A New Beat For The Heart
Tue, 02/08/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
The DrumCore workout makes use of drum sticks to bang out a rhythm and keep the heart working.
The DrumCore workout makes use of drum sticks to bang out a rhythm and keep the heart working.

With drumsticks poised over a tremendous lime green ball, I prepare to strike. Along with 18 other women and one man, I’ve ventured to the 92nd Street Y on this icy evening to experience DrumCore, a new class that is meant to exercise body and mind, while also offering a new rhythm in one’s tired workout routine.

But if my classmates sense the absurdity of ball-drumming for fitness, they’re not laughing. As we wait for the instructor, the gym sounds like an orchestra tuning up: an occasional click as drumsticks cross; a sudden bah-dump, bah-dump as sticks meet ball. And oh, maybe there’s one woman giggling.

Suddenly our instructor, Tom Sharp, with a wink for a few of the regular participants, bounces to the front of the room. He wears shorts, a T-shirt, and a smile as warm as sunshine. In 30 seconds, he delivers a lesson to the many novices here (“Use your index finger and thumb to hold the drumstick. … “Use your full arms, not just your wrist to play.”) “Now we’ll just find our beat,” says Sharp, his drawl hinting of an Alabama childhood. He turns on the music, and a sudden blast of techno music vibrates through the room.

We don’t ease into exercise mode with the rotating of necks, the swinging of arms, the circling of ankles. We start with a joint explosion of thunder on the balls, followed by something called a cross-over step which involves hitting the side of the ball with drum sticks in an x-shape, a series of squats that distress my aging quads, and several jumping jacks punctuated by the sharp clack of the sticks. When Sharp calls out “TEMPO,” we hit the balls four times in succession, hard. It is the rhythm of war. It is time to battle our fatigue, to whip our bodies into shape.

I watch myself in the mirror with a combination of amusement and horror. I recall high school aerobics class, another time when I often found myself a beat or two behind. I wonder about the 22-year-old student who before class this evening advised a woman wearing rubber snow boots that DrumCore would entail little sweat, and that her footgear presented no problem in this low-impact class. I find myself pondering the words of Andrew Sherman, associate director of publicity for the 92nd Street Y, who suggested that DrumCore might not be for the “faint of heart,” though certainly beneficial for the blood-pumping organ itself.

The Y touts DrumCore as a trendy, fun way to obtain a cardiovascular and mental workout through a series of choreographed moves. It is the kind of class that provides “a mind-body challenge for sure. You can’t be thinking about your grocery list,” says Stacey Eisler, who is deputy director of the Y’s May Center, and also a devotee of the class.

Lesley Younge, a math teacher at the Dalton School, and another DrumCore enthusiast, says that the class provides a much-needed release after a stressful day. “You can pound out all of the day’s frustrations,” says Younge, who also enjoys the “interesting patterns” that Sharp introduces, and says that “you really feel your heart rate go up.”

Developed by Sharp, DrumCore draws from a fitness phenomenon called Drums Alive, which, while still unusual in New York City, has been reverberating around the world over the last decade or so. Sharp modeled his class after Drums Alive, but added a series of core-building exercises on the ball, which follow the drumming component of his classes. “It’s more of a work-out than people would imagine,” says Sharp, who first learned about Drums Alive at a fitness conference in 2005.

Drums Alive, with classes now available across the globe from Asia to Israel, is the brainchild of Carrie Ekins, an American living in Germany. According to the lore, she began drumming on boxes in her home after surgery left her unable to move her upper body for six months. From her writings online, one senses that Ekins, who now promotes a slew of different Drums Alive classes for different ages and levels, literally marches to the beat of her own drum. Drumming, she writes, “connects us with the deeper rhythms of life. It has the potential of allowing the mind, body, soul, nature, spirit, and the cosmos dance to share their intimate dialogue and speak in a tongue that unites us all.”

For others, drum fitness provides a simpler, but still valuable, benefit: entertainment and exercise in one package. If you haven’t been to the gym in the last five years or so you may have missed some of the wackier fitness crazes, from hula hoop classes (see hoopilates) to pole dancing sessions. Gym-goers, it seems, crave novelty.

“When you do something for a long time, you hit a plateau, and that’s when injuries happen,” says Jason Miller, who says he wishes his elementary school band teacher could see him on the drums now.

“I like making noise — rhythmic noise,” said Vera Pitamitz, who was attending her second class with a friend she brought from work to try it too. Pitamitz is familiar with rhythmic noise. Many years ago, while living in Italy, she played the agogo bells in a samba band.

But you don’t need percussion in your past to enjoy playing the drum — or rather striking what’s known as a “stability” ball — in DrumCore.

The second time I hear “TEMPO!” I’m ready. I look over at my neighbor, Lesley Younge, the Dalton teacher. She shows little expression on her face. She’s focused, concentrating, probably glad that my drumstick isn’t flying in her face, the way it almost does when we are told to sashay over to the ball to the right.

I smile broadly.

For the moment, I’ve got the beat.