As Barb Kolenda puts it, it’s all about “move, move, move.”
Kolenda, who turns 80 in March, spreads that message while teaching morning and afternoon dance fitness classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Evergreen Park Senior Center, 9547 S. Homan Ave.
“There’s something to be said about coming together with other people during a workout,” she said after a recent class. “Staying healthy isn’t about training hard every day, it’s about being consistent with your exercise program and moving, moving, moving in your daily life.”
Before every move begins and after each set of dance practice, she instructs the class to measure their pulse rates so they can compare.
Rest according to your workout rate.
For 10 minutes, she leads the room with light steps forward, back, and sideways. The music ranges from popular Broadway musicals to disco to contemporary, but all songs share her 8-count beat, which is suitable for dance and movement.
Kolenda picks up the pace with a more rigorous dance, followed by marching movements and drumstick clicks.
The benefits extend beyond the physical.
“The good thing about dance is that it can be a distraction,” she said. “You have to focus on the steps.”
This is followed by stretching, tummy tucks, and arm strengthening exercises using rubber balls and small weights, followed by a short meditation.
Kolenda leads the class with vigor and confidence, but never pushes anyone over the edge.
“Let’s say you did 16 reps. Don’t worry if you can’t do it, just get back to your routine when you’re ready,” she said. “Of course, everyone wants to participate in alignment. That builds endurance and coordination, but the important thing is not to worry about it and just keep moving as much as possible.”
That approach seems to have worked for Evergreen Park resident Rosemary Reed.
“When I started coming here a year ago, I couldn’t balance and felt like I had two left legs,” she said. “Now it all comes together.”
Kolenda began teaching fitness classes at Beverly’s Aerobics in Dance in 1980 when her daughter was very young. Around that time, she was attending her IDEA Health & Fitness Association convention in San Diego, where celebrities such as Jane Fonda were promoting aerobics, which was a new concept at the time.
“But unlike Jane,” Kolenda says. “I never taught you to ‘feel the burn.'” I never taught you to push until it hurts. ”
Kolenda later co-owned a fitness business called Aerobics Station, but eventually withdrew to focus on instructional classes.
A nurse who attended an aerobics station class encouraged her to become a fitness presenter and instructor at Mary’s Hospital Little Company, and Kolenda ended up leading the hospital’s Women’s Wellness Week activities for 15 years.
Exposure to the medical field may have saved Kolenda’s life. In her 60s, she woke up one night with severe chest pain. Some of her relatives died early from heart disease. “She knew she was vulnerable,” she said.
Luckily, she knew not to ignore the warning signs, as she tells her class.
“I followed my own advice and received immediate treatment, so the doctors said there was no damage to my heart,” she said. “If I had waited, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Kolenda is trained in CPR, as mandated by the Evergreen Park Recreation Department, which hired her as a part-time employee eight years ago.
While fitness is Kolenda’s main focus, her knack for promoting mental well-being is what draws people to her.
She encourages a feeling of celebration. She has performed in community theater and sometimes wears holiday costumes, such as a pilgrim for Thanksgiving or a spooky character for Halloween.
“We have so much fun,” she said. “It’s a fun group. I’ve seen people stand by their cars and talk for 30 minutes after class. Then they go get coffee. Soon, they’re outside class. We get to do fun things together.”
Opal Easter Smith attends morning classes. She recently went to the Elmhurst Historical Museum with her classmates to see the “Lost Chicagoland Department Store” exhibit.
“It’s amazing,” Opal Easter Smith said. “It gets me out of the house and keeps my body functioning, and that’s important. I’m caring for her husband.”
“I go to an afternoon class and then go for a glass of wine afterward,” said Judy Peterson of Palos Heights.
Karen Noble also joins the wine group from time to time. She began taking her fitness classes at Kolenda Dance in her community room in Beverly Church more than 30 years ago.
“It was great because all the mothers were able to bring their children,” Noble said. “The arrangement was that each mother would volunteer to babysit the children for classes about once a month, while the rest of the mothers would exercise.”
Now, as now, several members of the class see Kolenda and her class as a support system.
“Many of us are retired now and there is an issue of loneliness,” Noble said. “These are the same people we see all the time.”
In conjunction with the “As a Family” group, Ms. Kolenda keeps a number of get well and sympathy cards on hand for class members to sign when they become ill or lose a loved one.
“I got the card twice,” Terry O’Hara said. “One time it was for a foot injury. It was a great feeling. I don’t know everyone who signed it, but it made me feel really good.”
Anne Findley has been taking Kolenda’s fitness classes off and on for the past five years. “My husband had throat cancer, and it was very bad,” she said. “While I was taking care of him, Barb took care of my mind and body. The music she plays is the soundtrack of my life.”
While recovering from her grief, Findley took a six-month course in Chicago architectural history to become a teacher on the Chicago River Tour. Kolenda and her classmates helped her prepare.
Janet Quinn is also gathering support from the group after losing her husband. She said, “Her husband used to say, ‘Sometimes the hardest thing is walking out the door.’ That’s what I do in this class.”
Kolenda lives by the adage, “The less you have to do, the less you can do.” This explains why she goes on her four-day cruise with her girlfriends instead of sitting at her house on her birthday.
Susan DeGrane is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.