Exercise classes aren’t new, exercise classes for women aren’t new either. There were literally thousands of women of all ages and backgrounds joining exercise classes in the 1930’s. Often the classes were to music, with a gramophone or a pianist providing accompaniment to the movements, but sometimes there was just the class leader or teacher calling out the moves and demonstrating at the front. It was very formalised with set routines and almost militaristic sets, sometimes the women held balls or hoops or batons, but the idea was the same as exercise classes today – to get fit, to lose weight, to socialise and to have fun.
In my 1950’s novel, the local reporter, Mike Scott has just attend a festival of movement and I used my own memories of what my aunty and mum told me about the classes they joined and also a cutting from a 1953 newspaper about my aunty’s class. There is a photo, and she is on there somewhere, I think I recognise her in the middle back to back row, on the left, fourth back – you can only see her hair forehead and eyes, but I’m sure it’s her! There are over a hundred women posed in this picture – it must have been some festival, I guess!.
A while ago I wrote about it her, not thinking at the time that I would ever include it in a novel!
In 1932, the Cambridge Women’s Physical Culture Club had its first meeting. The women, who just like us today, wanted to improve their health, be fitter, stronger and more active, met in the Carpenter Hall in Cambridge and at first their numbers were only small, about twenty women per class.By their twenty-first anniversary in 1953, the beginners class alone had nearly sixty members.
Don’t think that because Cambridge is a University town, that these were posh upper-class wealthy women; they were not. Cambridge was also an ordinary small market town in those days, and the women who went to the CWPCC were ordinary women, wives, mothers, workers. As the class grew in popularity they outgrew the venue and moved to the ballroom of the Dorothy Café. By the time the war started, there were classes of up to eighty people – eighty women who wanted to be active, strong and healthy.
During the war it was not unexpected that the numbers declined, as many women volunteered for war service, joined up or began to work to replace the men who were serving away from home. After the war the club once again grew in popularity, and the photo below shows a class doing one of their set pieces in September 1953
“I am sure that nothing would give me greater pleasure in my old age than to be able to do a backward bend in front of some of my friends who have not kept up their classes and are in bath chairs!”
Young people should go to these classes, and keep them up, as they taught them to be graceful, improve their deportment and general outlook.
Here is a film clip from their activities in 1937: