Well Being: Putting a classical spin on indoor cycling
When Steve Schatz was a teenager, growing up in a small farming town in Illinois, he astonished all his jock friends by taking piano lessons. He had developed a fondness for classical music years before when his father subscribed to the Columbia Record Club and Schatz realized the music's majesty.
So while his peers were listening to the Stones and Hendrix, Schatz was listening to Brahms and Beethoven. In college, he majored in business, but minored in music theory and composition. In 1974, he came to Philadelphia to seek a master's degree in music history at Temple University.
Schatz was skillful as a high school athlete - so much so that he was cocaptain of the football team (the Fighting Cornjerkers of Hoopeston) and was named to the all-county squad. In college, he played intramural sports and exercised sporadically. He tried running but never really enjoyed it, especially the pounding on his joints.
In 1997, while living in Queen Village, he discovered spinning at a local gym. He liked it immediately. It was a "pedal to the metal" workout that soaked his shirt so thoroughly he could wring it out. The female instructor also had a gift for matching the spinning cadence to the beat of the music, mostly pop and hip-hop.
When she left, Schatz bought an old spinning bike from the club, set it up in his basement, and began riding to classical music. "It really worked great," he says. "I liked the frequent cadence changes and the longer spacing."
Today, Schatz, 63, a certified spinning instructor, teaches a class on Sunday mornings titled "Symphonic Spin" at City Fitness at 21st and South Streets.
The class is full, and his clients are devoted.
"I like the creative visualization," said Sheara Young, 32, a clinical social worker who lives in Center City. "It's not just some crap you hear on the radio about guns and gangs. And the pace is unbelievable. It's a real kick-starter."
"Symphonic Spin takes you on a journey," said Jennifer Mercuri, 30, of Center City, who works as an oncology nurse at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. "The music helps you forget how grueling the exercise is."
Schatz is no purist. He mixes classical music and classic rock. On a recent Sunday, he began with a soothing warm-up, the "Daybreak" suite from Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. Then he switched to the first two movements of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. After that came thematically appropriate songs such as "Running Up That Hill" by Kate Bush and "Can Do" by Journey. Then it was back to the third and fourth movements of Beethoven's Fifth, with a cool-down to "Don't Look Back" by Boston.
Erin Kerrison, 29, of Southwest Philly and a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware, said, "It was a challenge to see if I could spin to something that was not Top 40. But I've come to like the classical music. It has a story line and landscape. You feel like you're biking up a mountain, like you're going someplace together. It's a communal struggle, and once you finish, it's a communal victory."
The riders described Schatz as "boundlessly energetic," "exuberant," and "imaginative."
"I love his energy, his choreography," said Rita Utsey, 55, a city police dispatcher. "He makes you see the music. He pushes you without being too forceful."
Indeed, watching Schatz is a show in itself. He's a cross between Riccardo Muti, Richard Simmons, and the late Jack LaLanne. On and off his bike, pushing, cajoling, cheerleading: "You're stronger than you know!" "Don't look back; eyes down the road, straight ahead!" "You're going to reach the top!"
Up and down and on and off his bike saddle, he raised his fist to signal changes in cadence or handlebar position or to emphasize an imaginary change of scene.
"One of my primary objectives is to bring classical music out of the stuffy concert hall and into the sweaty gym," Schatz said, "so people can experience it in a very physical, elemental way. I hope to open some ears, and hearts and minds, and show people that it's not tedious, unemotional, and passive, but very physical, active, and dynamic, and you can tap into its strength . . . and take yourself physically and emotionally to another level.
"I love spinning and classical musical, and I believe exercise can help you appreciate the music and come away feeling not only exhausted, but also that it's a big, wonderful, beautiful world, and I'm glad to be in it."
For more about Steve Schatz and his classes, visit www.classicalspin.org.
"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column.