Most people know they should be getting the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of exercise a week, but for a lot of folks, doing so is a drag. Vancouver’s Melanie Levenberg is out to change that. As the founder of Pl3y International, she wants to inspire people of all ages to discover the physical, social, and mental benefits of an active lifestyle through a positive and playful approach to fitness.
Forget group fitness classes where participants have their own little spot on the floor, face the front of the room, and keep to themselves. Pl3y International offers three types of workouts that do away with the conventional aerobics-class model.
Dancepl3y is for adults, teens, and kids who like to dance (even if they think they can’t) and want to be active in a less intimidating setting than traditional exercise classes. Power-pl3y is for adults and teens looking to develop strength, fitness, cardio, and agility outside of attending “no-pain-no-gain” boot camps. And Pl3yground is for adults interested in outdoor training inspired by recess games that uses only playground equipment.
“The thing that makes us different is we really want to build a positive culture in our community and in our classes,” Levenberg says by phone. “That begins right at the start of classes: everyone welcomes one another and we do high-fives; it’s an interactive class and we want people to be playful and passionate about staying in a positive mindset and the importance of that in our society.
“As the world gets more focused on their phones, we’re losing basic social skills,” she adds. “We’re [Pl3y International is] driven by a need to connect. I’m really passionate about positive mental health and feeling good about yourself, and this program reminds people of that.”
It all started when Levenberg was a middle-school physical and health education teacher in Ontario and had to teach her Grade 7 and 8 students a dance class. With a background in fitness but not dance, she admits she found the task of choreographing intimidating, and the idea of teaching specific dance moves even more so. Rather than instruct left-foot-right-foot steps, she decided to crank the tunes and get the kids moving by creating their own dances.
“I wanted to focus on student success: to me, that is the most important when working with kids,” Levenberg says. “That and having a really fun time. I didn’t want them to have to follow me, so I’d give them a move and have them figure out how they wanted to do it in a fun, energizing way.”
It was a hit. The kids loved it, and Levenberg soon found herself inundated with requests not only to teach more classes but also to offer formalized instructor training so that other educators could incorporate her approach into their programs. Pl3y International now offers programs and instructor certification right across the country as well as in Ireland and Australia. Set to a range of musical genres such as hip-hop, club, house, Latin, world, Bollywood, jazz, dubstep, and Top 40, classes take place in the Lower Mainland at the West Vancouver Community Centre and the Scotiabank Dance Centre.
The 3 in the company’s and classes’ names signifies the three “rules” of participating, all aimed at helping people foster a positive and playful mindset when it comes to physical activity and healthy living. They are be positive, be fun, and be yourself.
A confident, affirmative mindset can be hard to maintain not just during exercise class but in life, Levenberg says, which is why, just like anything else, it takes practice. Coaching cues during classes urge participants to nix thoughts like “I can’t dance” or “I look so bad compared to everyone else” and replace them with more positive ones like “Wow, this is fun!” or “This feels great!”
Being fun takes practice too, which is why participants are encouraged to be the most fun version of themselves. And the “be yourself” part is tied into finding physical activities that you enjoy, as well as learning to listen to your body, gain confidence in expressing who you are, and make decisions about your health and fitness that are right for you.
“A lot of people want to have more fun with their fitness, and we want people to sweat happy,” Levenberg says. “It isn’t about the dance but about how your workout will make you a happier, healthier person overall.”