Fitness as Family

The sense of community at Mecka and CrossFit Mt. Lebanon brings coaches and clients together into a tight-knit family.

When Deb Dewit found out she had cancer, her first thought was, “Am I still going to be able to do Fit Dance?”

For Dewit, Sleepy Hollow Road, the Fit Dance classes offered at the Mt. Lebanon Recreation Center, 900 Cedar Boulevard, changed her life. “I was looking for something just to keep exercising,” she says, but after taking her first class she came home so transformed her husband was astounded. “I was talking a mile a minute,” she laughs.

Fit Dance is filled with upbeat, current music from around the world. Participants can find themselves dancing a fast-paced samba, bouncing to the beat of a French-language hip-hop song and popping their toes to a Bollywood number. The program, run by instructor Kelly Brown, Forest Glen Drive, was inspiring from the beginning. “It was probably the most fun I’d ever had exercising before” Dewit says.

So when Dewit’s doctor told her he’d have to remove an entire muscle in her thigh to combat the rare soft tissue sarcoma she had, returning to dance class became her goal. “I was determined,” she says.

The goal kept Dewit going through her cancer surgery, rounds of chemotherapy and yearlong recovery. “Always, through all of that, I knew when I got back to Fit Dance, that was going to be the end of this bad journey.”

Part of what made Dewit so intent on returning to Fit Dance was the camaraderie she found among the other participants, from a wide variety of ages. “I’m 53 and I’m doing hip-hop moves that I never thought I’d do, moving my hips and shaking around in a safe environment,“ Dewit says. “It’s just such a friendly, supportive group. There’s no judgment.”

“That’s just one of the nicest things about the class, says Ashley Chambers, Fruithurst Drive. “It’s just open to all. Everybody can benefit from it and everybody loves it.”

Chambers and her sister, Brittany Mitzak, Fruithurst Drive, became “totally hooked and obsessed” with Fit Dance after they saw an advertisement for a free introductory class in Mt. Lebanon Magazine and decided to try it on a whim. “Halfway through the class we just looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh my God, yes! This is so great,’” says Chambers.

Events like Barbells for Boobs, a breast cancer fundraiser, help good causes and draw clients together.

They have formed tight friendships with the women they’ve met through Fit Dance. Now many of the participants who live in Sunset Hills go out dancing together as a group, and have encouraged their neighbors to sign up. Sometimes there are up to 10 neighbors piling in a carpool caravan to head off to the Monday and Wednesday evening classes offered in seven-week sessions throughout the year.

“It’s great in the winter especially, because we see each other out on the street in the summer, but in the winter we are all inside,” says Kerry Owens, Fieldbrook Drive. When Mt. Lebanon cancelled school one day last winter, Mitzak hosted a party at her house for the neighbors and their kids. The women quickly took over the kids’ Just Dance Xbox console game.

“They are so much more than just your friends from dance class,” Mitzak says. The women agree that it’s not just about dancing together, but the feeling of community that the class provides. The relationship helps keep them accountable by encouraging each other to be consistent in attendance and their workouts.

Carrie Lehman, Crescent Drive, is an athlete-turned-instructor at CrossFit Mt. Lebanon and Mecka Fitness, 427 Washington Road, and she sees how important it is to have a consistent group of friends pushing each other to be better athletes every day.

“When you are with the same people again and again and have a consistent instructor, it helps to build a strong community,” she says. “We all have each others’ backs, we all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we all help each other.”

Mel Driscoll, Navahoe Drive, agrees. She started out in Mecka’s Boot Camp, a class that uses CrossFit programming without the heavy barbell equipment that can intimidate people. She progressed to doing CrossFit as she grew more skilled. “It’s a therapeutic, safe space,” she says. “That’s why friendships are formed so tightly together. You have that high from working out, and then you start sharing stories.”

“What really bonds us most is we get to know each other at the place we love,” says Jill Gates, Main Entrance Drive.

“We all consistently come at the same time every day,” adds Kate Pollock, Country Club Drive. “If you don’t see someone for three days straight, you text them and ask what’s going on,” she says. “We hold each other accountable for sure.”

Friends pose for a group photo after competing in the CrossFit challenge at CrossFit Mt. Lebanon.

The women are part of a group of CrossFitters who have become friends not just with each other, but with their families. Now they do weekend trips, lunch and dinner outings and often finish each other’s sentences.

Gates and Pollock graduated together from Mt. Lebanon High School and were Rockettes with the marching band, but they hadn’t seen each other for 20 years before joining CrossFit Mt. Lebanon. Now they run CrossFit Kids, a program designed for kids ages 10 and up.

All of the participants agreed that the community aspect of the programming took their workouts from ordinary to exceptional. “You’re not going to make a bunch of friends just going to a regular gym,” says Mike Seifert, Shady Drive East. “That’s kind of a solo activity.” A lifelong athlete, Seifert started CrossFit last year at the encouragement of a friend and immediately found himself immersed in an evening class that calls itself the “7:30 Crew.”

“You pick up a friendship pretty quickly when you are working out five to six days a week together,” Seifert says. The group not only cleans up the gym at the end of the night, but often grabs drinks and dinner, checks out athletic programs and sporting events and even spends the holidays together in various forms.

“I’m not athletic,” insists JJ Stolze, Hoodridge Drive. “I’ve never been competitive or on team sports.” But she found something special when she started working out with the 7:30 Crew. She had joined the gym after seeing a friend perform a CrossFit movement called a bar muscle-up in a video online, and wanted to try something to get healthy and in shape.

“What I like is that there are goals; something to reach for. That’s exciting to me,” she says. The support from her classmates has spurred her on, and within a year she found herself attempting her own bar muscle-ups in the CrossFit Open competition, something she says she once thought was crazy.   

“There’s no reason we should all be friends except for fitness,” says Sarah Neff, Mabrick Avenue. Neff joined CrossFit after walking home from a yoga class four years ago and seeing a group of runners shoot out of the garage doors behind Pamela’s Diner on Washington Road.

“I would come here and think, ‘This is the best part of my week,’” she says of the free weekly community class. Her big box gym left her bored and unsatisfied. “It wasn’t that same community feel. There wasn’t anything. No bonding beyond the class.”

Now she has a close-knit group of friends with whom she brunches and hikes, and even spent Thanksgiving with one friend’s family. “I’m not originally from Pittsburgh so they are like my family here,” Neff says. “We have each other. I feel like I could call any one of them at any time.”

Deb Dewit (right) follows along to the musical beat while exercising to a dance number at Fit Dance.

One reason the Fit Dance friends believe the dance class creates such enthusiasm is because it is so inclusive, not only for a wide range of ages and body types, but for newcomers as well. Mitzak credits Fit Dance with helping her to quickly form deep, organic friendships after moving back to the region from New York with her husband. “I had never lived in Mt. Lebanon and I felt like I was new to the community.”

“I had never taken a dance class before and when I started it was left feet everywhere and I was very uncomfortable,” says Karen Romano, Fieldbrook Drive. “But everyone is so supportive and when I get home my husband is like, ‘You’re so happy!’”

Brazil native Thias Ligo, Lemoyne Avenue, didn’t know anyone in Mt. Lebanon when she tried Fit Dance for the first time. “I was missing home; I had no friends,” Ligo says. Then the instructor played a song from Brazil. “I felt like I was home. And now look how many friends I have!”

Dewit rejoined the class this past winter after her treatment ended and says dancing has helped her leg get stronger and recover better. “Music can be very healing,” she says. “It was a bump in the road, but I’m back.”

The women say instructor Kelly Brown brings energy and warmth to the class; she once invited them to go dancing at The Grove in Castle Shannon. “We just shamelessly started doing choreography from class in the middle of the dance floor,” Mitzak says. “You feel like a superstar.”

The class recently surprised Brown with a flash mob dance before class, wearing matching tank tops they’d secretly had made. “The tops say, ‘Fit Dance Rules’ because we’re known to yell that across the parking lot once in a while,” Romano says.

Photos by Sarah Neff and John Schisler