First impressions count for a lot.
It was a sunny spring afternoon at Northcote YMCA in 1992. I was upstairs waiting to enter the Group Fitness Room, about to try a class of Step which I had not previously attended. Noticing that the instructor was also teaching the preceding class, I peeped in to see who she was.
I almost tumbled back down the stairs in surprise..
The visual equivalent of a trumpet blast, she was gorgeous, exotic, radiating a swaggering cool and composure that seemed more likely to have originated on the streets of New York than in the sleepy Greek-Italian suburb which Northcote was in those days. In an era when the lycra leotard- bike shorts combination was the order of the day, this diva had attired herself in denim short shorts and some sort of plunging crop top with a diamante trim, discarding the banal regulation instructor belt for a studded leather one which completed the impression that she was about to star in a dance video.
The doors opened and participants poured in for the start of the next session. I fully expected to hear some sort of American accent as the instructor introduced herself and the class, but the mystery deepened when her first words emerged in a broad northern suburbs Aussie drawl.
The class got underway and Marietta leapt from the step with the grace and agility of a gazelle, bounding with extraordinary energy for minutes on end in a manner which made the participants seem to be standing still in comparison, even though we were all working as hard as we could. The routine unfolded with delightful twists and turns and beautifully sequenced complexity, a feature which I soon learned was the hallmark of Marietta’s teaching style.
Needless to say I was soon back for more, eagerly seeking out every class of the many Marietta took on the Northcote timetable. At that time, the concept of exercise wear had never crossed my horizon, so I used to attend wearing the footy shorts I had worn to high school hockey matches, and any old T shirt or singlet, preferably with holes for ventilation. Typically I would arrive late and hide shyly down the very back of the room.
For many of Marietta’s devotees, myself included, the highlight of the aerobics week was Saturday 4pm Cardio Funk. Marietta would arrive in some particularly eye-popping outfit and proceed to dazzle and enthral us for the entire hour with sensational dance routines which were wildly exhilarating to take part in. One week was a pyjama party (mainly to showcase some children’s pyjamas which Marietta had purchased for herself).
At 5pm, immediately following, there was Step, and many of us were in the habit of attending the two classes back to back. Although I held Marietta in considerable awe, nevertheless I eventually introduced myself to her, and gradually got to know her better. I felt honoured when she took the time to confide some of her life story to me.
Marietta had come from a brilliant but harsh family. Her life was complicated by the fact of being born to Egyptian parents living in a redneck Victorian country town. I could imagine the challenges of growing up in such a reactionary environment, particularly as my family was from a neighbouring town.
After outstanding academic success at high school, Marietta boldly followed her own instincts, came to Melbourne and became an aerobics instructor. In a very short time she had mastered every class type then in existence, and began developing a formidable name for herself.
One day, I suggested to Marietta that she compete in the national aerobics competitions, which enjoyed a very high profile at the time. With all her charisma, phenomenal athleticism and creative flair, she seemed an obvious champion to me. Marietta turned to me with a sudden bitter realism she had never shown before.”I’m not tall, blue –eyed with a long blonde ponytail,” she said simply, “that’s what the judges are looking for.” I had the sickening realisation that the very attributes which so endeared Marietta to the bohemian crowd at Northcote Y, counted for nothing on the grand stage of the Melbourne aerobics scene. It had already taken incredible fortitude and resilience, let alone talent and effort, for a woman of Egyptian background to break into the jealously guarded aerobics elite.
Thankfully that was almost 20 years ago. Group Fitness Instructors nowadays are much more representative of the diversity of the whole community. In the meantime Marietta has gone on to ascend the pinnacle of her profession, becoming an internationally acclaimed and respected presenter whose skills are in ever escalating demand.
…Years went by. When I decided to qualify as an aerobics instructor in 1997, Marietta was typically generous beyond measure, freely giving me invaluable practical advice, training experience and most importantly, encouragement. As things transpired however, I returned to university to undertake a music degree, while my aspirations to become a fully fledged instructor smouldered quietly on the back burner.
After the birth of my second child, I was about to enter my 40s. My enthusiasm for group fitness had never diminished, although it was sorely tested by the terminally unimaginative Les Mills epidemic. By chance, within a certain fortnight three peers suggested I retrain as an instructor. The realisation that it was now or never rang clear as a bell.
I approached Marietta with a vague notion of learning Step. However with characteristic firmness she immediately insisted that Torso Tone (cardio and conditioning using a Swiss ball) would be the best place to start. Her process of mentoring was exceptionally lucid, practical and empowering. As a musician with many years’ teaching experience, I took an aesthetic pleasure in watching Marietta’s teaching method unfold. Her flow of information was perfectly paced to my needs and capacity. Anyone who has ever participated in a workshop led by Marietta will know that the instruction she imparts is always of outstanding quality, depth and relevance to the task at hand.
Mentoring with Marietta was a very privileged opportunity to engage with her philosophy and values at a personal level. Despite some quite deep seated fears and anxieties about leading a class, I trusted Marietta’s wisdom completely. I always felt secure that she would never place me in a situation beyond my resources. Everything went very smoothly, to the point that when the grand day of my first fill in came, all went well despite my propensity to worry about everything that could possibly happen (and quite a few other things that couldn’t).
A couple of years later, I now teach my own Torso Tone class, and love the challenge of responding to the needs and agendas of participants. Instructing has been a path for me to develop a much more grounded interaction with everyone I meet in daily life. The trust which I reposed in Marietta has been returned a hundred fold, with interest.
Ultimately Marietta has helped me find the priceless resource of self trust.
To help another human being grow is a sacred task. It is not that hard to teach people how to count off phrases and blocks, to keep their arms straight, or to design a conditioning program. But very few people have progressed far enough along their individual journey, truly to know how to help others to surmount their insecurities and self sabotaging patterns of behaviour. Marietta helped me observe how much I tend to dig myself deeper into worry, at the expense of being present to what is actually before my eyes. It is a realisation which continues to free me up no end. She has shown through patience and by example how to respond honestly and intuitively to the real time situation of running a class.
I have been so lucky to spend this time with Marietta, whose wisdom and compassion have set me on my feet as an instructor. Although I have not seen her very often lately, she is never far from my thoughts, a beneficent and deeply reassuring presence. Marietta’s own long, frequently daunting journey is a constant source of inspiration to me both as an instructor, and as a female composer in an almost entirely male dominated field. In singing her own song from within, loud and clear, Marietta is reminding us to listen to our own songs, and sing them while we have the chance.