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Body movin’

Eileen JoycePatricia Johnston dances Friday at Monica Avilla's Club Sierra dance class.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Monica’s followers.

That’s what you could call the 200 exercise enthusiasts who take from one to five dance aerobics classes a week led by Monica Avilla in Grass Valley.



It’s not a bad connotation, but rather a good description of the dedicated exercisers who meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 12:10 p.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m.




Like clockwork, 15 minutes before class time, they climb the stairs at Club Sierra to claim their favorite spots in the dance room.

The regulars represent a broad cross-section of Nevada County – they include real estate agents, a county supervisor, teachers, doctors, nurses, musicians, dancers, firefighters, parents and students.

Many rearrange their daily responsibilities just to attend the one-hour class.

Not only do the regulars make this class a priority, but when Avilla switches venues, so do they.

John O’Dell, 69, is the perfect example of someone who moves when Avilla does. He’s worked out at three gyms with her in the last 181/2 years.

The Grass Valley realty owner and broker took Avilla’s first class almost 19 years ago and was hooked. The only other exercise the trim O’Dell needs is downstairs, lifting weights.

One of her oldest students, he moves like a pro. O’Dell is direct about why he’s stayed in the class this long: “The music and the dance steps are the best.”

Music includes hip-hop, R&B, Latin and rock played at full volume. Expect a few classic Michael Jackson and U2 tunes mixed in with new Shaggy, OutKast, Nelly Furtado and Jennifer Lopez songs to keep the energy level up.

Patricia Johnston, a Nevada City registered nurse, attended every day for 16 years until her current graduate classes in California State University, Sacramento’s medical anthropology program demanded more of her time in the capital. Now Johnston makes it to class three or so times a week.

She has to be there.

“Monica’s class is a unique fusion of eclectic dance styles and music, both contemporary and ethnic,” Johnston said. “I have attended dance aerobic classes across the country, and nothing holds a candle to it. It’s more of a party than a workout atmosphere. For me, it’s more than great fun or an endorphin rush – it’s pure joy.

“There are moments when our entire class is in sync with the rhythm and the music that feel very inspiring to me,” Johnston added, sounding like a full-fledged anthropologist already, “perhaps like the power and unity experienced through dance in small-scale, non-Western preindustrial societies.”

Barbara Colin, a former modern dance company performer and teacher in Santa Barbara, takes Avilla’s class to stay healthy.

“Dancing is physical and mental. It’s a wonderful emotional release to get those happy pheromones going,” said Colin, who’s been a member of the class for several years.

Lisa Lines joined the class 18 years ago for aesthetic purposes. Today, that reason is secondary, as she attends every day for her mental health.

“This class has gotten me through some very, very rough times,” Lines explained. “Depression, broken relationships, career changes, just everyday stress which people tend to let pile on. It’s hard to do that when you go to class because you can let go of everything for one hour and just be free.”

Dancing comes easily to Lines, who since tap-dancing as a child never found another class besides Avilla’s to hold her interest.

“Monica has always been progressive. She’s constantly changing her music and her moves,” Lines said.

There are no egos here.

“We have a really great group of people,” Lines added, “with all types of people – young, old, thin, large. No one judges anyone in there. Over the years, we’ve grown so close.”

Yasmine Woods, who has performed and taught belly dancing for 25 years, has taken the class for 11 years.

“Monica interprets the music so right on – it’s hard to find that in an exercise class,” Woods said. “You just listen to the music and follow Monica. The class flows from beginning to end with easy-to-follow dance movements.”

Woods says the class relieves stress.

“No matter how tired I feel at the start, I always feel renewed at the end of class,” said Woods, who presents Avilla with flowers and cards signed by all the classmates on the instructor’s birthday and at Christmas.

“Monica really puts on a show every day,” explained Woods, who wants to make sure Avilla knows she’s appreciated.

“She doesn’t take any vacations,” Woods said. “If she didn’t teach here, we’d be lost, we wouldn’t know what to do. When she’s sick, no one else can do what she can do.”

Elizabeth Martin, whose day calendar is fully booked as a county supervisor, wouldn’t miss the class.

“I followed the stream of dancers upstairs four years ago when Monica came here,” said Martin, who does push-ups between dance steps.

“No matter how fun my day is, it’s even more fun when I come to Monica’s,” she said.

She just has to make time for the class.

“If I don’t exercise, I can’t live my life, my back hurts, I’m grumpy. This is not discipline; this is me having fun,” Martin said minutes after Friday’s workout.

Instructor: You’re never too old, ladies

Monica Avilla is the main reason her dance aerobics class has been so successful for 181/2 years in Nevada County.

Ever since she was a child, Avilla has danced.

“It helps your head and heart to dance,” Avilla said. “So many studies have proven that music and movement is beneficial to one’s health.”

Avilla wants her students to achieve the full benefits of exercise.

“I’ve watched these people go through tragedies and problems – cancer, maybe they lost their loved ones – and by dancing together, we go through it together,” she said.

“I feel very blessed to be able to do this on a daily basis. This is my one hour of joy every day. I feel my own happiness when I dance,” Avilla said.

The class has also helped Avilla deal with her own problems.

“I’ve had my own personal things, deaths in the family, the normal everyday problems. It helps me when I see everybody’s smiling faces and we dance for that hour,” she said.

Besides teaching the class five days a week, Avilla also lifts weights. She is Club Sierra’s fitness director/assistant manager and a personal trainer.

Avilla, who cross-trains every day with weights to prepare for triathlons, takes a feminist approach to exercise.

“It’s amazing what women have done today, how far we’ve physically come,” she said. “In the ’50s, once a woman reached her 40s, that was it. Today, women can be competing in triathlons and dancing throughout their lives.”

Avilla says there’s no reason older women can’t continue to be strong and vital.

“When I started teaching here, I hoped my class would last this long,” Avilla said. “I’m 44 now. I started teaching in Nevada County at 24. I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be something if I turned around at 40 still teaching?’ – and here I am!”

“I hope I do it for another 20 years,” she said.

– Carol Feineman


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