Motivation Man: Sonny Baker of the YMCA

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This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, visit Loumag.com

“Let’s do this!” Sonny says through his headset microphone, his eyes scrunched from his smiling cheeks, his voice almost in song. A Michael Bublé version of “Fever” jazzes up the room. Sonny is instructing an exercise class on a Tuesday afternoon in the lower-level studio of the Downtown YMCA. (Sonny is Sonny Baker, but nobody uses his last name. At the Y, he’s become a one-named legend like Cher or Beyoncé.) The class is geared toward older people who want to keep their strength up. “Step right . . . and left — BREATHE!” This starts the aerobic curve, which, he tells me later, begins with a warmup. “I’ll bring you up, up, really spin you, medium, medium-heavy, go back down — do a descender — cooler, to the ground, do ab work, some sort of abductor, leg work and then stretch it all out.” Even after class, his voice is clear and melodic, changing pitch and pace.

Sonny teaches an average of 15 group aerobic classes a week between the YMCA, Humana and Brown-Forman, and attendees’ ages range from nine to 84. I attended Sonny’s dance fitness class, where the tall, trim 55-year-old stays on his toes, moving his feet in a sequence I didn’t think possible. The man has rhythm, or, as he says, he puts his flair in the dance. The class is a humbling experience if you’re not up on your “Wobble” — a dance-specific song from a couple of years ago that’s akin to the “Cha-Cha Slide” or “Macarena.” “Haaaahhh!” he keeps shouting, which I later figure out means “higher!” If you’re not giving all you’ve got, he’ll come right up to you and tell you. Yet, there’s no sense of shame. He’s a talented name-learner and calls people “Love” from time to time.

How does a sociology major and business-accounting minor, which Sonny was, end up as a fitness instructor? “Fitness came as . . . actually, as a dare,” he says. In 1983, the Louisville native was working at Dismas House, a halfway facility for non-violent offenders, and he often volunteered at the Parkland Boys and Girls Club in west Louisville. “One of my students (dared) me to come to Jazzercise,” he says. Sonny was in his 20s at the time and played basketball often, but he couldn’t keep up with a 68-year-old Jazzercise classmate — and he couldn’t move for the next four days. He never missed another class.

“The next thing I knew, I was headed to California to get certified to teach Jazzercise,” he says. Fitness gradually became his full-time focus. His day might stretch from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with back-to-back classes and training sessions. “I’ve seen people go from thick people to thin people,” he says. “I’ve seen people go from really downhearted to positive and powerful. And it’s just fitness!”

Dorothy Young has been a Sonny regular for the past six months. “He keeps us coming,” she says after her workout. Says another regular: “He’s the best. There’s no one anywhere near him. He’s even good for old people.” Sonny’s secret to staying motivated? “Everybody thinks it’s, ‘Lift a hundred pounds and run 300 miles.’ You have to think you can lift a hundred pounds and run 300 miles,” he says, emphasizing over and over again that fitness is mental, not just physical. “It’s more than jumping around the basketball court — trust me.”

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