The creators of U-Jam Fitness say it takes more than a studio to unite people.
If you look up the word “movement” in the dictionary, you’ll find two basic definitions: “an act of changing physical location or position or of having this changed;” and “a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social or artistic ideas.”
There aren’t many instances when both definitions coincide. But U-Jam Fitness is a growing dance fitness movement that embodies the physical and ideological definitions of “movement,” uniting world beats with urban rhythm and a spirit of peace, love and unity.
How do you start a movement?
For U-Jam Fitness creators and husband-and-wife team Matt and Susy C. Marks, U-Jam began first and foremost as a passion project, a way to express the Marks’ love for dance, music and their community, before it became a worldwide movement. In fact, that wasn’t the initial intention at all.
The collaboration between the musical husband-and-wife team started with the music and the choreography—Marks is a DJ and Susy C. is a dancer—and strong faith. She studied dance and eventually relocated from her native San Jose, California, to Los Angeles to pursue her passion professionally. But knee injuries ended her budding career. When she returned to San Jose, she discovered cardio kickboxing, Zumba—and a hidden talent for choreography.
Marks started DJing in high school, as turntable scratching and mixing were on the rise. College baseball and a career in high-tech meant that spinning was relegated to weekend weddings and bar mitzvahs. He met Susy C. in 2007, and soon after, she held her first—hugely successful—choreography workshop for dance fitness instructors.
Three years later, U-Jam was born. “When I would do the mixes or remix songs for Susy and her class, I would check it out in the background and watch the people’s reaction,” Marks says. “And the reaction motivated me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
The husband-and-wife team point to a few key elements that took U-Jam Fitness from a dance class to a movement that reaches beyond the studio.
A vision for unity
“The letter U stands for unity. We like to unify people no matter where they’re from—all races, creeds, colors, sizes, dance backgrounds—into one class,” Marks says. He even goes as far as characterizing U-Jam as a church experience. And elements of U-Jam do reflect some of the same characteristics that make a congregation a community.
A welcoming spirit
“When you really welcome people into an environment, they tend to stay around, they tend to pay it forward to others. … We’ve learned to teach people that skill in the classroom. Whether it’s students or instructors, if they pay that forward, it just keeps growing to other classrooms, to other states and now to other countries,” Marks says.
If you don’t know what to do when you come into U-Jam class, Marks says just enjoy the atmosphere. The choreography is easy—four or five moves per song—and newcomers are acknowledged with high-fives. (Once you’re a regular, there even might be a few sweaty hugs.)
A pay-it-forward mentality
“We all have been in a position where we’ve either been down and out, we’ve had a bad day, and we come into this class and it brings us up. People feel that, and they’re able to pay it forward. We’ve seen it over and over again,” Marks says. “This is why people become instructors. They start in the back of the classroom, and the next thing you know, they are instructors. We have hundreds of those people, and that’s called paying it forward.”
An all-levels program
“I believe everybody has their own rhythm. There are people who have natural God-given rhythm, and that’s wonderful. But there are also people who love music. And when they come into class, it doesn’t matter that maybe they’re offbeat and they have some timing issues.” Susy C. says. “They have a beautiful smile on their faces. You can tell they’re having a good time. So to me, that person has rhythm. They’re just dancing to their own beat.”
A personal connection outside the studio
Marks says connection within the studio also extends outside the classroom: “We call it U-Grub, Susy C. explains. “Going out for coffee or going out for lunch, dinner; that connection continues at a restaurant, coffee shop, whatever. We get to know our students on a deeper level, and that’s how they get to know us as instructors. And that’s how we become friends, that’s how we become family.”
How do you keep a movement, well, moving?
More often than not, what makes—or breaks—a movement comes down to the followers. In the case of U-Jam, dance is just the introduction. Once they’ve experienced the movement, the acceptance and the love, U-Jam followers become powerful ambassadors.
“It’s not just about the music and dance. It’s also about acceptance. That’s where the unity comes about,” Marks says. “So yes, that movement is based on music and dance, but it spins off in social gatherings—some of the locals have monthly birthday parties for that class. It is [truly] a movement.”
Photography (hero): Mark Kuroda, kurodastudios.com; U-Jam Fitness
Hair and Make-up: Katie Nash, katienashbeauty.com