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In this class it's chat, not fat

Jazzercise instructor keeps class pumping with her life story, gossip, train of thought

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Originally published January 22, 2007

Spend an hour in Katie Gordon's Jazzercise class and you'll be so distracted by her barrage of banter that you'll forget your quads are burning.

The 48-year-old with perfectly manicured nails and abs of steel climbs onto a carpeted platform at the Austin Recreation Center and cranks up the music. "How's your day been so far?" she calls out to the 40 or so students, mostly women, gathered in the gym at lunchtime on a recent Friday.

With that, she begins moving, her arms and legs pumping in a pair of stretchy black shorts and a white midriff-baring top. For the next 60 minutes, she won't stop. But it's not the nonstop jazz, weight training, yoga, kickboxing and Pilates instruction that's most astonishing — it's the monologue that goes with it.

Gordon is part comedian, part over-the-counter therapist, part best friend. She's been leading this class for 25 years. She never gasps for air. And she never, ever worries about what she says.

"I'm really not digging my hair today!" she grumbles out loud as class gears up. One song blends into the next. Gordon complains about Donald Trump. Shares her fantasy of being a backup singer. Only the occasional dance cue punctuates her chatter.

"I have to go way back to when I got divorced from my first husband and was dating that guy in the band," she begins, bobbing on her platform like a sewing machine needle. "We'd been dating two years and he wanted to come over and he had to ask for directions. I remember thinking that was weird. He comes over to tell me he is seeing someone else. The next day I came to class with my sunglasses on — Randy, you remember that, don't you?"

Roll those shoulders forward!

Besides Jazzercise, Gordon is famous as the woman who does lunges around Town Lake, something she says she does twice a week to manage anger. It's a spectacle. People talk about her as she passes; dogs flip out; babies wheel around in their strollers to stare.

They're as riveted to her unusual movements as her class is to her steady stream of gossip. "OK, two things," Gordon tells her students. "April left her cat for seven days. It will not stop meowing since they came back. This is that big old polydactyl cat . . ." The class knows all about Gordon's daughter April, who like her mom is a Jazzercise instructor, and her new baby. They also know about Pepper, April's six-toed kitty; Pixie, her long-haired Chihuahua; and Henry, her neurotic pit bull/Rhodesian ridgeback mix.

The students listen, entranced. They're dancing, but they're mesmerized by Gordon, who is now riffing on the latest episode of "Grey's Anatomy”: "I swear, that McDreamy. I haven't liked an actor in a long time. . ." And then it's back to her family, specifically her 17-year-old son, long a topic of discussion under this roof.

"Well, Sam has kept his job for a week," she begins, and a cheer goes up. "I had a woman call me. She's got a Sam, and she sounded just like me three years ago. She says, 'We've done everything and he's got such potential, and we just can't kick him out,’ ” Gordon says, then tells the class the woman is sending her son to the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, where she sent her own son.

"I told her — two right, two left! — I said to this woman, do you want to talk to my son about Marine Military Academy? And later, Sam says to me, 'Do I have to tell her I ran away (from the academy)?' I say, 'Yeah, that's good stuff. Just don't tell her son you ran away.’ ”

The song "Gloria" throbs in the background. The change in music sends Gordon spiraling down a new rabbit hole of thought. "What does (this song) say?” she asks. "‘Don't marry for the money!’ Swear you won't do that, you won't marry for any of the wrong reasons. . ."

Push it!

Health is key

Beneath that madcap exterior, Gordon is serious about her health, and the health of her students. Being fit, she stresses, doesn’t mean you have to have abs of steel, like she does.

In fact, Gordon herself didn’t always look like GI Jane. Her body has changed over the decades, and she’s gone from buxom curly-haired brunette to lithe, petite blonde.

"It's not about being lean, it's about being fit," she says. "All it is is fat, for God's sake. It's not who you are."

In a way, this class saved Gordon's life. She jokes that she became an instructor to get out of her first marriage. She attended a Jazzercise class at Playland Skate Center and was floored by the crowd of 100 people there. "I looked at the numbers and thought, 'Oh, I'm in!' I did it for the money," she says. She was a young mother who couldn't work an 8-to-5 job, and leading an exercise class was a flexible option.

"It's just fabulous. I've always believed Jazzercise was divinely inspired. You change lives and get to grow with people," she says.

Gordon, one of about 7,000 Jazzercise instructors worldwide, started her Jazzercise franchise in 1982, when she was 23. She taught out of the old Austin Recreation Center, and moved across the street when a new center opened in 1987. (She’s also led classes at St. Louis Catholic Church and Gethsemane Lutheran Church.)

The students are a mixed bunch, and Gordon points them out: Jack Applewhite, 55, met his wife here. That woman just had knee replacement surgery. That one is a breast cancer survivor. They attend each other's wedding showers and baby showers, they Jazzercise through their pregnancies, and their children grow up together.

They are a dedicated bunch. One day, police blocked the street to the recreation center because of a nearby gas leak. At least three students crossed the tape to get to the class, Gordon says. "I had to make a new rule — no class if there's a gas leak," she laughs.

During construction along Lamar Boulevard a few years ago, the city made the road leading to the center one-way. The students were outraged, and called to complain. Within 24 hours, the city switched it back. "You do not want to come between women and their Jazzercise class," Gordon says.

But why does Gordon spill her deepest secrets to these people? "I've been an open book all my life. A lot of the world grows up on 'Don't air your dirty laundry.' I'm the opposite," Gordon says. "You can do amazing things if you're real with people.”

Loyal following

Attend her class just once and you’ll learn the basics: Gordon’s first marriage lasted eight years. Her second lasted 20, and ended when her husband, Joe, died of a brain tumor. She used to drink too much, and after Joe died, she got a little wild and crazy again. Her class watched all of it.

Lyova Rosanoff, 76, former music director of Esther's Follies, has been taking classes from Gordon for 23 years.

"What a character!" Rosanoff hoots. "I don't even like most of the music, but she makes it work. She talks a blue streak all the way through the class, interspersed with wonderful direction on how to activate every part of your body. The rest of the time she's chattering about her ex-husband, her boyfriend, her son and daughter and their ongoing stories, which have been extremely dramatic over the last 20 years — it's like going to an ongoing movie or soap opera or something."

Randy Huke, 59, a film set decorator, has been with Gordon since the beginning, too. "She just takes your mind off exercising — she tells you everything about her life, and you walk out of here going, 'OK, then, I guess I'm OK,’ ” she says.

Gordon's been known to cuss in class. (“An instructor friend says, ' Katie, they don't come to class to hear you cuss.' Well, too bad," Gordon says of that habit.)

Gordon jokes today about the three years of family counseling she went through with her family, and mentions her latest boyfriend, with whom she recently broke up. And more . . .

"Oooh my God, I can't believe I didn't tell you," she hollers suddenly. "The man suspected of Austin's first murder (of 2007), he's got a Jazzercise T-shirt on! Now, we want publicity. But we don't want it in a mug shot."

She’s not above making faces, and occasionally sticks her tongue out. She once confessed how she got so mad at another driver she pulled over and screamed at him. (Unfortunately, he had a gun.) If she runs out of gossip (a rare occurrence), she talks fitness tips, like the benefits of fiber. "But I'd much rather talk some good trash,” she says.

"She's very funny, and humor always is a great thing to put into everybody's life," Judi Sheppard Missett, who created Jazzercise in 1969, says by phone from the company's headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif. She's known Gordon for nearly 25 years. " Katie is full of energy, she is honest, and she is a lot of fun. She can be a little bit crazy too, at times, so you have to make sure you know that's what you're getting into."

Clearly, her regular students know. And when Gordon takes a deep bow as class ends, they clap.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994