We got the beat
An exercise class that uses taiko drumming elements benefits the mind and the body
It is hard to believe Drums Alive is an exercise class. On a recent Friday night at the Honolulu Club, everyone in the studio was having too much fun.
Several ancient concepts have merged to form the relatively new fitness program, which combines the act of drumming -- including a few subtle components of taiko -- with dance and aerobics. Each person holds two drumsticks and moves between four stability balls (which make good drums) immobilized on plastic step risers, covering plenty of ground in the one-hour class.
Fitness classes: 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays
Place: Honolulu Club
Details: Must be a Honolulu Club member to attend. For a free trial membership visit www.honoluluclub.com.
But it's more than that, said instructor Karen Watanabe-Sakamoto, who introduced the class a year ago. "It's a positive way to release your aggression, and a nonverbal way of expressing yourself," she said. "It's a place where you can move without fear of being wrong. My focus is fun movement that stimulates concentration. It's very different from a dance class, where you really stand out when you don't get it. You never want to make (new attendees) feel like failures. You want to make them feel good."
Everyone does. Sometimes the coordinated routines are easy. Other times, there are steps and turns between opportunities to thump the ball that require focus. During the class, Watanabe-Sakamoto encouraged everyone to try something new. "If you make a mistake, it's just us, yeah?" she said. Sure enough, when people fumbled or went in the wrong direction, laughter drowned out the upbeat music.
Sharlene Bliss has participated since Drums Alive started. "I think what drew me to the class initially was that it was an integration of upper and lower body, and right brain and left brain timed to music with plenty of percussion. It's really holistic."
Watanabe-Sakamoto agreed. "What appeals to me is that it's not only a physical workout, it's a mental workout as well," she said. "Coming to this in a fun sort of way forces exercise of the less dominant side of the brain."
Janna Young, group fitness director at the Honolulu Club, added, "It allows such freedom of movement that I learn about my body, and work on the timing connectivity between my mind and my body in a trial-and-error process."
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sharlene Bliss, front right, and Janna Young, back right, were among those enjoying Drums Alive on a recent Friday afternoon at the Honolulu Club. "It allows such freedom of movement that I learn about my body," Young said.
The act of pounding a drum is so therapeutic that Watanabe-Sakamoto has adapted the class for seniors, some of whom still love the activity despite having to remain sitting. It's also been shown to help children who suffer from aggression problems. "It could appeal to any age level," she said.
The concept was started by fitness instructor Carrie Ekins on the mainland, and the taiko touches are Watanabe-Sakamoto's additions. But she's careful to explain that she uses only a few elements from traditional Japanese drumming. "What makes taiko so complex is the rhythm pattern," she said. Instead, she borrows key positions and music that inspires movement.
Kodo, a taiko group from Japan, is Watanabe's favorite music for the class. She prefers the group's "Sai-So" CD, which offers a more even pace. But to keep it interesting, she also throws in Santana; a bit of hip-hop; Earth, Wind & Fire; and some oldies.
The class is challenging yet easy enough that it might not appeal to veteran fitness buffs seeking a hard-core workout, which is probably why it attracts people in their 40s and 50s who favor camaraderie and laughter. "If it's fun, you stick with it, and you enjoy it and you put energy into it," said Bliss, also an instructor at the Honolulu Club.
"It's an innate thing to make noise -- just joy," said Marie Takazawa, a jazz and ballet instructor at the Honolulu Club who participates in the Drums Alive class. "And everybody's helping each other, encouraging."
Watanabe-Sakamoto takes this supportive environment to another level. Though she urges everyone to try her dance/taiko moves, she always offers more moderate alternatives to make sure first-timers feel comfortable. While form is extremely important in taiko, she avoids getting "too fussy" about that in her classes. "It's just a whole different kind of movement that's not so structured," she said.
Her classes have attracted up to 24 people, but the average tends to be fewer. Watanabe, who works full time in the education and consumer affairs division of Hawaiian Electric Co., said Ekins promotes the class as having physical and psychological benefits. In other words, people who drum tend to feel calmer in other aspects of their lives.
"Class members tell me that this form of fitness is a great stress release for them," Watanabe-Sakamoto said. "Some of them say they hate most forms of cardiovascular exercise, but they love Drums Alive. What's interesting is that we see people in our class who previously had no interest in group exercise classes. It allows them a form of expression not easily found elsewhere."