Dave Rabb is a personal trainer with a few secrets: bring balloons to class, reward genuine efforts with cookies and make sure all clients use the potty before climbing the equipment.
"Oh, no. It might be too late," yells Rabb one afternoon, as his client Matthew, 3, runs down the hall looking for the bathroom.
"In there, in there!" he shouts to the boy.
Gold's Gym this isn't, but Rabb's Children's Fitness Center in Culver City is more about fun and physical education than tight abs and buns of steel.
Before Gymboree and Mommy and Me, Rabb opened one of the country's first gyms for kids ages 9 months to 10 years. More than 25 years later, he is still leading classes built around songs, games, playground skills, tumbling and basic gymnastics.
Rabb is not interested in training the next Olympian. If someone wants an intense gymnastics program, he sends them elsewhere. Instead, he is promoting physical development, the joy of movement and plenty of self-esteem.
Classes build strength, balance and coordination, and each session gets increasingly challenging. Rabb also works with kids who have special needs.
"That's it, Paige! You're doing the dreaded bear walk," he says to the 3-year-old crawling atop the parallel bars, her bottom in the air.
Devon, 4, does a handstand on the low bars as Rabb holds his ankles and says, "His feet don't smell bad either." And hanging by her belly from a pulley and a string, Gabby, 3, holds her arms out and slides across the room. "A birdie, a birdie," Rabb booms in his thick Brooklyn accent.
Using balloons, he leads the children through several dexterity exercises, like turning the balloon quietly, then making it squeak. Rabb lobs one-liners to the parents, grandparents and caretakers who sit behind the observation counter.
"He's balloon-retentive," Rabb says. "If you like that sound, next week I'm going to teach you how to scratch your fingernails on a blackboard."
"What I really like is that Dave doesn't take any nonsense from the kids," says Jody Reichel, whose two children, Sibyl, 6, and Ethan, 4, attend classes. "He gets them to try their best and he takes them to a new level. But if they don't cooperate, he sends them out. He won't let them have a turn."
Rabb also works with children who have special needs -- including autism, physical disabilities and motor skills challenges.
These kids, who now represent about a third of the gym's participants, are referred by the West Side Regional Center, an agency that provides services to children and adults with developmental disabilities. Rabb works with some of these children individually, while others are mainstreamed into general classes. There are also group classes dedicated to children with special needs.
"Some autistic children don't speak, but these activities transcend speech," Rabb said. "Our activities are so graphic and visual and experiential that children express themselves through activities and feel the pleasure of that. They don't have to verbally give us the feedback."
In 1962, when Rabb says he was "young and skinny," he had a television show pilot he calls "a Jack La Laine for kids." When it wasn't picked up, he took a job as the athletic director at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Kansas City. He also worked at the Silver Lake-Los Feliz JCC before opening his own facility.
Rabb, who identifies as a cultural Jew, says he speaks more Yiddish now than he did growing up on Coney Island, in the observant community of Seagate. "I sound like Jackie Mason," he says, throwing in a few "oy veys" for good measure. While he's still bending and squatting with the kids, at 67, Rabb has his sights set on retirement. He's already got the house in Hawaii, where he'll spend his days deep sea fishing. But now he's got work to do.
Noticing a child who gets distracted, he shouts, "Wake up and smell the...."
"Coffee!" the youngster yells back.
"Right, Gabby," Rabb says. "Very good."
For more information contact Dave Rabb's Children's Fitness Center in Culver City, (310) 559-4110.
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