MONROE - The Latin music blared loudly in the upstairs group exercise room at the South Orange Family YMCA last Wednesday evening as a class of women of all ages - including some men - followed instructor Priscilla Ammons’ direction in the Y’s most popular class: Zumba. During that class, Ammons would guide her students through fast, continuous and choreographed moves which borrow from the salsa, mambo, belly dancing and meringue dance styles, with all moving - some at their own pace - to specific beats and tempos. Most huffed and puffed their way through the dance fitness program, their clothing damp with perspiration and their water bottles positioned nearby. But those class participants were exercising because they wanted to be what Y officials regard all their members to be: health seekers. Last week, the 1,000th membership was purchased at the South Orange Y - or SOFY - representing at least 3,000 people and that number has grown daily. Since SOFY opened six weeks ago, its membership jumped 100 percent. SOFY officials said those numbers reinforce the notion that the Y has become a community center, a place where families can come to work out together and get healthier. “The Y is providing good service,” said Ira Besdansky, the Y’s executive director. “The experience is a quality one. That’s what’s most important to us.” Operations unfold Besdansky acknowledged the first weeks of operation have included a good amount of growing pains and thanked members for their graciousness in giving the Y time to address those problems. “We knew we would not be ready 100 percent on Feb. 7 but we made a promise to people that we would be operational,” he said. The satellite dish is now installed, after delays in mounting it to the roof due to icy conditions. Audio outputs on cardio machines and personal viewing screening on the cardio equipment are now operational. Additional parking spots are now available now that snow piles have melted. The Y is working with its neighbors within the complex to handle the parking demand during peak times. Besdansky acknowledged parking was particularly tight during the first weeks of operation due to the rush of new members wanting to use the facility. Child watch hours for little children have increased to include Sunday and the Youth Center now offers hours on Saturday and Sunday. Now, kids have a place to exercise as their parents workout elsewhere in the building. Even the parameters of where children are allowed to go have been addressed. Children age 13 and under must stay on the first floor, giving adults their requested “adults only time” on the second level. And then there is what officials call the “astounding” response to group fitness classes, particularly for Zumba, the Latin-inspired dance fitness program. 'Zumba is just a pandemic’ In the early weeks, officials were seeing more than 80 people, on average, showing up for Zumba when the room could accommodate no more than 40. “We didn’t realize the interest would be that intense and the intensity would be that sustained,” said Besdansky. “And that presented some challenges. It was the perfect storm of great instructors combined with class times and time when their (class participants’) kids wanted to come.” The response was so great that officials had to create a sign-in and reservation process to accommodate the huge volume of people. Members have been asked to consider different class times in order to balance attendance. “Zumba is just a pandemic,” said Michelle Bernieri, SOFY’s wellness coordinator, noting in only six weeks time, SOFY is now offering 50 group exercise programs. “Any one of any age and any ability and any walk of life can come in and have a ball. There are white haired grannies here next to families. We have more (Zumba) programs here than in Middletown.” Moms, dads, kids Bernieri, who has worked for the past five years at the Y’s main campus in Middletown, felt the Y was accomplishing its goal of making sure the community knew this was a place families can come to be together. “I’ve never seen so many moms and dads hanging out with their kids,” she said. “Eighty-five percent of our membership is family-based. And when people come here, they do feel as if they are part of a family, the Y family. And our central belief is that they are seekers of good health.” Besdansky agreed, adding SOFY is establishing itself as an important subset of the overall community. “I don’t know how you quantify or qualify it, but there is an amazing buzz in the community about what’s going on here,” he said. “”Why? I think a big thing is that when times get a little tough, as they are now, people are looking at how they spend their free time and discretionary income, if they have any, and scrutinize that. They’re asking themselves how they can take care of themselves and do it as a family and be part of the community.” New children’s fitness programming was introduced this month, and Besdansky promised more programs, including ones for teens, as SOFY continues to settle into the area. “People like to belong to something, to be a part of something that perhaps isn’t in their immediate neighborhood,” Besdansky added. “Over time, we wanted to achieve a great sense of community at the Y and it’s happened much sooner than we expected. A new community has been created here.”
“Over time, we wanted to achieve a great sense of community at the Y and it’s happened much sooner than we expected. A new community has been created here.” Ira Besdansky, the Y’s chief executive director, talking about the community response to the new South Orange Family YMCA which opened six weeks ago.