Sebastian’s Story: 12 Years as a Personal Trainer and Professional Dancer

 

A lot has happened since I moved to San Francisco in 2008 in pursuit of a dance career. The Bay Area has changed significantly, and I’ve (mostly) grown up within that exciting tumult. From 2009-15, performing contemporary dance was my professional focus. I performed locally, toured extensively, choreographed and taught dance so much that I achieved that next-level goal of burning-out on my passion and needing a break.

But I simultaneously worked as a fitness trainer, specializing in outdoor group workouts and “functional” personal training. I also kept studying biomechanics and nutrition, becoming a bit of a niche specialist along the way. Now that I’m running my own fitness company, Sebastian’s Functional Fitness, full-time and leading week-long biomechanics workshops for dancers internationally, it’s a strong time to look back and tell a bit about how it all evolved.

My childhood experiences of fitness were rooted in running and team sports. My dad took me running along roads and trails from a young age. I remember watching in awe as he ran the final hill home, looking like a superhero. I aspired to have that capacity.

In middle and high school, running was my main exercise, and I used it to deal with difficult emotions and also to build discipline. Overtime I became pretty fast, and not because of being trained by a coach, but because of having a dogged and committed personality, and being fueled by intense feeling.

I don’t have an abuse or overuse history with drugs, even alcohol, perhaps because running showed up first. And then dancing. Exercise was a way for me to experience—or let out—my emotional life. When I felt overwhelmed or angry, I would go for a run or bike ride. In Santa Cruz this meant taking off through the woods. In college it meant disappearing along the infinite roads bisecting massive wheat fields in eastern Washington. If I felt overwhelmed with happiness and joy? Often the same response would do, though I soon learned that dance could provide the same outlet. And being in dance projects with others reminded me of the camaraderie of sports teams.

Dance became a crucial art practice, alongside poetry writing, in my late teen years and transformed me in my early twenties. Eventually I chose to pursue dance as a kind of “athletic poetry of the body” that satisfied me on many levels. When I finished my degree in philosophy in 2006, I took up dance training as a serious pursuit and gave it most of my free time back in Santa Cruz. I also landed a job as a group fitness instructor and health coach, paving the way for what has now been almost 12 years of a sustaining career.

I first learned how to strength-train from two bodybuilders. So my early workout years in college were spent in the gym, 5-6 days a week, building muscle. Thank heavens for dance and running! These gave me a broader scope and practice to integrate my new body and abilities within. Otherwise I was just learning how to pick up heavy things and put them down again.

Training as a dancer also brought in many other elements: acrobatics, techniques from martial arts, and partner dancing, specifically Contact Improvisation. I learned how to do handstands, have people climb me like I was a tree, and do modified flips, twists and tumbles.

By studying biomechanics and anatomy with Frey Faust, in the U.S. and Europe, I learned far more about movement than from any fitness trainer certificate. I also learned how to be a good teacher. Frey originated the Axis Syllabus, basically a study of anatomy and physics applied to human movement, which I now teach also. He was my primary mentor for a number of years, along with Scott Wells, a contact improvisation luminary and choreographer I’ve worked with since 2008. Taking countless classes and workshops with these two was as much about learning how to dance better as it was learning how to communicate to a group effectively and with compassion.

Given that the average career-span for a personal trainer is just a few years, reflecting now at 12 feels like a big deal. Working in the field of dance at the same time surely has been part of that longevity. I used to think dance was a career liability, in the sense that my attention was split and not 100% devoted to being a trainer. Over the years I learned the opposite was true: the dance world fueled my interest in movement and training, and vice versa.

Teaching anatomy and biomechanics in a dance context has significantly impacted my work in fitness. At this point, I barely see dance and fitness as distinct realms – instead I focus on the cross-over, on how they support each other, on how Dance and Fitness can be seen as related aspects of Human Movement.

My personal goal is to learn how to move well and for a lifetime. Teaching that perspective and set of skills is also my professional focus. Strength training is not enough, cardio is not enough, dance classes are not enough; nor yoga, bike riding, soccer or handstands. We need a spectrum of movement, a cultivated desire to learn and practice, and a community to do it with. At least that’s where I stand now.

Moving away from bodybuilding and isolated endurance running, and toward functional fitness and dance, has been a movement toward personal health. I’m not against building muscle mass or running for a long time – I just want them to be within the context of a healthy life, and within the context of learning new coordinations and sensitivity and pleasure from movement.

I’ve also seen how physical abilities tend to degrade with age. In this context, improving and preserving physical function means improving quality of life. That’s perhaps the most important thing I can do for someone.

Fitness and dance are powerful ways to connect with others. This is why I love outdoor fitness work with small groups and also teaching dance in studios. It’s also part of why people hire me at all – placing fitness training in a social context, even with just one other person, changes the feel of the entire thing. It makes movement training more meaningful. And fun. For the time being, I’m not afraid of smartphone app’s—or virtual reality systems—replacing that.

What’s next? Last year my biomechanics education took another jump with a new certificate on corrective exercises for injuries and chronic pain. This helped refresh my interest in training a variety of people with a variety of abilities, movement backgrounds, and injuries. I’m still integrating that new information into both my fitness work and dance work.

Stay tuned for new offerings, including movement retreats, anatomy classes, and more. As always, contact me to learn more, expand your training, or get started if we haven’t worked together yet.

In Movement,
Sebastian

 

Photo Credits: 1 and 3 by Mark McBeth. 2 by Mark Kuroda.