Bookworms break a sweat

With a full head of braids tucked beneath a bandanna and a pair of black exercise tights stretched down toward her broken-in sneakers, JoAnn Thomas does not look like she works in the Government and Finance division of the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Three times each week, over her lunch break, Thomas rushes to the basement of the Library of Congress’s Adams Building to teach a one-hour aerobics class for as many as 25 congressional employees.

“I have a degree in health education, so that’s my passion,” Thomas said in a phone interview. “However, I’m doing something totally different [with the CRS], so when I get a chance, that’s what I’m out there doing.”

In true grassroots style, staff-led classes are increasingly popular throughout the LoC. It’s a time for many employees to share their outside talents and expertise with their colleagues, who lead such busy lives that their lunch hour is about the only time to tone up.

The free weekday classes range from Thomas’s aerobics class to a ballroom dance course taught by Rodney Wells, a telecommunications specialist at the library, or a yoga and Pilates class taught by Diana Brown, a senior LoC military and historical cataloguer.

When Brown started working at the LoC in 1982, she had a much different idea of what it meant to be relaxing with her colleagues during lunch. Whereas before she might have been found eating and chatting with other LoC employees, now the former cheerleader helps her co-workers unwind twice each week through a Hatha Yoga and Pilates class.

“It kind of gives them a chance to clear their minds,” Brown said. “I am so grateful that I’ve found my niche. People had interest, and I had time.”

As the weather warms and the wedding season begins, Brown said she has noticed some alternative benefits for fellow staffers in her class, which is open to House and Senate employees as well.

“It’s amazing; older ladies say I changed their lives,” she said. “And another lady said that her son got married and because of the class she was able to fit in a smaller-size dress and was so grateful.”

The 52-year old Brown began taking yoga classes about 15 years ago, and with a little encouragement, she ended up substitute teaching the class normally taught by her mentor at Bally’s Total Fitness.

“I was kind of shy, so I didn’t really want to do it,” she said. “But after that first class, everyone actually clapped, and I just knew [I had to teach more]. People were always saying I was really good and sometimes better than the teacher, as far as flexibility.”

Both Thomas and Brown have had the good fortune of seeing the number of participants in their classes grow. But while Thomas was able to move her class from the former smoking lounge in the basement of the LoC’s Madison Building to the fitness center in the Adams Building, Brown is still in the sub-basement of the Madison Building and said she occasionally has to turn people away when it gets too crowded with yoga mats.

For Rodney Wells’s ballroom dance class, the issue is not so much space as getting men to join.

“The interest is there, but the male participation is lacking,” said Wells, laughing. “I think as men we don’t like to look like we don’t know what we’re doing — it can be a little intimidating at first. But once you get into it, it’s really not that difficult. We’re our own biggest enemy.”

Wells took over the class, which is almost 10 years old, from its former teachers about six years ago. Every week he and about a dozen of his colleagues move the chairs and tables to the sides of the Madison Building’s dining room and shake away their stress.

“It’s very relaxed, not as rigid or structured as a professional studio because we want members to have fun, but we also want them to learn how to dance,” he said.

Like Thomas, who said people want to get in shape as the warmer weather gets people thinking about showing more skin, Wells said he’s begun to notice the participation in his dance class fluctuate slightly throughout the year.

“We get more participation during the holiday season, with Christmas and New Year’s and all the balls and dances people go to,” he said. “We get a little upswing in June and July from weddings.”