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February 11, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Health & Fitness: Limber lineage: Daughter keeps Marianne Crowder's exercise class true to its roots, but Ms. Crowder, 97, still attends. Health & Fitness: Limber lineage: Daughter keeps Marianne Crowder's exercise class true to its roots, but Ms. Crowder, 97, still attends. (February 11, 2004)

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

In every exercise or dance class, there's always one student who doesn't seem to mind standing in the front.

Out of breath, the others can't help watching her through their own flailing limbs. She makes the moves look easy. There's no hiding in the back row for her.

In the "Forever Fit" adult exercise class held at Menlo Park's Burgess Recreation Center, that mythical student is a woman named Marianne Crowder. Her lifelong dancer's grace draws the eye, but that's not her only secret. She also designed the entire class and taught it for more than 50 years.

Ms. Crowder's daughter, Sue Chiappone, now teaches the course, but Ms. Crowder regularly attends. Why give it up? After all, she's only 97.

In the midst of the courses offered through the city of Menlo Park -- swing dancing, martial arts, and digital photo scanning, among others -- the class that Ms. Crowder began teaching in Menlo Park in 1949 remains one of the most popular.

Three times a week, the familiar taped piano music comes lilting out of the Burgess dance room with the floor that the city built for Ms. Crowder in 1961. And the students, many of whom have been regulars for years or are the children of past regulars, gather for a smoothly flowing set of exercises and stretches that work everything from the face to the feet.

"All these other programs are for this and that. This is just for good health. There's that complete range of motion in the exercises, the variety of standing and sitting and lying down and kicking your feet up," says Gee-Gee Anderson Lenhart, a Crowder faithful since the 1960s.

Ms. Lenhart also praises the emphasis on good posture, saying, "We always had to practice walking over to the chair, turning around and sitting down." Recalling how strong her legs got, she adds, "We could go all the way down to the floor with a teacup in each hand."

A native of Colorado, Ms. Crowder studied dance and theater arts for years, heading the dance department at Colorado College. After moving to Palo Alto, Ms. Crowder started teaching dance on the front lawn of the family home, and then held classes with a Victrola record player.

Even in the early days, the courses included elements of corrective movement such as postural work. Ms. Crowder believes that correct posture and motion can head off many ailments and troubles.

"I've never been injured in class," she says, beaming, during a recent interview at the Burgess center.

Over the years, Ms. Crowder put together a book of her exercises, called "Mariantics," and a video. Her classes also included regular dance shows, and Ms. Crowder's late writer husband, Paul, wrote the scripts.

In addition, Ms. Crowder produced a 1970s film called "The Court Dances of the Renaissance" with the city of Palo Alto. Historical research of the intricate steps was necessary.

Like mother, like daughter

When Ms. Crowder had hip surgery about three years ago, it seemed only natural for her daughter, Sue, to assume the reins and begin teaching her classes.

"I loved that," Ms. Crowder says. Her daughter had been one of her students for years, and has held true to the practiced method, only adding some exercises with light arm weights.

These days, the class attracts people of a range of ages who enjoy the low-impact work-out. Older people especially appreciate the gentle pushes to stay active, says Jean Green, 85, who's been taking Crowder classes since 1949.

"You have to keep up your activities: mental activities, physical activities, whatever. Just so that you're moving and thinking. Life goes on," she says. "Marianne Crowder has been one of those people who has helped me think that life is not all bad."

At a recent class, the atmosphere is similarly positive. Two women giggle as they both realize they can't do a difficult move. Neither seems to care.

In a green turtleneck and green stretch pants, the petite Ms. Crowder shyly declines to be photographed, but her every move is nimble. Anyway, the Almanac photographer is distracted by the unusual foot exercises as the members of the class flex and stretch their toes. Curious, he tentatively joins in.

All the while, the piano music swirls around, syncing up with the movements and dipping in and out of familiar melodies: "As Time Goes By," "Night and Day," "I Wish You Love." Sweeping arpeggios flow out of the small stereo as the students swing their legs wide.

Ms. Chiappone, 60, offers advice and direction throughout: "Play the piano with the toes." "Direct your thinking to something beautiful." "Give each finger a pinch and a pull."

Each class ends in the form of a snail. Everyone joins hands and walks in a shrinking circle, following an 11th-century folk dance formation.

"Now, people, just hold hands and don't let go," Ms. Chiappone says.

Afterwards, one new woman praises the class and is surprised to hear that her fellow student is the creator of it all.

Later, Ms. Lenhart muses on how influential the class has been to her.

"Almost all of us think of Marianne almost every day," she says. "Her suggestions come to us as we sit, as we walk, as we stand. That's quite a tribute."

Program information

The next series of "Forever Fit-Crowder Exercise" begins on March 29, with classes on Monday mornings, Monday evenings and Tuesday evenings. For more information, call Menlo Park's Community Services Department at 330-2200 or go to and click on the Activity Guide image.

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