Anyone who's ever popped in a home fitness video swiftly develops a love-hate relationship with the digitized instructor. You may love how you feel afterward, but you hate the process, especially when it's punctuated by enthusiastic shouts of "Cardio! Cardio! Cardio!" during the burn.
But who doesn't like Billy Blanks?
The robust father of the Tae Bo movement has helped homebodies kick, jab and jump since the early '90s. His work has led him to Hollywood, with an A-list clientele and parts in movies, including an upcoming Adam Sandler flick, Jack and Jill. And he makes appearances around the United States (such as WestSide Fitness on Friday) and overseas; he recently returned home to Orange County from Japan, where he participated in a fundraiser for victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami.
Blanks is cooler than Richard Simmons, and less scary than Jillian Michaels. And unlike either of them, the struggles that fueled his ascent had nothing to do with food.
"I really didn't find out until I was 35 years old that I had dyslexia," says Blanks, now 55. "They thought I was mentally handicapped. I wasn't, I was a kid that was very shy; I had that learning disorder."
Blanks' success in the martial arts started as a way to build his self-esteem, but quickly became much more. In 1975, Blanks won the first United States Amateur Athletic Union title, and it was not long thereafter, that he would stumble upon a new brand of fitness.
"My ex-wife went out and bought the theme song to Rocky and when she brought that song back to me, I put it on, I started moving to it, and the next thing you know, within two to three minutes, I was cardiovascular tired. I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm a United States champion. I have to get into better shape than this.'
"Most karate people don't practice cardiovascular movements, they only practice movements that are stagnant."
Blanks' idea for Tae Bo evolved into the incorporation of cardio moves into the martial arts, with touches of ballet and boxing.
Now looking back, Blanks says, "I was very blessed to get into a karate program. When I got into that martial arts program, it gave me an opportunity to see that I could be successful."