By Wesley Case The Baltimore Sun.
In the '90s, she'd hit the dance floor. Today, she's helping others work up a sweat to Baltimore club music.
In the 1990s, Janice Armstrong spent most weekends like many other Baltimore natives: sweating it out on the dance floor at the Paradox.
As a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Armstrong would gather friends for College Night at the 18-and-older nightclub in the Carroll-Camden Industrial Area, the city's epicenter for all-night dance parties. Informal dance battles between friends, crews and strangers often drew onlookers, and Armstrong was more than ready to show off her moves.
"At the time, I was one of the only females that would get on the floor and battle against a bunch of males," said Armstrong, now 39. "I tended to provide a shock factor back in the day."
Decades later, Armstrong is still using the dance moves she crafted at the Paradox, but in a new way. Inspired by her love of Baltimore club music, the city's frenetic dance genre that combines elements of house and hip-hop at 130 beats per minute, Armstrong created Cranked Up Cardio, a fitness program that mixes aerobics steps with club dance moves.
Whether it's the local soundtrack, the partylike atmosphere or the calories they burn without realizing it, people young and old, familiar with club music and not, in Baltimore and across the state, are using it to work up a sweat.
"We have instructors who span from Clinton ... all the way up to Edgewood," Armstrong said. "I have participants that will come to each and every event that I do because they just enjoy the atmosphere. They enjoy the fact that it is personalized to us and our city. They might not go clubbing anymore, but it feels like the club every time I have an event."
A typical hourlong workout begins and ends with 10 minutes of warm-up and cool-down motions to reggae, R&B and funk. But for the 40 minutes in between, the focus is on learning and executing old-school aerobics steps. As students get more comfortable, they gradually increase their speed and intensity. The goal is to "crank it up" to a Baltimore club dance step.
To the song "Pull Ya Gunz Out" by Miss Tony, for example, "We'll do a grapevine into a basic knee-lift, then a grapevine, knee-lift, jump (twice) and then we put our guns up with our hands to complete," Armstrong said.
During the workout's height, Armstrong said, participants can burn up to 600 calories. She does not guarantee weight loss, mainly because each body reacts to cardio differently, and factors like diet play significant roles in dropping pounds, but she does promise a high-energy workout that will burn calories and increase heart rates.
For people who view working out as a chore, Armstrong, who credits the program with helping her to lose more than 50 pounds, believes Cranked Up Cardio is a solution.
"I want people to feel comfortable in knowing it's something that's fun," she said.
The initial idea for Cranked Up Cardio came in 2006, when Armstrong would exercise by creating step routines to club music in her basement. She knew her steps had potential to reach others, but life got in the way, now a Waldorf resident, Armstrong has two children and has been married for 13 years, so she shelved the idea.
Then at a college reunion party two years ago, an old friend spotted Armstrong owning the dance floor like it was the Paradox all over again.
"He was like, 'You still move!'" she recalled.
The friend encouraged Armstrong to develop her dance moves into a fitness program, despite her lack of experience in the field. (Calling herself a "full-time hustler," Armstrong currently works as a management analyst in Washington, an adjunct professor with Prince George's Community College and a leadership trainer for LiHK Consulting, her own consulting firm.)
After developing a pilot program with the help of friends and family, Armstrong debuted Cranked Up Cardio in April 2014 at the Let's Get Serious: Health, Wellness and Fitness Expo in Baltimore.
"It was the longest 20 minutes ever," Armstrong said with a laugh. "By the end, I was totally out of breath because I was too excited."
Natasha Gregg attended the expo and fell in love with Cranked Up Cardio. The Reservoir Hill neighborhood resident grew up with club music and was immediately drawn to Armstrong.
"I was like, 'This is what a workout should be,'" said Gregg, 42. "Every old dance I could think of, she did it. I said, 'Stop! Oh, I'm in. I love this.' And I've been telling everybody ever since."
With a curriculum approved by the American Council on Exercise, Cranked Up Cardio has been expanding ever since. Now, nearly 30 instructors are certified teachers of Armstrong's program and lead hourlong classes throughout the state. Armstrong also hosts bigger monthly parties, including one on Nov. 22 at the Forest Park Senior Center.
The business model for Cranked Up Cardio is straightforward. Potential instructors pay Armstrong to become certified, and starting in January, they will pay her a monthly licensing fee to use the brand's trademark, she said.
Last month, April Georges began teaching Wednesday nights at Mortimer's in Baltimore's Reisterstown Station. The feedback from students, she said, has been enthusiastic and positive so far.
"The next day I get messages on Facebook talking about how sore they are, but they love it," Georges said. "Everybody is smiling at the end of class. It's like a big party. They enjoy the camaraderie."
A friend told Will Jefferson about Cranked Up Cardio, but he was skeptical at first. The Cedonia neighborhood resident had tried a Zumba class once, with disappointing results.
"It was a whole lot of gyrating the hips and popping your back out. I didn't feel comfortable and I didn't go back," Jefferson, 33, said. "But the first time I went to Cranked Up Cardio, it wasn't that. It was totally the opposite. It fit me." It fit him so much that Jefferson, who said he's lost 70 pounds thanks to Cranked Up Cardio and other fitness programs, became an instructor in June.
Cases like Gregg's and Jefferson's encourage Armstrong, but they no longer surprise her. She's eyeing eventual expansion, hoping to apply the "Cranked Up" brand to other fitness areas like yoga and muscle toning. And she wants to cater programs to other homegrown dance subgenres such as New Jersey club and Miami bass.
Even as Armstrong, who grew up in Ednor Gardens, looks outward, her hometown remains a large reason why she continues to push Cranked Up Cardio. She thinks Baltimore has been misrepresented, especially after the death of Freddie Gray, and wants to remind others "we also have those diamonds that make us Charm City."
"Being new to all of this, developing a fitness format and a fitness business, it can get discouraging sometimes," she said.
"But just knowing people are impacted by it, they give me positive feedback, they look for me to come to town, they find an instructor that really gets them grooving, that stuff really keeps me motivated."