Within five minutes of meeting Shannon Rockweiler, creator of the Freestyle Cardio class at NOLA Fit gym, she's scaling a rock-climbing wall in bare feet, showing me how it works. This kind of enthusiasm is typical of Rockweiler. Except for her toned arms, there's very little that pegs her as a competitive bodybuilder. She just seems like a petite, gung-ho young woman who radiates warmth and energy.
Rockweiler credits this vibrancy to her new role as a teacher, an idea that came to her in a moment she calls her "click."
"It sounds crazy, but [last September] I heard a voice, and it was like, 'Teach. You should teach,'" she says. "Before, I was always looking for a big break, and it was more of a selfish thing: How can I make myself better, how can someone help me? Last year, I started thinking more along the lines of, 'How can I help other people?'"
For Rockweiler, the Freestyle Cardio class is the culmination of a lifetime of intense dance practice. She grew up in Marrero, where studied hip-hop, jazz, modern, tap and ballet dancing from age four. As a young adult, she tried out for the Hornets' Honeybees dance team by accident when she accompanied an inexperienced friend to the audition. The friend backed out, and despite her own flubbed tryout, Rockweiler cheered for the Hornets for the next two years.
"[At my audition], I did the first two eight-counts and I just went blank," she says, laughing. "They tell you, if you go blank, don't just stand there, do something, because then people will (not) know you messed up. So I just started doing my own thing, I was freestyling."
This dance form called "freestyle," so helpful in a pinch, comes naturally to Rockweiler. For the uninitiated, "freestyling" is a series of spontaneous dance moves, which resemble choreography, borrowed from various disciplines. During the Freestyle Cardio class, Rockweiler leads a workout group in a series of these moves to the sounds of rap, R&B and techno. She teaches both low-impact and high-impact variations in each class, which she says accommodates even the most left-footed attendees.
"It's open to all levels; you don't have to know how to dance to do the class," Rockweiler says. "It's like Zumba in that it's dance cardio, but it's not just one style, it's a bunch of different styles. It's jazz, it's hip-hop, it's swing, it's modern. ... (Variety) keeps it exciting and fresh and new. Sometimes I'll just stop and be like, 'Do the robot.'"
It wasn't a direct route from the Hive to the sleekly appointed confines of NOLA Fit. In 2007, Rockweiler began participating in bodybuilding competitions in the "bikini" division, which stresses a fitness-model look rather than the muscle-bound physique many people associate with bodybuilding. Like most athletes, she loves the adrenaline and "the challenge of the training," but feels particularly inspired when she remembers she's living her father's dream of becoming a competitive bodybuilder.
A devoted fitness enthusiast, Rockweiler's father spent years training in their home gym, scheduling two-hour workouts after 12-hour work days and logging each meal in a food diary. (Rockweiler points out that her commendable exercise habits probably started at home, saying "It was always in the back of my mind.") But when her father suffered a work-related brain injury at 36, his dreams of professional bodybuilding came to an end. Though 15 years passed before he could return to the gym, his lingering physical strength served him during a trying time.
"I remember the doctors saying if he hadn't been in the kind of condition he was in, he probably would end up dying," Rockweiler says. "He's definitely an inspiration and motivation to me. "
Rockweiler hopes that someday her father will join her onstage in a bodybuilding competition. But when she's not hitting the weights, everything else in her life is about her class. In the upcoming months, she'll bring Freestyle Cardio to the University of New Orleans, and she hopes to one day be able to certify other teachers. She wants to make Freestyle Cardio "that new dance craze ... but from New Orleans," she says. Above all, Rockweiler says, she feels most grateful to earn a living doing what she loves.
"I'm using my passion the way I've always wanted to express myself," she says. "I pray that everyone can find what they're passionate about and be able to express it, because to be able to make a career out of doing this [is] humbling. After you've been through a lot of trauma in your life ... and you don't know where your life's going ... to finally feel like it's clicking, it's making sense — it's fulfilling."