‘Smile and just try’: RSF cardio dance instructor on dancing through life — and out of personal comfort zones

Mitch Crispell/Courtesy

Mitch Crispell is a cardio dance instructor at the Recreational Sports Facility, or RSF. After growing up just outside Washington D.C. in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Crispell attended the University of Michigan. He came to UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and received his master’s in city planning in 2016 . During the day, he works as a project manager for an affordable housing developer.

Crispell’s energy is contagious. As Danielle Johnson, group exercise coordinator at the RSF put it in an email, “I love having Mitch on my team because his passion for dancing and teaching dance is like no other. His ability to teach any and all genres of dance is amazing.”

The charisma and charm Crispell brings to his high-energy classes are a significant, if underrepresented, part of being young, and more precisely, being young in a place like Berkeley.

The Daily Californian: How long have you been dancing?

Mitch Crispell: My mom told me the other day that I was like three years old and she put on music and I was shaking my hips, so since forever. More formally, there was a (dance studio) near where I grew up that I used to go to from fifth grade. Then I went to all these summer camps where I did musical theater for six, seven years. I have tap, jazz, hip-hop, musical theater stuff — I’ve been trained in all those different disciplines so my dancing is a whole amalgam of those.

DC: How did you get involved with cardio dance at UC Berkeley?

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MC: I did a Zumba class once in college for a semester, but I had basically never set foot in a gym for any sustained amount of time until I moved here. I had plenty of time as a grad student.

My first week here I started coming to group exercise classes, and I said, “Dance? I love dance.” I started going to (a dance) class every Wednesday. In November (the instructor) said I should try teaching a song. So I made up a dance for “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” I tried it out at one of her classes, she gave me feedback afterwards, and she was like, “Okay, that was good, do another one.” Eventually I got signed up to be a sub, and then three months later, I got my own class. That was in 2014.

I was just pursuing something that I enjoy for myself, and then I was given an opportunity by someone, and then I said “yes.” It wasn’t like I set out to be a Zumba instructor. It kind of happened.

DC: How do you pick which songs to use in class?

MC: My first rule is that I have to love the song because I’m gonna hear it way more times than anyone else. Hundreds of times I do these songs. So I have to love the song, and it has to have a great beat. And I don’t do anything too inappropriate or sexual. I try to not use foul language. Some people might feel uncomfortable with that in my class, so that’s not right. It can’t be too long, it can’t be too short. It has to have repetition because for the choreo, you’ve got to repeat a lot of stuff. That’s how people get it in their bodies and in their heads. The second time you do the dance move, it’s always more fun because you kind of know what you’re doing. I need a consistent tempo the whole time.

DC: What’s your process for choreographing?

MC: I’m almost scared to say this because it’s so unscientific, but I really just put the song on, go in a room, listen to it a couple times and I start dancing. I see what feels right for each part of it. I think the reason that works for me is because I have been dancing for so long, and I have such a different dance vocabulary in my body. Listening to the song and feeling what the beat feels like, I can pair movement to music pretty naturally.

DC: One thing you are known for among your students is your energy and enthusiasm. Where does that come from?

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MC: I’ve just always been a very enthusiastic person; I’m that way with everything I do. Particularly in (cardio dance), the more people that there are, and the more that everybody’s having fun, smiling and singing along and laughing, that really engerizes me. I’m so extroverted, so having all those people gives me a lot of joy.

In terms of being an instructor, I really love it when someone says to me afterwards that they were having a bad day and the dancing really helped them to feel better. Somebody told me a couple weeks ago that she’s been going through a breakup, and that my class was the thing that she really looked forward to and was really helping her the most. That makes me feel really good. Not only am I helping people do some cardio exercise, but really more than that, it’s something fun and safe. It makes you feel really good about yourself.

Building that self-esteem is the other goal I put equal to the cardio goals in my class. Obviously, I want people to build their cardiovascular capacity, but also, I want (a class) that helps people feel really good about themselves in every way. So many people are not comfortable dancing. People are at weddings, and they are too nervous to dance, or they’re at the club, and they don’t want to dance. But in my class, it’s like no one’s judging, the lights are on bright, we’re all looking at a mirror, we’re all wearing our workout clothes. It just feels like a safer space to explore what it means to dance. I love that I can create that for people.

DC: What advice do you have for UC Berkeley students who are hesitant about trying cardio dance?

MC: The thing about exercise is that it’s so fraught for so many people. They don’t feel confident in their bodies, they feel like everyone else is so much stronger than them, they’re intimidated by the weight room — there’s this whole code that they don’t understand. My advice would be that you have to find something that you really like doing or else you will never go to the gym. If the thing that you do at the gym isn’t something that you genuinely enjoy, you’ll just never come. There’s always a reason not to come to the gym. My advice would be to keep trying different things until you find something that you like.

I remember I came here, and I was like, “I’m gonna try the rowing machine.” And that was so boring. After like five minutes, I was so bored. The weight room was (also) so intimidating. All these guys are so strong, and there was all these rules that I didn’t know anything about, and then I was like, “Oh shit, I don’t like any of those things. Let me try a group exercise class.” So I went to an abs class, and that was really fun because the teacher was making jokes and played music and guiding us through it all so that I didn’t have to think too much about what to do. For me, group exercise is my main thing. So my advice is to keep trying things until you find something you really like.

And, if you come to cardio dance in particular, my advice is to stand in the front row. You gotta go all in with things. People are so afraid to feel uncomfortable. It’s so good to feel uncomfortable. The times when you feel uncomfortable sometimes have the most meaning for you later on in life. Think about any time you feel uncomfortable like when you’re on a date, you’re trying something new, you’re in a new class, you’re going to a new community that you’ve never been to before. But if you never did any of those things, you would never have anything in your life.

Yes, it’s going to feel uncomfortable the first time because you don’t know the teacher, you don’t know what the moves are. But go, and stand in the front, introduce yourself to the teacher, smile and just try. By the end, you’ll probably feel better.

Crispell teaches cardio dance classes at the RSF Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. Attendance is free with student ID.

Contact Edrick Sabalburo at [email protected]