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Sword Play

Channeling the ancient samurai in a new Burlington fitness class


Published November 4, 2009 at 7:38 a.m.

If samurai warriors existed today, Stephanie Shohet would definitely make the cut. She has the swords, the fearless attitude and a pair of ripping biceps that make her seem far more menacing than she is. All she needs is a topknot and an elaborate suit of armor, and she’d be all set.

But we live in the 21st century, and the samurai class in Japan was abolished almost 140 years ago. These warriors no longer lance disrespectful commoners and enemies alike with their forged steel katanas. So the best Shohet can do is play at being a samurai, and get fit while doing it. She’s Vermont’s only certified instructor of Forza, which takes elements of samurai swordsmanship and turns them into an hour-long, deltoid-burning workout.

Not long ago, I spied one of Shohet’s fliers, which feature a photo of her in a samurai pose wearing a black and red headband emblazoned with the word “Warrior.” I was intrigued by the idea of learning how to wield a sword, even if it was just a cheap wooden one. I mean, who doesn’t want to play at stabbing people? I saw Kill Bill; I can imagine how thrilling it would be to run someone through with a cold sliver of steel.

The problem is, I hate group fitness classes. I can hardly stifle my laughter as people bounce around in front of the studio mirror to bad electronica jams. And I’m barely coordinated enough to follow the instructor. In the few such classes I have taken, it’s a miracle I never pitched myself headlong into the mirror.

But the fact that Forza is about swords somehow overrode my disdain for the likes of Jazzercise, Zumba, Tai-Bo and whatever the workout du jour is now. Forza isn’t a martial art, nor does it pretend to be. It’s a fitness class that works on cardio, muscle building and coordination. After a few sessions, you may feel fully capable of slicing and dicing an opponent, however unlikely that situation may be.

Forza was developed three years ago by an Italian woman named Ilaria Montagnani. The program has been around nationally for a few years, popular at exclusive gyms such as Equinox and Crunch, but since Vermont doesn’t have those, it didn’t make its way to the state until Shohet found it.

The 37-year-old Colchester mother of two might seem an unlikely candidate to teach a fitness class involving swords, albeit wooden ones. While Shohet did become a certified personal trainer years ago, she set aside that career when getting clients in a state short on gym rats proved difficult. Now, during the day, Shohet works as a bookkeeper at a convenience store and occasionally staffs the register when the place is shorthanded. She is also a caretaker for special-needs children.

When Shohet discovered Forza, it was like she had found her true calling. She bought every DVD Montagnani made, determined to get as sculpted as the Italian, whose back is a rippling column of muscle. “I saw her back, and I was like, I want that,” Shohet says. “I threw myself into Forza.”

The sword workout has been life changing for Shohet. She stands straighter and exudes confidence. It has helped her focus better, she says. She can’t say enough about the program — and not just because she teaches it. “I carry myself differently now,” she says.

In short, Shohet has become an apostle of Forza — and her devotion is endearingly evident in her efforts to get the word out. She’s posted fliers like the one I saw all over Burlington. Shohet has yet to make any money from her passion — the $10 fee she charges for her twice-weekly classes goes to rent the space at the North End Studio. While the classes’ numbers aren’t huge yet, a handful of loyal students keeps her motivated, she says.

Shohet bills the class as “so much bang for your buck.” And after suffering for nearly an hour during one of her Forza classes last week, I would agree with that assessment.

The North End Studio is a multiuse space that smells of incense and is covered in Eastern-style wall hangings. At the beginning of class, Shohet removes her hoodie to reveal two full arms of tattoos, the newest of which depicts a woman swinging a samurai sword. Under a dinner-plate-sized design of a flying Pegasus on her chest are pecs the size of pork tenderloins. The ink alone is enough to make Shohet intimidating, but the added muscle mass makes her someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.

The class begins with a few basic moves — half cuts and full cuts to the rhythm of techno music. Shohet reminds the seven of us to use our backs to lift the sword, not our arms. Right now, I’m lucky if I can keep the 2-and-a-half-foot, 5-pound sword in my hands without it flying off and impaling my neighbor.

Swinging a sword doesn’t seem all that hard until you’ve done it nine or 10 or 70 times in a row. Then it starts to hurt. Bad. Shohet reminds us that a little burning is good. Ten minutes in and I feel like someone lit a match inside my deltoids. “I wouldn’t want to waste your time,” Shohet shouts as she swings her sword. “You’ll thank me someday.”

Shohet’s brown ponytail sweeps across her shoulders as she demonstrates proper slashing technique. In Forza, it’s all about your core. Your trunk is what makes the sword stop and start, not your arms. But when you have abs like limp noodles, this is a little challenging.

Soon Shohet is adding squats, lunges and pivots to the sequence. And here is where I get lost. Thankfully, there are other people in the class who haven’t a clue. Half of us are flinging our swords around like spazzes, while the others look like they could do some serious damage.

As the class progresses, Shohet bellows affirmations meant to inspire us. “You can do it. Just be a machine.” “Just swing those arms. It’ll be over in no time.” “The wider your shoulders are, the more narrow your hips will look.” The class laughs through its collective pain.

During a water break, new student Angela Fortier dabs the sweat from her brow and tries to catch her breath. “My arms are like Jell-O,” she says. A Forza regular assures her it’ll get easier.

Ben Bergstein, who runs the North End Studio, knows that to be true. When he began taking Shohet’s class in March, he was inflexible and out of shape, he says. After the first few classes, he was so sore he could barely get out of bed. Now he looks like a samurai, minus the ornate helmet and body armor. “It’s really made a difference,” Bergstein says. “I’m an absolute believer in this thing.”

Three-quarters of the way through the class, all I can think about is how sore I will be the next day. Sure enough, the following morning I feel like I got into fisticuffs with Mr. Universe and lost. Everything between my head and my waist aches. It’s a good thing I don’t have to do anything more physical than type for my job, or else I’d have to take the day off.

But despite my soreness, I already have a sense of empowerment. Others in my class expressed the same sentiment, especially the women. There’s nothing like swinging a sword to make you feel like you can surmount any obstacle, crush any opponent.