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Wake Up and Sit

Face flexes and leg lifts: The "lady in the chair" gains an unexpected following.


Rarely do shows on Channel 17, the city's government-access channel, get much attention. The lineup is mostly an endless march of community announcements and recorded City Council meetings. But four times a day there is Holt's show, "Chairobics," which has become an unlikely cult hit.

For about 55 minutes, Holt, head of the city's dance program, sits in a chair in a dance studio and leads her unseen audience through a series of gentle exercises: arm stretches, leg lifts, face flexes and so on, while soothing, royalty-free melodies play in the background. The studio is dim, the video quality poor, yet still she mesmerizes.

"Good. That's great," she encourages. "Now stretch up tall. … Reach, and reach, and reach, and relax."

She appears at 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Woe betide Mariane M. Jorgenson, the city staffer in charge of programming for Channel 17, if Holt does not show up on the screen at the appointed hours.

"If I change the time for any reason or do anything different," Jorgenson says, "the elderly people in town call me. And they're very distraught."

It's not that viewers fear missing a crucial piece of the action. The show currently airing, the latest in a series, is the exact same one, every time. "We run the tapes till they break," Jorgenson says.

Why don't Holt's fans simply tape the show themselves, you might ask, so they're not prisoner to the city's schedule? "Chairobics," for some, has become a sacred ritual.

"So many people are isolated," Holt says, especially older or disabled people who have little human contact. Some feel a personal bond with Holt (who declines to give her age) when they see her in the grainy video on the television screen.

One woman from an assisted living facility called Holt recently to tell her the residents liked doing Chairobics together when the show came on. "You know, you're so pretty and warm and nice, and we just feel you're there with us," she said.

Jorgenson theorizes that certain male viewers have a crush on Holt, as well.

Yet many viewers, Jorgenson believes, don't know who Holt is or even what the program's called. Occasionally, an extra-long council meeting forces Jorgenson to cancel the 4 p.m. airing of the show. Once when this happened, she wrote a message that scrolled across the bottom of the screen announcing "Chairobics" would not be airing. She still got calls from peeved viewers. "So I changed it to, 'The lady in the chair will not be on at 4.'" That seemed to solve the problem.

Holt, formerly a professional dancer, came to Richmond from Baltimore in 1979 to lead the dance program in the city Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. But in 1982, Holt — along with other city employees — was "bumped" from her position and demoted from dance specialist to therapeutic recreation group worker.

Holt wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to be doing. "I teach dance, and that's about all I do," she explained to her new supervisors. She was sent to senior housing complexes, where she looked around at the crowd with their wheelchairs, walkers and canes. Teaching the foxtrot seemed a bit of stretch.

But Holt remained an optimist. "I thought, 'There are lots of things that can be done in a chair,'" she says. She began leading gentle muscle-building exercises. Chairobics, Richmond-style, was born. (Holt was not the first to coin the term.)

The program became popular. Holt taught at churches, hospitals and community centers. But it wasn't until the late '90s that Chairobics was televised. It happened purely by chance, Holt says, when she heard the city was planning to hire a professional videographer to film an aerobics session for the Health Department program Rock! Richmond.

What about filming Chairobics? Holt asked. She was told to show up if she wanted to, and "maybe if there's some tape left over, we can put five or ten minutes on there." Holt luckily got to record 30 minutes of Chairobics after the first group was finished.

As it turns out, the aerobics session was never broadcast. The participants had demonstrated all the exercises on the right side only, and had forgotten to record the same movements on the left. But "Chairobics" aired and "people seemed to enjoy it," Holt says. She recorded a new routine for television, then another, then another.

Holt now plans, with the city's help, to record and sell new videos in the spring. She wants to add some more challenging options that give viewers the opportunity to stand up and perform small lunges and leg lifts.

"The main aspect of Chairobics is range of movement and stress reduction," Holt says. It won't make people sweat, but the exercises are meant to produce a euphoric, relaxed sort of weariness at the end. Jorgenson, who was recently in a wheelchair with a broken foot, says she "felt very tired" after following the entire program.

Molly Hutchins, wellness coordinator at The Hermitage at Cedarfield assisted living facility, hasn't seen Holt's show (they get the Hanover County cable access channel) but confirms the benefits of seated exercises. She leads a similar program, called Sit and Get Fit, which she says helps residents keep better balance and aids them in doing everyday tasks, such as lifting groceries and putting them away. "They love it," she says.

Even the frailest participants can improve their physical and mental condition with Chairobics, Holt says. As proof, she points to a woman she once worked with, a stroke victim who couldn't raise her right arm above her shoulder. Holt taught her the technique of "practical visualization," in which the woman imagined raising her arm higher and higher.

Holt lost contact with the woman. Then, years later at an early '80s June Jubilee celebration downtown, she heard a voice cry out: "Miss Lady! Miss Lady!"

Holt looked around and saw the woman who'd had the stroke. "She came tottering over and she had a cheeseburger in her hand," Holt says. Gleefully, the woman flung her arm up to the sky, accidentally catapulting the burger onto a nearby man's shoulder. Success. S

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