Looking back on her career, Grass Valley resident Mary Wollesen had a lot to be proud of. She had been the director of the California Community College Economic and Workforce Development Network and the statewide initiative director for small business programs. Yet as she approached the age when retirement was an option, she began to look at the big picture, especially in light of significant state budget cuts.
“I thought to myself, ‘Let the younger people keep their jobs,’” she said. “I can retire.”
So she did.
After spending years in a car and a cubicle, she realized she wanted to — no, had to — find something fun to keep her physically active. It didn’t take long before she found it: Zumba.
At the time, Wollesen’s newfound aerobic fitness class, which is inspired by Latin American dance, was taught by Jennifer Rua. After taking Rua’s classes at Rhythms Fitness Studio in Grass Valley for roughly a year, she learned Rua was selling the business and moving to Hawaii.
Beyond the workout, Wollesen had grown to love the community that had evolved in the studio.
“Then it occurred to me — I can do something really wonderful here,” she said. “So I decided to go out on a limb, far away from my cerebral life.”
Three years ago, Wollesen bought the business, which is now located at the Cedar Ridge “Y” where Highway 174 and Brunswick Road meet.
Today, Rhythms Fitness Studio offers three levels of Zumba classes, in addition to Geri’s Fit Chix, RIPPED, Piloxing, Ballerobica and more. The studio currently has about 200 members signed up, ranging in age from 25 to 90. About 100 come regularly, she added, and 50 come virtually every day.
So, what’s the draw?
“It’s totally fun,” said Grass Valley resident Sasha Soukup, who plays in a local rock band. “Just like a lot of people, I love to dance, and Mary makes up super-fun routines. I feel like I’m back in junior high with my girl friends, preparing for the talent show, or a back-up dancer in a music video. I mean, I don’t know how old Mary is, but she has hip taste in music. Mary is so kind and has a great sense of humor.”
As it turns out, Soukup loved the class so much that she got her husband to come, then a neighbor, then her bandmates. Most recently, her fellow band members have brought their moms to classes, and — a clear tribute to Wollesen — they all enjoy it.
But Wollesen, who is proud to say she’s 64, is eager to sing the praises of her fellow instructors: Geri Campbell, Nadja Young-Warner, Lydia Beall and Beverly McGarr.
Classes at the studio include Zumba, Zumba toning, Geri’s Fit Chix, which is done in a circuit format mixed with fun drills; RIPPED, a total-body, high-intensity program, utilizing free weights, resistance and body weight; Piloxing, a combination class that blends Pilates, ballet and boxing moves for a total body workout focusing on your core; and Ballerobica, a combination of ballet, strength and cardio training. Rhythms charges no monthly fees and instead uses a punch-card system that allows students to purchase classes in advance at reduced prices, and then use them up over time.
“I teach the low-intensity class with the seniors,” said Wollesen. “It’s great for them — it’s fun, it improves their memory because they have to learn new routines, it gets them in shape, and there is a real feeling of community here.”
In fact, a spin-off of Rhythms Fitness has been the creation of the charitable organization, Good Women International, which is comprised of students and instructors at the studio. The organization raises funds for the A21 Campaign, whose mission is to prevent human trafficking and slavery through awareness and education.
“We recently raised over $3,000 from our craft fair,” said Wollesen. “We also raise money through dance-a-thons, and we donate proceeds to the cause on the 21st of each month. We’re a real community.”
So, what keeps 20-somethings and 90-somethings coming back?
“We strive to make it as welcoming and accessible as possible,” Wollesen said. “Because of our classes with varying fitness levels, anyone can do this. We’ve simplified some of the routines. The best word I can come up with — and it’s not a word — is it’s ‘followable.’ You can get into it with gusto.”
Soukup couldn’t agree more.
“I’m sweating but enjoying the music,” she said. “I get asthma when I’m out of shape, and before this class I’d noticed my cardiovascular capabilities declining. Now I get to go have fun, dance and really enjoy the music. Most of the time, I don’t even notice I’m exercising.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.