before Xmas where you keep waking up just to see if the day has arrived.
On the Saturday I had a mere four filmings to attend. However, I usually go to a morning BODYATTACK class on that day. When originally booking tickets I had informed my instructor, Sara, that I may not be attending that day due to the fact I had booked into four other classes that day. “I’m also doing those filmings”, she said, “so what’s your excuse for not turning up to my class?”. Sara and I started at the gym around the same time about twelve years ago. She once said “at that time I was the shy fat one hiding in the back row”. She’s none of those things now as she’s taught me in at least four of the six programmes she does. Thats another reason I like Les Mills; it empowers so many people, especially women.
So I went and did Sara’s class that morning because (a) she’s brilliant and (b) I’m a bit stupid. A quick walk home, an even quicker shower, and then a train off to Fox Studios again. Amazingly the trains were vaguely on time for once. I guess the idiot Transport Minister must have taken the day off and mistakenly given the job to someone competent.
Even though I was there about 45 minutes before the scheduled start the line was incredibly long. If you ever needed confirmation that BODYPUMP was the most popular programme it was there in all of its red-wearing mass of humanity snaking around the entrance area. I’d decided to travel light that day by keeping only a couple of keys, ID and credit card in a pocket with the phone in an internal money belt travelling wallet. I’m not taking photos but I’m also not letting others possibly get hold of it. Apart from a couple of moves it was reasonably comfortable there. Certainly more than when I had it in my pocket the previous day and the wide-legged bouncing jumps in the agility track in BODYATTACK had it thudding into two particularly sensitive areas.
“There will be less faffing around”
The BODYPUMP filming was a concern as I was feeling a little bit leggy. However weight selection was made easier by the fact that everyone was allocated the same weights – 2x 5kg, 2x 2.5kg, and 2x 1.25kg. So if you wondered why no-one in the videos ever appeared to be struggling in squats now you know. It didn’t start auspiciously as Glen got someone’s name wrong as he was introducing the presenters. Then the music system failed before squats and we had a long, long wait. “At least we’ve got the warm-up done”, quipped Glen 20 minutes into the filming. There was a retake for the chest track as the lead presenter called himself out for doing the wrong chorey. Then his cap fell off at the start of the next take. You’ll see him deliberately take it off on the third take. In another delay before the back track Glen talked about the increasing focus in the programme on keeping the heart rate up, having clean lifting and “less faffing around” which seems to indicate that they’re taking feedback onboard and returning to a simpler, intense approach. That was reflected in most of the tracks with the shoulders being the standout of the release. The only real bad track was the combined lunges/shoulders which seemed a bit overly-fiddly and messy. There were a few choreography mistakes on stage during that one but seeing as we were nearly two hours into the filming at that point I think the director decided to let them slide and probably do a zoom shot or audience cutaway in post.
Since so many people had turned up they’d had to open a second cloak room. Which consisted of a set of tables right next to the lining up area. So as you walked past there were bags, purses, phones, etc lying there open to the world. Just pointing out that non-indigenous Australia was founded as a colony of convicts.
Next up was BODYSTEP. Step was the first group fitness class I ever attended. That was in the mid-Nineties. I’ve kept doing various forms of Step over the years depending on availability and the state of my ankles. I picked BODYSTEP up again when I had a contract working in the city and had a wonderful instructor called Patty. After the contract ended I didn’t do it for over a year before deciding that I needed to do a couple of classes before the filming so at least I had some idea. I found a gym that had a Saturday afternoon class and went along to that and found the instructor was Patty again. Then she informed us that she’d been picked to present at the filming. Pretty much all of her regular attendees were there so we all squealed like fangirls/fanboys when her name was announced on stage.
As I said I haven’t been doing BODYSTEP regularly so it’s difficult for me to say how it’s changed but I enjoyed it. Simple moves with opportunity to add your own intensity and flavour. The second conditioning track was interesting and really effective. I wouldn’t mind seeing some of those moves in the abs components of other programmes. Patty presented her speciality of the speed step and – as expected – she was absolutely brilliant and wonderful.
Let’s dance. Put on your red shoes.
Next up were the dance programmes. SH’BAM was the appetiser. It’s not a programme that’s seen often in Australia. The chain I’m at seems to grudgingly accept group fitness but won’t touch Sh’bam. I’ve only ever done three classes of it. Two were at Les Mills events and the other was because an instructor needed to do an assessment video and I was roped in to being a participant for that. She passed, by the way. I suspect the assessor thought “if she can teach him she’s qualified to teach anyone”.
I enjoyed it apart from one dud track. It was helped by having one of my former BODYJAM instructors presenting (hello the other Rachel). It’s surprising to me that it isn’t a bigger programme after almost a decade given how much fun it is. It was also done in a single take – the first programme which had achieved that.
Then there was BODYJAM. I’d originally booked for that along with most of the instructors I knew and fair chunk of the participants. A number of them came along in specially-designed shirts so if you’re looking at the stage on the video and you see a number of people to the right of it wearing yellow with “Hills Jammers” on the back then you’ve found them. If you see someone nearby them in a flouro green top looking like he’s about to drop after doing five classes then you’ve found me.
Presented solely by Gandalf with two shadowing I’d rank it as a middling release. The first half was hip-hop. Not my favourite genre but I can tolerate it. The second block was more housey. It didn’t hit the heights of some but it’s simple enough to pick up the basics while still leaving room to refine the moves in later classes. There’s one move that will take a while to perfect but most of the others can be done first time. I suspect hitting the off-beat timing will be the biggest challenge for some. I’m saying this as someone who required eight classes to get ‘liquid hands’ properly and still hasn’t got the clap/stomp quite right in BJ90 after a couple of weeks.
After that we all streamed out into the increasingly cold night (where did our warm Spring go?) and I trudged off to the train station, reached my stop, carried my aching limbs up too many stairs, then finally went to bed having given the fitness tracker a more than decent workout:
Everything was still aching the next morning when I awoke early and went to BODYJAM because my name is Graham and I’m a Les Mills addict.