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Vanessa Issac's Hip Brazilian Dance Workout
Dance & Fitness Blend to Make a Winning Combination

Vanessa Issac The opposing groups stand on each side of a chasm, sneering derisively at each other and hurling epithets. Nobody wants to give in, no one is willing to make an honest assessment and realize, hey, we all have more in common than we realized. No, we're not talking about the United States' two largest political parties - we're referring to the dance and fitness communities. Dance teacher Vanessa Issac thinks the division between the two camps is pretty ridiculous.

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"Some dancers are, like, 'It's not a workout, it's art,'" she scoffs. "Why not be artistic, expressive and work out too? Dancers are active and they're supposed to be healthy. So both go together."

Issac should know - she has put both together in a great aerobic exercise tape called Brazilian Dance Workout. It's one of those rare videos where you do the steps barefoot and still work up a sweat. Issac has you dancing the Samba, leaping around in a café step, using your whole body in a Uirapuru sequence - there's not a pause in the hour-long, on-camera dance class. The best part is that the moves look complex but they're not - they're so simple that even a gym rat could master them fairly easily.

These Afro-Brazilian moves come naturally to Issac - she is, after all, from Brazil. The funny thing is that she got into the style fairly late. She took ballet as a child and at 17 went to study modern dance with the famed Quasar Company. But then she found out they were offering folkloric and West African dance and she was hooked. After finishing college, she came to the United States and landed in the upscale, coastal California town of Santa Barbara. Her dance and fitness classes grew from a handful of people to full rooms of 45 enthusiastic exercisers. Issac's dance troupe, Hip Brazil, is extremely popular and is a staple at Santa Barbara's Summer Solstice parade.

All the earthy energy of Issac's choreography went into Brazilian Dance Workout - as did a number of her students. Instead of using your typical hardbodies for the video, Issac made sure that all different body types were represented.

"In my class I have all ages [of students], all different bodies," she says, "and that's a holistic approach to health, I think. All those girls are very active. They dance, they take Yoga, they're healthy. They have different bodies and they're all beautiful. It's very important to me to pass along that message because we've become so neurotic about how you have to look. We're all different, we're born different. It's most important to be expressive and be healthy as you can be."

Another positive factor energizing the workout is the live band, led by Issac's husband, musician Randy Tico, who points out, "It's actually very difficult to record live music and the performance and be able to intercut, do multiple takes and whatnot." But Issac wanted the video to be as much like one of her own classes as possible. That's one of the highlights of experiencing Issac's class in person - it features live drums in accompaniment. "If I have to, I teach to recorded [music]," she says, "but for most of my classes, I have to have those musicians with me!"

Brazilian Dance Workout Issac's approach to exercise is a lot more fun than the customary repeaters and hamstring curls of a regular aerobic class, and it's a great change from more pedestrian cardio activities, such as the Stairmaster or treadmill. And, as she found out, dance reaches out to kids in a different way than sports do. In 2000, one of her students, a schoolteacher, encouraged her to apply for a grant from the Santa Barbara Arts Commission to teach dance to underprivileged children. The results were encouraging, as one teacher told Issac - "She had trouble with two kids that had a lot of problems at home, and they flourished with dance. That was very rewarding."

Unfortunately, the Santa Barbara Arts Commission fell victim to budget cuts, and the project only lasted a season. Both Issac and Tico are frustrated when they see the arts given a backseat in education.

"The funds for schools have been so bad," Issac says. "The first thing that goes is dance and music when they don't have money." The worst part is that it's proven that a child's ability to learn increases when she is exposed to music and movement.

Issac and Tico are determined to do something to make a difference. Hip Brazil has become an umbrella company, including the dance troupe, classes, Brazilian pop music, video production, and eventually the couple wants to establish an outreach program to bring dance and music to kids. At the moment, their energy is focused on creating a new beginner's video that they hope to have out by the end of 2004. "I wanted to do something for the person that never took a dance class," says Issac.

Issac's plans sound pretty ambitious - "Hip Brazil is so many things!" she says - but she feels fully capable of tackling it all. And, if you think about it, focusing on just one area seems as unnatural as separating dance from fitness.

Vanessa Issac photo by Cil de Kolda

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