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With Coach Marty, gym class becomes a dance party
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With Coach Marty, gym class becomes a dance party

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Coach Marty strode into the Basis Flagstaff front office precisely at 7:30, raring to go.

You’d think that, with the red Yeti cap pulled low on his brow and the black mask riding high on his face, it would have been tough to discern Coach Marty’s mood on this morning. Hardly. His eyes, wide and lit with intensity, and his brows, arched and severe, gave him away. And then there was his voice, staccato and rapid fire, each word delivered in all-caps and italic, heavy on exclamation points.

Gooood morning,” Martin Heilman barked to the front-desk worker.

Coach Marty, for sure, was pumped. Coach Marty was adrenalized. Coach Marty was absolutely ready get young hearts pounding, little feet moving.

The man knows only one mode: full tilt. See it in his stride, posture-perfect and purposeful. See it in his hand movement, gesticulating like a traffic cop. See it even the rare times this dynamo is in repose, his trim and sleek body almost vibrating with pent-up energy.

Friday meant another edition of Coach Marty’s Dance Party, a day when this veteran 53-year-old elementary school physical education teacher transforms himself into a groovin’, body-shaking presence to his students, whether they are staring back at him from a square on his computer screen or facing him in the gymnasium.

For the next seven class periods, this educator will reach into his bag of disguises and become Marty the Moose, horns flopping from the plush hat, or The Flying Pig with flapping wings, or a crazed purple-haired maniac chasing the kids around the gym brandishing a Styrofoam noodle, thrusting it at the computer screen. Whatever it takes to engage, to break through the barriers of pandemic distance learning, to bring a smile to kids’ faces and movement to their muscles, Coach Marty will try it.

Nearly a year has gone by and, finally, Basis Flagstaff will begin a phased reopening for in-class learning this week. What that means for Coach Marty is that the challenging days of remote instruction soon will be behind him. Part of him will welcome a gradual return to normalcy, but another part has met the daunting task of teaching PE on a screen head-on and upped his teaching game to heights he never could have imagined.

“I’ve been in fitness a while and done a lot of things, but I’ve never done this,” he said, nodding toward his laptop on a table in the gym. “I was completely lost when we started.”

Getting the party started

Coach Marty banged out some keystrokes, set up an oval-shaped portable speaker and tapped his smart-phone’s Blu-Tooth to get everything in sync between the platform Basis uses, Microsoft Teams, and the playlist on his phone. Five minutes remained before the first class. Plenty of time. No sweat for Coach Marty. Still, he scurried about, checking and re-checking.

“Might be nice,” he said, scolding himself, “if I engaged the audio. These 7-year-olds, they’re always correcting me. ‘Coach Marty,’ they say, ‘enable the audio.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, right.’ All I can do is laugh. The computer still scares me. I’m a bit of a tech-phobe. I’m very confident out in front of people. But I’m not confident on the computer.”

He long since jettisoned his sweatshirt and Yeti ball cap. He now stood in a purple T-shirt with “COACH MARTY” emblazoned on the front and “KING OF THE DANCE PARTY” on the back. After careful consideration, he chose the pink Flying Pig hat, completing an ensemble that included his black nylon Under Armour sweatpants, blue-trimmed Altra Viho sneakers and crazy multi-hued socks.

“I knew I had to get the kids up and get them moving,” he said, still messing with the computer. “At least get them smiling. I started to do research on it. I found what other PE teachers were doing and started to modify that. There are some teachers out there doing really fun stuff, making virtual fitness games that are fun. But I actually prefer going live and doing it with them.

“It has to be something that they enjoy and want to do. It can’t be work. That’s why it’s always a play out to me. It’s not a workout, it’s a 'playout.' Never call it a workout.”

He paused, for emphasis.

“Look, I can’t dance,” he said, and his crinkly eyes showed he was smiling under the mask. “I’ll do it, it’s called the goofy white boy shuffle. Like in (the movie) ‘Hitch,’ you know, making the pizza.”

He started swiveling his hips and moving his hands in a dough-kneading gesture.

“Those are my moves,” he added, laughing. “I’ll see moms dancing with their kids. That’s great to see. And to get them smiling. Smiling! We cannot lose that now. We cannot lose joy. We cannot lose hope. I tell them that every day.”

Five second-graders, all suitably masked, now had joined him in the gym. These were students who either lack internet access at home, do not have parental supervision during the day or for whatever reason weren’t thriving learning at home. They orbited Coach Marty as if he constituted their sole energy source, which, in a way, was accurate. His screen popped up and there were five squares with faces visible.

“Max V.G.!” Coach Marty yelled at the screen. “Maximus! You got Mrs. V.G. there with ya?”

“Emily! Ready to show some dance moves!”

“There’s Alana!” he shouted to a girl in the top left square, who looked as if she were still in pajamas.

All teachers at Basis have conducted classes online and, as Head of School Lisa Foreman said, “Marty works very hard to connect with his students. He is very aware of how to meet students where they are at in their journey toward physical fitness and health.”

The primary goal for grade-schoolers in physical education, Foreman said, is developing “fine and gross motor skills, improving coordination, and learning good sportsmanship, teamwork and healthy habits.”

And Coach Marty addresses all of that, the other four days of the week.

But Fridays? It’s Dance Party time, kids.

For 45 minutes, each class will be movin’ and groovin’. Their heart rates and spirits will be raised. Coach Marty’s playlist runs the gamut from old school, the Jackson Five’s “ABC” to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” With the two early-morning second-grade classes, though, he always starts with a Kidz Bop video, in which the moves are carefully choreographed.

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In time with the peppy beat, Coach Marty marched in place, then forward, then backward. His arms swung, as he barked out, “Power jab! Twist! Big wave! Reach!” Then he started singing, sort of, along. There's a reason Coach Marty is a coach, and not a nightclub performer.

I'm never gonna look back

Woah, never gonna give it up

No, please don't wake me now

Song over, Coach Marty took out his phone to queue up his playlist, giving students time to catch their breaths.

Why Coach Marty became a coach

Unlike that Kidz Bop song’s lyrics, Coach Marty does sometimes look back. He reflects upon his own childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. His experiences, some wonderful and memorable, some fraught with pain, all factor in to his career path as a fitness educator and school teacher -- which he’s done for 23 years.

He grew up in Chicago, youngest of five boys. He also was the shortest and, frankly, the chubbiest. He loved sports, worshiped the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton, played soccer for years. But …

“OK, so I’ll be straight with you,” he said, voice softening, for once, but eyes steady. “In the late ‘80s, I really got into fitness. I grew five inches after high school. And I was reading all these crazy magazines and not making fitness fun. And I got obsessed with it. I developed this body-image disorder and I became anorexic.

“Every time I looked in the mirror, I still saw that short little fat kid that got made fun of. I battled that for a long time.”

At age 26, he went into a residential treatment center for eating disorders. His mother, a snowbird in Scottsdale, found him a facility in the Valley and flew to Chicago to personally escort her son into the program.

When he emerged from the hospital, he had gained perspective on wellness, nutrition and healthy eating and exercise. Just being a certified fitness instructor was not enough. Now, he wanted to teach physical education, reach kids at an early age so they might avoid his path.

He went to Northern Arizona University and, upon graduating, found a teaching job and became "Coach Marty" at several schools, most recently at Basis. (He left town twice, for San Diego, for jobs as a fitness instructor and trainer for those with special needs, but both times was lured back to Flagstaff for teaching.)

His goal is to impart what he still has to remind himself today: “to be comfortable with our bodies. To accept ourselves for who we are and our body type. A body type we inherited. And I am very mindful of any teasing or bullying in my class. For the sake of that student and the one doing the teasing. I can explain how hurtful and harmful it is.”

Coach Marty, these days, says he maintains a healthful lifestyle. But his early obsession with fitness took its toll. He had his right hip replaced in 2017 and his left knee replaced last May.

"It was from overuse," he explained. "Thirty years as a fitness coach and 23 as a PE teacher and running. I would run a lot of miles training for ultra-marathons. I was in a lot of pain, but I feel great now. Very grateful to have my lifestyle back.”

Yet, he has balance now. Coach Marty may pour all of his passion into teaching wellness and fitness to youngsters, but he is careful to monitor himself, as well. He has left behind every trace of fitness obsession. If he’s obsessed about anything, it’s his five rescue huskies he absolutely dotes on. He joked that, because he’s never been married, his dogs substitute as his children.

“I’m a recovering anorexic, and I always will be,” he said. “Moderation and balance. Being comfortable with yourself is the biggest thing. Being OK is the biggest thing. ‘I love me, I forgive me, I choose to be happy. I love me, I forgive me, I choose to be happy.’ I say that to myself over and over again. And I teach that. This is my calling and my purpose. I love being called ‘Coach.’”

Marty the Moose is loose

Three songs into class, the bouncy Timberlake tune came on. Coach Marty changed into his Moose hat, and he was doing the raise-the-roof arm move into his laptop’s camera. The girl on the top left screen square twirled and head-banged. In another square, Max and Mrs. V.G. were grooving in front of the family fireplace. Behind Coach Marty, four kids, like backup dancers, tried their best to imitate their teacher’s moves.

Between songs, Coach Marty gave a shout-out to parents who were bopping along at home.

“You guys are the real stars,” he said. “You make the Dance Party good. So we gotta do a little old school for the parents out there.”

On came Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” and everybody did. That segued into Kool & The Gang’s anthemic “Celebration.” By the time everyone was hitting their stride, Coach Marty had exchanged the moose for the purple fright wig. He grabbed a foam noodle to try to “stab” in-class students during the ‘70s disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” chasing the squealing kids all over.

Then it was time to bring it down, time to wrap things up. Coach Marty stared at the screen, arms spread wide.

“Group hug,” he said. “Yeti Nation. Yeti Tribe. Give the computer a group hug.”

On cue, the Black Eyed Pea’s “One Tribe” commenced. And then Coach Marty ended class with Pharrell Williams’ rousing “Happy.”

The girl in the top left square kept dancing even after the music stopped. Max V.G. called out to Coach Marty, asking his teacher to look at his T-shirt. Coach Marty leaned in to the screen.

“It says … oh, ‘Vibe Up.’ Cool, Max!”

Coach Marty then closed the session, took off the purple wig to reveal short-cropped brown hair. He hadn't even broken a sweat.

Five minutes later, he opened a new meeting window on the laptop, put on the Flying Pig hat, and shouted to a new group, “HAPPY FRIDAY, EVERYBODY. ARE YOU READY TO DANCE?”

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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