ST. PETERSBURG — Twenty women in high heels sit in a dim room lit kindly with Christmas lights.
Deep breath. Here goes.
They are muscled, spindly, soft and Rubenesque. Smooth with youth and creased with age.
They're here to burn some calories, yes. But maybe they'll gain something, too.
The music cues, slow and slinky.
It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me. And I'm feeling good.
• • •
The class is called Risquerobics, and the goal is sexy — not trashy.
The women learn a mix of striptease, chair dance and burlesque from Gemma Hughes, a sprite in leg warmers with proportionally big hair and personality. They master the sexy walk, the slow dip, the wiggle and the neck roll. They gain strength to hold their legs still and then pop them closed in a tease.
Six weeks and $60 later, they have the know-how to perform an entire chair routine in stilettos.
"Look at that mirror like you're walking straight toward that person," Hughes tells the class inside Bay Medical Center Studio on Central Avenue. "Eye contact! Make you want you!"
Some women have a natural ease, with smoldering stares and joints that move like greased cogs. Others look like they'd sooner be barbecued, with deer-in-headlights eyes and stiff hips.
They'll loosen up with time, Hughes said. They need to pick through their barriers.
But they're there.
And that's the point.
"You look at society and media and movies and TV, and there's just this idea of what sexy looks like," Hughes said. "And most women don't look like that."
Hughes is 32, a native of England who spent most of her life in St. Petersburg. Chubby in middle school, she started doing workout tapes in her bedroom from Denise Austin and Cindy Crawford and Gilad Janklowicz (the beach-dancing guy). Now she offers personal training, Zumba, boot camps, nutrition consulting.
She has seen many women with depleted verve and confidence.
The name Risquerobics danced in her head for several years. This year, she decided to offer the class. After a tiny mention in the newspaper, the first one sold out. She has since launched new sessions.
The demand makes sense to her.
"Women become mothers, they become wives, and all of a sudden they've lost themselves and they're doing everything for everyone else," Hughes said. "The self-esteem, the sexiness comes back and they remember who that fun girl was."
• • •
So who are the fun girls?
There is Lori Pettigrew, a striking blond dental assistant who is 48: "I'm doing it with the sole purpose to give a show to my boyfriend. I'm not showing it to him until I'm completely done."
There is Tania Rhoden, a 28-year-old graduate student, confident in boots and a necktie: "It's exercise and it's definitely more fun that just staying on a treadmill."
And slipping in a few minutes late, there is Katy DeSautel. Unsatisfied with her seat in the back, she moves her chair forward. She wears a sequined minidress, silver belt and tights with glittery dragons down the side. She has two pairs of shoes for class, one black and sexy, one silver and sexier.
She is 63.
"I'm not the self-conscious type," she says. "I like movement. It turns my mind off."
She is a therapist who teaches psychology and calls herself a groupie to local band Ron and the Classics. But after some intense surgery, she was laid up for months. The class is her big comeback, her Hello, World.
"This is exactly what I needed. It feels great to move again."
"I have boyfriends."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.