Every Tuesday and Thursday night intense trance-like music pulsates from the auditorium at First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles near Koreatown.
The space that is usually reserved for quiet prayer and reflection turns into an aerobics class bursting with dance beats. In an economy where health and athletic joy are luxuries for many in L.A.'s inner-city, classes at the church have become an oasis of sweat and smiles. The twice-a-week events that started with just a dozen or so people have become packed.
The classes are free to mostly immigrant residents in the neighborhood near South Vermont Avenue and West Eighth Street.
“We don't have too many programs around the neighborhood that offer free health classes,” said instructor Hugo Balderas. Becoming a member of a gym “is too expensive for them,” he said.
He said participants are mostly low-income Latino women that show up every Tuesday and Thursday around 6:15 p.m. They're looking to lose calories and socialize with their neighbors.
“Everybody is here to have fun and make friends,” Balderas said.
The women seemed to be enjoying themselves.
“I love it!” said Maria Hernandez, 57, who has been working out at First Unitarian for more than a month. “I feel that it is good for my heart and body.”
During the workout, Hernandez furiously tried to match Balderas' moves as Alice Deejay's trance-pop hit “Better Off Alone” was thumping in the background.
The aerobics classes started in November 2009 and were created by a women's empowerment group within the church. Martha Servin, 44, a member of the group, asked First Unitarian if they could offer free aerobics classes for the community. The church agreed and have been hosting the classes ever since.
“At first we were skeptical about having the class,” said Rochelle McAdam, a church volunteer and community liaison for First Unitarian.
Church leaders later realized that there was a need in the neighborhood to offer the classes, McAdam said.
“There is no place for them to exercise,” McAdam said. “They can't go running or jogging on the streets because it's not safe.”
Child care services are also provided for mothers working out. Servin runs the daycare service on her own and occasionally watches more than a dozen children at a time.
“It's hard for me sometimes,” Servin said. “But I like children and get to know the families better through watching them.”
After the class, the women are all smiles as they walked out of the auditorium holding their water bottles and children.
“I feel better and more relaxed,” said Erica Roblerto, 25, who wished there were more aerobics sessions added during the week. “My life is better because of the class.”