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Class participants take their best shot at BOB, a body opponent bag. (Kevin Van Paassen)
Class participants take their best shot at BOB, a body opponent bag. (Kevin Van Paassen)

Amy Verner: Sweat

A motivational, martial arts-inspired dance-a-thon Add to ...

No matter how early you arrive to one of Judy Romantini's cardio kickboxing classes, you can be sure that the room is already filled with 40 chiselled men who all happen to share the same name: BOB.

Short for body opponent bag, each BOB is uncannily lifelike - despite his head of plastic hair and armless torso. For 40 minutes, they are on the receiving end of continuous punches and kicks that Ms. Romantini loosely choreographs to rock songs, dance hits or, on Fridays, disco music.

Sometimes the tunes feel particularly apropos: Macho Man by the Village People, AC/DC's Thunderstruck or a remix of Duffy's Mercy .

But to call the class a slugfest does not do it justice. It's more like a motivational, martial-arts inspired dance-a-thon with a stress management element.

The BOBs are arranged in three rows - one to a person - within a raw third-floor space where words such as "dream, breathe, share, hope and laugh" scream out in bold yellow lettering from red and black walls.

Regulars, called "kickers," often come to all four of Ms. Romantini's 9:20 a.m. classes. The crowd mostly consists of young mothers who have just dropped their kids off at daycare or school. They arrive in permutations of the same Lululemon threads, designer sunglasses and handbags, and hardly look like they know the difference between an uppercut and a jab. But there is also a loyal group of people in their 40s or 50s whose fit physiques are impressive for any age.

Ms. Romantini, who has a first degree black belt in Shotokan karate, opened Judy's Group Fitness nearly five years ago after teaching at a dojo, a training school for Japanese styles of self-defence. In those environments, BOBs are used for martial-arts practice but never in group classes. Her idea was to teach fighting moves in a way that was easier to learn - not to mention tremendously fun.

"BOB for me is metaphor for life - it's whatever you're feeling that day. It's not a male form. It gives you a visual cue, a target," she says. "It allows you to focus more intently on the movement you're doing."

She begins every class with a one-minute reflection, then gets everyone shaking their groove thang. When contact with BOB begins, it's slow paced at first. Some people don't take the fighting movements too seriously and swivel their hips as they hook; others resemble Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby .

But proper technique is critical. Everything must emanate from the core, even if the arms or legs are making the largest movements. Successful kicks depend on leaning back, not crunching forward. And even the most novice boxer soon learns that thumbs always go on the outside.

I've become a big fan of the stomach punch: BOB's six-pack provides a smoother surface and better opportunity for feedback than a cheek or nose.

As I hit away, I never imagine my BOB to be a real person; there's just no one I hate enough to beat up. But Ms. Romantini, 47, encourages us to make eye contact with him, especially when doing side and roundhouse kicks. With a smile on her face, she screams at us to "Be mean" and "Punch like a girl!" The air also fills with shouts of "Ha" and "Ya" as she encourages us to grunt, for two reasons: The sound signals that we're breathing and because the voice is our first line of self-defence.

After the gloves come off, she takes us through a few strength exercises, then treats us to five minutes of total stillness and relaxation.

As the group stands up, there is a collective feeling of invincibility. I feel stronger, physically and mentally. I only wish I could take BOB home with me. I've never been one for silent types but having him around would make me pleased as punch.

Meet BOB

What is it? A cardio and muscle conditioning class in which everyone is paired up with a body opponent bag (BOB) to perform basic martial-arts movements interspersed with dancing.

How hard is it? There are no breaks, so by that measure, it's exhausting. But the slugging is only as difficult as the effort you put into it. Slam it hard each time and you'll feel it more. Kicking too tough? Just do leg lifts. Also, the bases of the BOBs are weighted with different levels of water: You can get a bouncy BOB or a stiff one, which is more advanced.

What does it work? The entire body, from head (specifically the mind) to feet. People who have mastered the technique benefit from a super core workout. And there's no doubt that this is a calorie blaster.

What are the classes like? A high octane party fuelled by everyone - but mostly by instructor Judy Romantini. "You get swept up in the energy of the class," she says. "It's a team effort." For newbies, Ms. Romantini offers tutorials before each session.

Who is taking it? Toned 20-year-olds to svelte silver foxes (there are separate classes featuring the child-friendly "Bobby Bully" or mini BOB). The men that come are often married to female frequenters.

Sign me up Packages range from $14.25 to $16 a class. Gloves, which must be purchased after the first class, cost $65 (judysgroupfitness.ca).

Amy Verner

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