Above: Billy Blanks Jr. – Photograph: Lora Karam
Popular TV shows have made it clear: Dancing whips people into incredible shape. Billy Blanks Jr. has known this instinctively from a young age. Growing up with Billy Blanks—creator of the popular martial arts-based Tae Bo workout—as his dad, Billy Jr. was always involved in fitness and drawn to dance. After years of working as a professional dancer, performing in videos for Madonna and Paula Abdul among others, Billy Jr. created his own fitness program, “Dance It Out,” and debuted it nationally on Shark Tank. Today he has 1,000 teachers in the United States, 1,200 in Japan and others around the world. Recently he and his thirteen-year-old son have moved to town, where he’s opened Blanks Studios at Arthur Murray in Greenwich; he has also taken a lead role at the Wall Street Theater in Norwalk and cocreated a fitness network called MoveTube. We caught up with him to talk about his latest moves.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO GREENWICH?
I was born on the East Coast and grew up in Boston. I’ve been in LA ever since, working and performing, and I always wanted to get back here. I love the East Coast, love the people. I’ve been coming for the past two years for the Stamford Health, Wellness & Sports Expo [put on by Tammi Ketler] as the fitness celebrity for the event. Every time I’ve been here, she’s had me stay in Greenwich. Then when I met Chris Georgopulo at Arthur Murray and she said, ‘I’d love to have you come in with your program and open Blanks Studios’, I couldn’t wait to start building on the East Coast—I wanted to be here in person. That’s also when the Wall Street Theater was looking for an artistic director and I said, perfect timing, I’m going to move.
DO YOU TEACH CLASSES YOURSELF? WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE EXPECT AT THE STUDIO?
Absolutely. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays I teach [at 10:30 a.m.], and I have other teachers who work with me. Most people who have a gym membership and like to do dance and fitness classes never use the gym. They walk right by the gym to take classes. Blanks Studios gives you that fitness room without having that huge membership, you take as many classes as you like. We have everything from my program Dance It Out, Dance It Out Sculpting, Dance It Out Cardio, and we’ll have Zumba, Bally Ex, Yoga. I brought in the top instructors in Connecticut so you can get a variety of classes.
HOW DOES DANCE IT OUT COMPARE WITH ZUMBA?
What makes us different are two things: One, we have so many different styles of dance incorporated. If you go to Zumba, it’s 90 percent Latin. With Dance It Out, you’ll get everything from Broadway to hip hop to decades [‘70s, ’80s, ’90s], salsa, all the ballroom styles, even a little Irish and country line dancing. The second thing that sets us apart is our teaching method. A lot of people are afraid to take a dance fitness class. They think, oh I’m not a dancer. In some classes by the time they get the routine, the song’s over and they missed out. I wanted to make it so that people learn what they’re doing and actually get a chance to do it. It’s for all levels. Mr. T takes my class; he’s not a dancer.
Dr. Oz takes my class; he’s not a dancer. My oldest student Ida is ninety-six and takes a class in the same room as a professional dancer for Lady Gaga. I designed the workout so that you have fun and go at your own pace.
WHAT DO PEOPLE LIKE MOST ABOUT DANCE IT OUT?
You burn from 700 to 1,000 calories per class. I’ve had people lose all kinds of weight, but the biggest compliment I’ve gotten is that our class is the most supportive workout. It’s not about fighting over spots or being the perfect dancer. It’s about having fun. If you’re not perfect, who cares. People will say, ‘This class is like therapy. I feel good, I can have a great week now.’
HOW DID YOU GET INTO DANCE AND CHOREOGRAPHY?
I’ve been in fitness since I was eleven years old. My dad created Tae Bo, and at age twelve or thirteen I taught my first class, but I was into dancing more. I would teach with my dad and I would be doing the punching and kicking, and then I’d get fifteen minutes into class and hear a disco song or something funky and I’d start dancing and people would follow me. At the time, dancing wasn’t considered a workout. So my dad would say ‘stop kidding around.’ I didn’t get it. I thought, I’m sweating, why isn’t this a workout? Fast-forward and everybody now knows some of the best athletes are dancers.
WHAT LED YOU TO CREATE A DANCE-BASED EXERCISE PROGRAM?
I have such a love for dance and I see some people are afraid of it. I want to show how they can have movement. When I was about seventeen or eighteen, my dad was on Oprah for five days in a row; she did the workout every day and then on the last day she quit on air. She said, ‘This is too hard for me; this is not fun.’ I’m like her—I want to have fun when I’m working out. I like to feel like I’m having a good time. That really inspired me. How do I create something for someone like Oprah? That became my mission.
IS THE WORKOUT FOR KIDS TOO?
Yes, working out with kids is one of my favorite things. My son used to be glued to my leg. Now I’ll be teaching a class and turn to him and he’ll start leading the group. When I first started doing this in schools, I did some huge events with 1,000 kids at one time. I tailor the music to the group, to the younger crowd. High school students are a harder audience to win over. I did a huge event for Van Nuys High School for about 2,000 kids. They were standing there like typical high school students, arms folded, like what are we doing here? I got up and started the music and not one of them would move—they’re trying to be cool. I turned off the music and said, ‘Listen, I got you out of class and I hope you’ll dance with me; if you don’t want to dance, you can go back to class.’ Then the first three rows started moving and the next ten rows and eventually the whole room erupted into cheers and dancing. It was incredible.
WHO INSPIRED YOU?
Paula Abdul is like a big sister and mentor to me. She would come to my father’s studio. She would bring me on the set of her dance videos and I had a natural love for it. Paula taught me how to have attitude and confidence. I started working and getting videos with Madonna and Babyface and Paula. Eventually I starred in Fame on Broadway and we toured throughout Europe and America.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON FOR THE WALL STREET THEATER IN NORWALK?
It’s a 100-year-old theater that’s reopening after a $50-million renovation. I’m the artistic director, so I’m in charge of programming and directing shows with local talent. Our first show was “8” A Night with Broadway’s Best, with eight Broadway stars performing the songs they made famous and knock-it-out-of-the-park Broadway songs. We’re also getting acts like Macy Gray and local performers. I’m working on a three-week residency with Paula Abdul this summer, and she’ll be helping to create some original shows for the theater.
AND YOU OWN A NETWORK TOO?
I also own a fitness and lifestyle network with my mom, Gayle Blanks, called MoveTube for people who can’t get out to a live class. We have forty to fifty fitness celebrities, body builders, every type of fitness you can imagine. It’s free workouts, inspirational stories. The idea was to create a network that would move you physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.
Classes are $20 for drop-in, $99 for five-pack or $119 per month unlimited; arthurmurraygreenwich.com; 6 Lewis Street; 203-769-1800; movetubenetwork.com