Aerobic Hecklers

We’ve all been faced with the varying species of the “Aerobic Heckler” – that participant that defies your lead and does their own thing.  If you’ve taught any length of time, or subbed for another instructor, you’ve likely had to bite your tounge at least once to keep from channelling Eric Cartman and yelling at the top of your lungs “Respect My Authority!”

Aerobic Hecklers come in a wide variety: The Flapping Birds, The Grasshoppers, The Peacocks, The Racehorses and The Hot Doggers.

The Flapping Birds are the most common.  They wave their arms incessantly like they are attempting to take flight for the first time.

The Grasshoppers add an extra hop or ball-change to every single step.  They usually just like the fun feel of it.

The Peacocks have taken someone else’s class and they either have unbreakable steel-like neuro-muscular pathways or they just have a preference for the other instructor’s variation of a move.  Instead of actually challenging their brain to learn your version, they just do what they already know.  At times it can feel like they are suggesting that you adapt your version to theirs.  This can be especially annoying when you know that where you’re going with a move will leave them on the wrong foot – something I secretly enjoy.  This category also includes the Struttin’ Peacock who just launches into their own or someone else’s complete choreography collection.  Way beyond mere modification, their stuff totally differs from what you are trying to teach.  The seem to be in your class only to borrow your music for an hour.

The Racehorses are amazingly proficient at moving a half-beat faster than you and the music.  You somehow know it’s not that they can’t find the beat.  It appears to be an effort to suggest that you need to pick up the pace.  Actual horse blinders would fail to block them from your peripheral vision.

Hot Doggers are a mixed breed of some or all of the above, and they mostly appear when you are subbing for another popular instructor.  You just can’t teach these dogs new tricks – they already know it all.  Everything about them screams “I’m so much better than you!” and they are willing to pull out all their best stops to demonstrate the fact.  They are hard to ignore because, like the Struttin’ Peacocks, they typically like to perform for all to see, usually smack-dab in the middle of the front row.  But they differ from them because they’re not just doing their own thing, they’re trying hard to tell you to do their thing too!

How To Deal with Aerobic Hecklers

To maintain a position of authority with most heckling breeds, I usually choose first to ‘give’ them permission to modify.  Flapping arms and hopping ball-changes are relatively small modifications that participants use to add a little something extra to their own workout.  Even though you may not deem such extras as necessary and, for as much as you may be concerned for their tendons and ligaments in the long run, I say let them have at it.  If they later complain about little aches and pains of the shoulders and feet… bingo!  You’ve got an answer!

As for The Peacocks, I do give them permission as well, but I like to make some kind of point about the brain benefits of establishing new pathways.  Doing a class with moves you already know is like doing the exact same crossword puzzle every Sunday.  You can do it fast and efficiently – with little to no effort – but it’ not going to expand your vocabulary. I’ve decided that this breed just hates the discomfort of learning something new.  You’ll typically see this occur with uber-fit people who are new to you – your cuing, terminology and choreography – in which case, I like to remind everyone that if you’re not messing up, you’re not learning anything new.

The Struttin’ Peacocks can be a different story – especially if they are a ‘regular’ who struts their stuff in the front row. If they are totally doing their own thing, not following the general directional movement of the class, it can present a safety hazzard for those nearby.  Additionally, the people who are behind them have difficulty following because this person can be quite the distraction.  It is best to talk to repeat offenders after class and explain that modification to a degree is okay, but their over-modifications distract others who are trying to follow your instructions.  Most cognizant people would know to take doing their own thing to the very back of the room, but you may need to show them where the back row is where they can spin less obtrusively. If they still present a hazzard to those surrounding them, then address the issue from a safety standpoint and explain the importance of moving directionally with the rest of the group to avoid collisions with neighbors.

Racehorses – Do your best to simply ignore them, unless they become consistent offenders and you’re sure they are not just beat challenged. Speed is the main thing you control and even if they are insisting that you’re too slow, your responsibility is to the entire class.   Chances are they will find another class.

Handling a Hot Dogger takes some serious skill.  First, check to make sure that you are not projecting your own insecurity onto them. Second, resist the temptation to say “You think you can do a better job teaching?”  In stand up comedy, the profession that birthed the heckler,  it’s a golden rule to never, ever give up the microphone.  No matter how tempted, you must resist because it will be a disaster.  You might think that calling them to task is the way to put them in their place, but a proficient follower does not necessarily an instructor make.  Your job is to teach the class and turning it over to someone else is not what your participants showed up for – they are there for your class, not someone else who may or may not be able to teach.  But let’s say they actually can teach… then what?  Either way, it’s lose – lose.

The best way to handle it, if you can’t ignore it, is to first give them what they want – attention!  Yes, you heard me right…  say something nice or complimentary. If you just can’t summon up something to say, then recheck your own insecurities.  Truth is, saying something positive is not giving up your authority, it serves to reinforce it.

Choose Your Battles Wisely

When faced with outright defiance, you can choose to ignore or choose to correct.  If you assess that the acts present immediate danger to either the partcipant or to those around them, you need to correct.  Some people may actually be able to keep up with 3 risers on their step, but if you know that your music and choreography combined with excessive height equals a wreck waiting to happen, then say something.

If unsure, start with a general correction directed at everyone – state the level of complexity and the speed of your music and suggest that one may need to adjust their step height if they can’t execute the patterns with control.  As you proceed, if the participant missed the message and you feel that imminent danger calls for a direct correction, start with a compliment (Wow, You Are Really Fit), state the correction (The Speed and Complexity Combined with Step Height is Compromising Your Form) and then finish with a compliment (Which I Noticed Your Fine Technique During The Warm-Up).  Surrounding a correction with compliments helps to diffuse what can feel like an attack that puts the person on the defensive.  Confrontation tends to make everyone, including others in the class, awkwardly uncomfortable.

When your concern is that of potential injury over time and the participant ignores general corrections, you may need to give them a pass on the first couple of classes – let them off easy with just a warning (general correction) rather than giving them a ticket (direct correction).  If they come back and still don’t get the message, you can go with the ticket, but with repeat offenders, if at all possible, talk to them one on one before or after class.

In stand up comedy, the pros carefully craft one-liners to throw out to hecklers – they may sound ‘off the cuff’, but the truth is they have an arsenal of snappy comebacks.  All they are doing is pulling up the line that fits the situation.  Aerobic professionals can learn to handle aerobic hecklers the same way by building their own arsenal of positive niceties and succint corrections to dish out wisely as needed.  While the comedian’s goal is to make everyone laugh – often at the expense of the heckler – your’s is to host the party and make everyone feel comfortable – keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is for all of them to want to come back.


  1. says

    I haven’t attended a live class in years, but I will just add that all of the above make everyone else feel very uncomfortable.

    The last time I exercised in public was at a Curves almost 10 years ago. After four months I had to quit because of a flapping bird. The behavior is selfish and inconsiderate of others.

    Never thought of it from the instructor’s point of view–must be very frustrating at times.

    And I might add, I think Eric Cartman might have thrown in an adjective or two to that three-word sentence. lol 😉

    • says

      So very true about Cartman! hehe!! Thanks for chiming in on this… as an instructor, we sometimes think it’s just US who are annoyed by hecklers! I too find the flappers to be particularly annoying. I just thought I musta missed the memo on the superior calorie burn or somthin’…. 😉

  2. Lisa Kucharski says

    Great article about a topic not usually covered- I’ve encountered pretty much everyone one of the people you’ve mentioned. I find that they do tend to be following some internal voice of their own, and the class finds the person as annoying as I do. Generally the lone star tends to find another place to shine in another class. And when this happens as a sub it is even harder to deal with! Thanks for the helpful article. I can’t imagine anyone doing this to you Gin, you are the super pro.

  3. Andrew says

    A great article that brings back some memories. I used to teach aerobics in the 80s and encountered some real characters in my classes….

    – A lady who tended to do many of her moves in reverse, so she would be moving left while everyone else was going right.
    – A girl who knew my classes so well, she would sometimes preempt my moves and start doing the new exercise a beat early.
    – A guy who came in still drunk on New Year’s morning one year and just jumped around in the back for 30 minutes.

    My strategy was to let them get on with it and just enjoy the entertainment. I would only intervene if there was danger of collision/injury.

    My worst experience as a participant was when I attended a class where the owner decided to instruct. Unfortunately, he could not keep time so was seriously out of sync with the music. It was like spending 30 minutes doing that thing where you pat your head with one hand and rub your stomach with the other at the same time.

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