In mid-July, Jessica Salman became the winner of America’s Favorite Dance Cardio Instructor. Her classes are legendary, her clients are devoted, and it is clear from the comments that she is well-loved. To highlight some of Jessica’s great work, background, and unique approach, we sat down with her recently. Check out the interview below.
Q: I’m sitting here with Jess Salman, who is America’s Favorite Dance Cardio Instructor. Jess, with your votes, hundreds of comments came in; you have a lot of support. Congratulations! We’re so glad to have you here. Tell me, what does it mean to you to get that support?
It means a lot. I’ve worked really hard to get where I am; my students are the most important thing in my life. They are my passion, and I would do anything for them. I’m so grateful that they were all voting and putting their comments in there because it’s their motivation that keeps me going. And without that, I probably would have retired.
I’ve been doing dance cardio for almost 15 years and I’m getting tired. But with their support, they keep me going and I’m getting younger.
Q: You had such a tremendous amount of support come through. Some common themes surfaced too. One, your music always comes up; people love the music you select. Two, people talk about how no one gets away with anything in class, you have to work your butt off. And three, many people mentioned the amount of sweat at the end of each class. People really are working hard. Is that the kind of stuff that you’re looking for?
Those are extremely accurate. It is a sweat-fest and my music is very eclectic. I’m known for my global beats. I focus mainly on international sounds, international dance. I teach Bollywood, Indian bhangra, tribal dance, African dance with African drums, the latest in the African mainstream, and I’m also a belly dancer. So, I do a little bit of everything. You name the country and I will bring it to you.
Q: What role does music play in your classes?
Well, I’m known to be the weird one. In the past, I’ve had people come in that they were used to hearing what they hear on the radio. But when they come in to my class, they hear something that’s outside of their norm; some people used to walk out.
Over time, things have changed. The participants have become more diverse. People want different sounds. They want to be able to feel their body move in different manners. And music, depending on the style of music, is what’s going to move them in different ways.
For example, take Caribbean dance, Jamaican, it’s all lower body. If you’re a stiff person and you’re not used to that, that music is going to force you to get low, it’s going to force you to work your glutes, you’re going to work muscles that you didn’t know you had. Music is extremely important to me. When I put my lesson plans together, it’s the sound first and then the motion that goes with it.
I choose music based on my vibe and what I’m feeling. I want my classes to feel what I feel.
Q: I want to bring up just a couple of comments that people left because I think it’s just so illustrative of the energy that you bring. We get: “Dripping in sweat and smiles. So many different types of styles of music, Jess always keeps me motivated, learning new things.” Another person said, “Best workouts for all sizes and shapes. I’m a big, beautiful queen. I love all her classes, always demanding and challenging, no matter the level. And I’ve been dancing with Jess for many years, and she’s helped me get to be where I am today.”
Tell me about the first time you remember thinking about fitness, about your health.
I look like a little peanut now, but I started at 250 pounds.
In my 20s, I became interested in working out and trying to improve myself with kickboxing, cardio, and things like that. Then life changed. You get married, you have a kid, your body changes, life happens.
So one day, it was a summer day, we had guests over and we went whale watching. We took them out and they take a picture of you to sell to you at the end. That picture shocked me!
The next day, I walked into the gym and I saw a girl teaching a Zumba dance fitness class. I jumped in, I stalked her for about a month, and then shortly after that, I got certified.
In my younger days, I used to love different types of music and international dance. And then life took over. I used to have a restaurant, and I would put the music together for the restaurant. Very weird, eclectic stuff. Customers would come in and be like, “what are you playing?” It all goes hand in hand.
After I got certified, I just did it as a self-achievement thing. I wasn’t looking to teach; it was just a fun thing. I did it with a friend, and then I started volunteering a class a week.
They allowed me to do that at the gym, which was great. It gave me practice. I learned how to be non-verbal with clients because it’s not always about yelling at people, and sometimes you can’t wear a microphone. It’s very high impact.
The next thing I knew, after having one class a week, I started to have a following. Fast-forward some years, I was then teaching 25 classes a week for all different abilities, levels.
Over the years, I’ve added on to my repertoire. I became a senior fitness specialist. I’m a specialist in arthritic movement. I’m an aquatics instructor. You name it, I can teach it.
But then the pandemic came and that shattered all of our careers. And I started, last year, with a brand new studio. A lot of my clients followed me, but I’ve had to start from scratch, which was a challenge.
Just this week, we’re finally seeing people starting to get out and about again, they’re feeling free, they just want to live. And I’m hoping that with my vibe, I’ll bring that back for them.
Q: Was dance part of your life before any fitness activity? What came first?
No, it wasn’t. And to be honest, I never even knew how to dance. I’d never been to a school dance. I grew up in a very strict household…I didn’t know how to dance at all. Most of the things that I do now are basically self-taught.
I’m always enriching myself; every year, I’ll learn something new or I will learn a step from a new country, like Ghana, for example.
Most recently, I’ve been studying Angolan dance, which led me to become the head coach here in the states for a company called Fitkuduro. I’m trying to make that brand more known, and have people be aware of the sound, how deep it is. It’s funky, it’s motivating.
And one thing leads to the other. I’ve always been in love with Bollywood dance because I come from a Middle Eastern background, so we have very similar sounds. Every country has something kind of the same, but not really. Now, I’m known as the Bollywood Queen in town. It’s really great.
Q: Where did you learn Angolan dance?
I follow people online. Before the pandemic, I would go to New York and take workshops. Everything used to be in-person training so when you found a specialty workshop, you jumped on it.
I also didn’t go where fitness instructors go. I would go to a real dance-oriented workshop where real dancers would go. These days, you can learn a lot of things online.
Q: You’re self-taught and you haven’t had what other people would call “formal training.” I mean, you’re certified, of course, but a lot of people get into it when they were a kid. I think it’s special to be such a beloved trainer when it seems like you didn’t grow up with trainers that you loved.
It was a different time back then. We didn’t have any of these options. What were gyms back then? They were machines and aerobics. And it wasn’t until finishing school and becoming a young adult that you start to become more exposed to what’s out there.
The group exercise industry changed over the years too. It’s no longer just Jane Fonda; every year you’re going to find some new program out there.
Q: Do you have aspirational trainers that you think about when you’re training? Are there any influences that you draw from?
Absolutely. I even have a personal trainer and we do basic exercises that focus on strength, and core, and things like that. I take little snippets from what I’ve learned from my trainer, and I’ll use them in a segment in my class—but they don’t even know that. I’m always learning, and I’ll use everybody as an example.
Q: You’re in New Hampshire, which is not historically known as a place that has a lot of global ethnic offerings. It’s about 93 percent white. Do you ever feel alone because you are the only person that teaches the way you do?
I want to be the only one to do what I do. And I want my people to come to me. That’s how I roll. I want to be alone. That’s who I am.
Q: When people are working with you, because you’re in a group setting, it can sometimes take a while to get to know people one-on-one. What is your philosophy when it comes to working with your clients?
When we get somebody new, I can read them when I meet them. I can tell if they like me or not. And if I feel that they don’t like me, you can bet that that’s the person who is going to be my pet throughout the entire class.
I make sure they’re upfront next to me. I might yell at them but that’s how I break the ice. Or what I’ll do is I’ll do some advanced stuff. And then I bring it down, and then I bring them back up again and they’re like, “Oh, I think I can do this.”
We are, in essence, a big family. I dish it out at them, and they have to take it. They can’t ever get mad at me.
Q: Let’s talk about what’s next for you. What do you hope to do in the next 15 years of teaching?
Mind you, I have people that have been with me for almost that long so we are growing together. We’re aging together. What I’ve started doing, and hoping that they don’t notice, is I’m adding elements of joint mobility to my classes. I’m adding elements of balance, flexibility, fall prevention, things like that.
It’s surprising to see people when they come in, they just want to dance. But there’s a lot of backlashes that come with it. You’ve got sore knees, knee pain, things like that. So I make sure that I use targeted exercises.
I’ll make up a segment. They think it’s part of the dance. I might use a belly dance number, for example, where we’re lifting our hip and moving the hip, but actually, what I’m doing is I’m moving the sockets of the hip flexor. So, it’s a hidden exercise.
Q: With all this going on, how do you take care of yourself?
Right now, I’m teaching 9-10 classes a week and doing personal training. And it’s a lot. It is a lot on the body.
I’ve had more injuries than you can imagine. But, unless I’m on my deathbed, I will be there for my people.
Now though, like I said, I’ve been adding all these extra elements for my people which is also a benefit for myself, as well. We now use foam rollers and little massage balls. I get them on the floor rolling out their calves. It kill but all that’s connected to the knees. This means they leave feeling like, “Huh, it’s like I’ve had a massage, I feel conditioned.”
I basically utilize my people to help me maintain my health, as well. It’s really a mutual motivation. They need me and I need them as well.
Q: Your story is so inspiring and unique. What other pieces of it have we missed?
It’s pretty straightforward. It’s not about me. That’s the most important thing. It’s about my people; they’re my passion. I just hope that I can keep continuing to do what I do for as long as possible.
Q: How did you adapt your teaching with the pandemic? You mentioned teaching Zoom classes in your basement but was that mainly a way to reconnect with people?
I’m very fortunate, the studio that I’m working at now, they’ve transitioned to both live in-studio and live stream.
With Zoom, it’s become a thing of convenience for moms or people that are working from home. Now they don’t have to worry about driving in traffic or bad weather, they don’t have to worry about childcare.
So, I think virtual classes are here to stay. It probably will dwindle down a little bit, but for the most part, we’re still here for you. And I’m glad that it happened because we didn’t know anything about live streaming back then. We all had to jump into it and figure it out; we all struggled.
We’re at a point right now where it is seamless, it’s good quality, and nothing makes me happier than seeing somebody tag me in a photo of their giant TV at home and me on there. So, it’s good.
Q: One of the things that Burnalong is betting on is it that the hybrid is the future. There are some companies out there, they never want you to leave your house. They’re like, “Work out in your room with the bike in it and never leave because this is all you need.”
The fact of the matter is a personal connection is always going to matter. The relationship you have with an instructor, that you build over time is special.
At my old job, I had a huge following of older, active adults. Most of these folks were past 50 and 60; they really needed to be together. They would come in and work out just for that social connection.
When the pandemic came, they lost that. So that was why I started to go online from home because I know that these seniors were lonely and not getting out. A lot of them have health issues and they’re immune-compromised. It was a huge help to maintain that social connection and keep them sane.
That’s the same for any age, but we must focus a little bit more on our older folks. As they get older, they lose loved ones, and they don’t have anybody. Sometimes that hour a day with you makes their day, and then they can sit and have coffee with their friends. It fills their day. It makes them feel that their day wasn’t just in a box, at home.
Virtual instruction has helped make it more accessible. Even on vacation. I have some people this week who are traveling and I reminded them they could still log in to the live streams. Don’t miss a workout. That’s a great thing.
Many times, I have clients who will log in to a live stream with their kids. It’s nice because it brings everybody together.
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