When I started in this business, “certifications” didn’t exist. Back then, we were all “aerobic instructors.” Our profession was never considered a job. We were a bunch of part-timers bopping around from class to class. Female instructors were Jane Fonda lookalikes in tights, legwarmers and headbands. You may be laughing remembering those moments, but the truth is, women of color had a difficult time finding success in this era. Many of us had curves and believed we had to fit the mold in order to be hired.
The first facility I was hired at was LivingWell Lady, but my career truly kicked off at Jack LaLanne, which later became Bally Total Fitness. I was fortunate enough to find a director who could look past my curves and the way I dressed in my baggy pants and loose-fitting t-shirts, and recognize the talent I brought to the table. Though getting hired was a feat in and of itself, I knew that the true hard work lay ahead. My national director, Suzette Samaroo-Fennell, was also a catalyst in pushing me forward into this career. Suzette hired me as her group exercise regional director for the Long Island, Bronx and Westchester regions. In this position, I made hiring a diverse group of individuals of all nationalities, orientations, abilities, shapes and sizes a priority. Though this resulted in a great deal of pushback from many people at the time, I took to the task with passion, commitment and dedication. In doing so, I created some of the most loyal and faithful instructors to this day and encouraged members who expected those Jane Fonda lookalikes to be open-minded and inclusive.
Every year since, I’ve set goals for myself. My heart was set on becoming a presenter and an educator. Then, the opportunity came. Carol Scott of ECA World Fitness hired me to be an aerobic instructor for her fitness facility in Long Beach, New York. She was the first person who trusted me enough to give me a chance in presenting. Carol coached, mentored and guided me. She gave me loads of encouragement and feedback — all of which has resonated with me to this day.
When I first began presenting, I was one of the few women of color at the time. There were many presenters I was inspired by and aspired to be (Calvin Wiley, Clay Grant, Patrick Goudea, Pepper Bon, Monique Dash and Madonna Grimes). Working my way to the top was challenging and fulfilling.
The next opportunity that arose was with DCAC Fitness Conventions, when founders Shannon Elkins and Jamie Nicholls invited me to present. At the time, there was still not much diversity within the presenting community, so it was an enormous achievement to be represented at any fitness forum. Perhaps one of the biggest eye-openers for me was when two women of color thanked me for portraying them in an amazing, positive light. That was the moment I realized that I was no longer checking the “diversity” box, but bringing awareness to inclusion, giving hope to aspiring presenters of color, and breaking glass ceilings for future generations. Each and every time I hit the stage, I feel a sense of great responsibility.
In later years, I became the flexibility and soft tissue specialist for the New York Jets. Additionally, I became the regional director for multiple locations of Bally Total Fitness, New York Sports Clubs and XSport Fitness. I am currently a group exercise manager at three of Crunch Fitness’ New York facilities. Most importantly, in 2009, I opened a private practice of my own, and have been one of the fortunate ones to expand during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. I would not have accomplished all of this without the support, guidance and mentorship of the abovementioned.
I remain passionate about upholding diversity, equity, inclusion and education in each of my roles. I pride myself on paying it forward with any opportunity I receive to ensure others can receive the same opportunities. Inclusion helps all. I’m proud of the progress we have made in creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable fitness community and look forward to the strides we will make in the future.
I’ll leave you with this: one of the keys to success is to be a forward thinker. Learn from mistakes of the past and be open to change. Change will always make you look at everything in awe.
Gail Bannister-Munn works as a flexibility, yoga, and Pilate’s coach with the NY Jets football team and pro hoops basketball. She currently holds certifications in several different disciplines, including NASM, AFAA, Fascial Stretch Therapist L3, Yogafit 500 hours, AFAA, STOTT PILATES® Mat 1 & 2, Powerhouse Mat Pilates I & II, and is an NASM and AFAA continuing education provider, which enhances her coaching abilities to her athletes, staff and her classes.