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Shortly after 9 a.m. on a dank spring Saturday, in the brightly lit basketball court of the Glenarden Community Center, the women of Go-Go Fitness are working a move known as “the Little Benny.”
Go-Go Fitness is a dance workout set to popular go-go songs, and at this particular moment, speakers flanking the elevated stage are blasting Rare Essence’s “Rock This Party Feat. Killa Cal.” Everyone is doing the step named after go-go icon Anthony “Little Benny” Harley, a coordinated movement that instructor Danette “Dani” Tucker later describes as “a straight crankin’ move—two-step knee-up WOOP to the right, then same to the left and a rock, rock dip in the hips.”
Tucker and her partner, Erica Berry Wilson, launched Go-Go Fitness during the winter of 2012. The first class, at Heat Haven on Good Hope Road SE, consisted of Tucker and her scheduler along with a total of six students. “By the second week we had 15,” says Tucker. ‘And by the third week, we were sold out and looking for a larger space.”
These days, Go-Go Fitness offers 10 to 15 classes per week throughout the DMV, with most classes in Prince George’s County. Go-Go Fitness has also traveled, with classes in Fayetteville, Miami, Seattle, and Puerto Rico. They’ve released three exercise-at-home DVDs. And this year, on its fifth anniversary, Go-Go Fitness was honored with a D.C. City Council resolution.
Tucker, 47, grew up in Southeast Washington, steeped in go-go culture. “We’re a three-generation go-go family—my dad and his brothers, and then me and my kids,” she says. As a child, she studied at Bernice Hammond’s Northeast Academy of Dance. Years later, dance fitness proved to be Tucker’s preferred workout, from ’80s Jazzercise all the way up to ’90s-and-beyond Zumba. For a while she taught Zumba.“The problem was, there was never any go-go music in those classes,” she says.
Most everyone Tucker knew preferred to work out to go-go. “If a go-go head was working out, 10 times out of 10 they would be listening to go-go music,” she says.
As Tucker developed Go-Go Fitness, her inspiration always went back to go-go founder Chuck Brown. “Chuck made the music go on and on. That beat would just keep going, just like in Africa, and we would just keep dancing, old and young, men and women, children—everybody. He would call out and we would respond. That’s go-go,” she says.
“I didn’t do anything but take Chuck’s original formula and put it to dance fitness,” Tucker continues. “That’s what has made us popular. Our students don’t think they’re coming to class. They think they’re coming to the go-go, just like when they were teenagers. They get their crews together… and ‘where the go-go at?’”
Many Go-Go Fitness regulars are past the stage in life when they’re good to hit the clubs for late-night shows. “We’re giving them the opportunity to go to a go-go—not at 1 a.m., not for four hours, ’cause we can’t do that no more,” says Tucker.
In a throwback to the historic Washington Coliseum holiday shows, Tucker occasionally schedules a two-hour holiday “Crankfest” celebrating specific go-go artists. The first, honoring Little Benny, was on Memorial Day 2013, at the Panorama Room in Southeast and drew 459 people. The following year, Team Familiar’s Donnell Floyd attended GGF’s July 4th celebration of his contributions to go-go. “They played all my music, and it was a great feeling to see that many people jubilantly exercising to music that I put together,” says Floyd.
Floyd’s wife, Jennifer Floyd, is training to become a GGF instructor, and Donnell couldn’t be happier about it. “People excited about go-go music and using it for a positive thing—not just losing weight, but staying healthy—that’s just great,” he says. “I think the go-go beat is the greatest beat in the world. The energy that’s inside the beat, to me it’s incredible, so this application makes absolute perfect sense. I wish that I had thought of it.”
Other go-go artists take a more active role in Go-Go Fitness—by actually taking the classes. “What caught my interest was the beat that they was working out to,” says Trouble Funk’s “Big” Tony Fisher, who as a GGF regular, lost nearly 40 pounds before his kidney transplant last year.
“I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t say it wasn’t hard work, but the way Dani do it, it’s fun, Fisher says. “If you love go-go music, you don’t look at it as work, or even working out. You almost look at it like it’s dancing.”
Nearly every GGF class features a Junkyard Band medley, some Little Benny & The Masters, Rare Essence, Huck-a-Bucks, Backyard Band, Experience Unlimited, and Chuck Brown. Tucker also draws on classic go-go dances, and there’s a Beat Your Feet segment set to T.O.B.’s “Know Meee.” Every class also features “Michelle Obama time”—for arms and shoulders, of course.
Fisher points to Tucker’s inventive recasting of the Trouble Funk hit “Let’s Get Small” as an example of her creativity. “She’ll take that song, and create a workout around it, and give it a whole different meaning,” he says. “I really think Go-Go Fitness is just another positive outlet for go-go, and it’s something that has potential to go all around the world.”
To be sure, there’s more go-go in Go-Go Fitness than its soundtrack. In go-go, the bands’ lead talkers provide the genre’s essential sense of community by leading call-and-response chants and by spotlighting various folks in the audience. Because there are several instructors for each GGF class, Tucker is free to work the room as a lead talker.
Sure, she calls out the usual fitness “single-single-double” directives, but there are also distinctly go-go styled shout-outs, including “We got Upper Marlboro in the house, y’all” and “Go ’head! I see you!” On a recent Saturday, she admonished the class—“y’all better wake up”—but also made them laugh: “Go-go songs all long,” she said, “but we ain’t tryin’ to kill you.”
Tucker addresses the class as “go-go family,” and there are plenty of opportunities for the family to talk back. “Danette has taken go-go’s call and response and used that to get the class involved,” says Wilson, who serves as Go-Go Fitness’ Chief Operating Officer. “In go-go, you want to hear from the people you’re partying with, and in this case, you want to hear from the people you’re exercising with.”
For Big Tony, Tucker is more than just a lead talker. “I call her my go-go motivator,” he says. “Dani is like a lead talker, hype person and the coach, all wrapped together. She knows how to bring out the best in you. I would leave that place sometimes soaking wet, and she’d be sayin, ‘You alright, Big T?’
“One of the reasons I feel that Go-Go Fitness is so important is that I think that we, as blacks in particular, we really don’t have a healthy diet and a lot of us don’t exercise the way we should,” continues Big Tony. “I think Dani found a wonderful strategy to get more of us into exercise without making it feel like exercise, and that gives go-go a positive look.”
Tucker’s role as lead talker is just one of the ways that the classes echoes the community feel of go-go shows. Go-Go Fitness’ no-judgement zone attracts a wide range of fitness levels—big women in baggy sweats and lithe women in tight spandex, and some big women in tight spandex, too. Some regulars come with their mothers and daughters, too. On a recent Saturday, one woman clutched an inhaler for the duration of the class. When another woman couldn’t continue, Tucker chatted with her until she was ready to go again.
“It doesn’t matter what size you are in here,” says Tanya Beverly, 54, of Forestville. “Since I started, I’ve lost 56 pounds.” Beverly grew up in Southeast, and back in the day she used to enjoy free go-go shows in the parks. “I grew up with Chuck. I still love all Chuck’s music,” she says. “Now I can dance to Chuck Brown here.”
Even before Brown’s death in 2012, local media has occasionally questioned the longevity of the music he created. While it’s true that many go-go bands don’t play as often as they once did, and that too many local venues and radio stations don’t adequately support the music, adaptability has always been a crucial aspect of go-go culture. Go-go-driven gospel animates many local church services on Sunday mornings, and Go-Go Fitness is yet another example of the durability of the go-go groove.
“Go-go is part of our DNA now,” says class regular Camille Franklin, 47, who grew up in Ivy City and followed Chuck and Rare Essence for years. “Go-Go Fitness just helps to keep it alive.”
Along with getting its go-go family in shape, sustaining its precious culture is of paramount importance to Go-Go Fitness. “With the ever-changing demographic of this area and gentrification, I think go-go has been the one thing Washingtonians can hang onto as part of our identity,” says Wilson. “Go-go does carry a sense of nostalgia for many of us. It reminds us of the good times in the city, what we had, and what we should be proud of.”