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The FITNESS INSTRUCTOR



Kent and Sandi

Kent and Sandi attend a wedding in 2015. SALLY YATES RICHESON PHOTO

Love of exercise started with Jazzercise

BY ELLEN GILLETTE

Fitness trends come and go. Gyms close up shop. But for the last 34 years, Port St. Lucie’s Sandi Hellstrom-Leonard has kept her Jazzercise students on their toes.

“Sandi is very theatrical up there. She’s performing for us!” says Maria Funka, a Hellstrom-Leonard student for 26 years.

The second of three sisters, Alexandra Haczynski, was raised in Delaware. No middle name - “Alexandra Haczynski was enough!” she said. Her father’s nickname “Sandy” evolved in high school to Sandi … so that she could dot the I with a star, which she still does.

The draw to entertainment, to performing, began early. At age 5, she experienced two life-changers: dance lessons and her first movie. “As I walked into the theater, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”

One of her favorite sayings is an African proverb: The road doesn’t tell the traveler what lies ahead. Even regrettable things in life, in other words, play a part in where you end up. For example, moving to South Florida in 1976 with her first husband was quite a culture shock for someone used to the rich cultural scene near Philadelphia.

After working several jobs, one as secretary for an engineering firm, Hellstrom-Leonard read an article about Jazzercise; a program blending dance with resistance training, Pilates, yoga, and kickboxing. Developed in 1969 by a dance teacher whose students were more interested in fitness than intricate steps, the program exploded in popularity in the 1980s, right about the time she was thinking about a career change.

The program intrigued her and after passing an audition in West Palm Beach, she began teaching. Then a shock of another sort occurred: divorce. Eventually, she married Dick Hellstrom, an engineer from her former job. One bend in the road made way for the next, and soon, baby made three: a daughter named Lauren.

While Lauren was young, Hellstrom-Leonard limited herself primarily to Jazzercise, but as Lauren grew, she got involved with community theaters all along the Treasure Coast. Today, her love of the stage shines through every arm movement and shoulder roll.

The Hellstroms eventually built a home in Port St. Lucie’s Spyglass PGA Village, complete with a home theater — it even has its own Facebook page. A place of joyful, shared memories, the theater became a comforting sanctuary in 2011, when Dick passed away after a three-year battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Instructors pitched in from a Melbourne franchise, but after a month, Hellstrom-Leonard was back at work, crediting her students as an important part of her healing. “Nine of 80 registered runners for the Sunrise Theatre Dick Hellstrom Memorial 5K Run/Walk last year were my students,” she says. “The day of the race, it poured down rain. Half of the runners stayed home. All nine of my students showed up.”

Hellstrom-Leonard says the long-standing class has been supportive of each other, too.

“Births, deaths, illnesses, good news, bad news, happy times and lots of sweat and smiles … sounds corny but it’s the truth,” she says.

The class has become, in many ways, a family.

“If it wasn’t for Sandi, I’d probably be in a wheelchair,” student Gail Hatfield says. A petite blonde, Hatfield was falling apart 13 years ago. Diabetic and also coping with rheumatoid arthritis, she’d suffered a torn rotator cuff the previous year and had done virtually nothing since then — except eat.

“Everything hurt from the lack of mobility,” Hatfield says. “I was fat, emotionally drained, and depressed! One day I just made up my mind to do something about it.”

She went to a Jazzercise class. “That first day, I stood in the back and started very slow, but Sandi was so great, I kept going back.” Now 72 and 60 pounds lighter, she feels better than ever.

Funka has been a Jazzercise fan for even longer. It was, in fact, the deciding factor for moving to Fort Pierce in 1990. Having begun classes in Ohio, she and her husband wanted to relocate their company somewhere in Florida., but where? “Our motel had a newspaper with an ad for Sandi’s class. I went, and that was it. I told my husband we had to move to Fort Pierce!”

A former ballroom dancer, Funka says Jazzercise is addictive because the music used is “what you’re used to hearing on the radio,” but that Hellstrom-Leonard makes it even better. “We tell her she has to keep teaching, even when she’s in her 80s.”

Although there’s fluctuation in numbers during the year, a solid core group relentlessly chassés and relevés across the floor. Some occasionally go out to lunch, even taking trips together.

Hellstrom-Leonard’s franchise sponsors community events from time to time, For the past 20 years, her class has adopted a needy family each Christmas. According to Funka, “All she’s got to do is mention it, and we’re on board.”

Because of the 10 a.m. class time at River Walk Center in downtown Fort Pierce, the majority of Hellstrom-Leonard’s students are retirees, but her class is as high impact as students choose. Students range from their 20s all the way up the ladder, at all stages of fitness, enjoying the ultimate dance party each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Her daughter Lauren, now 31, is a frequent participant. In a way, she’s been there all her life: Hellstrom-Leonard stopped teaching a mere three weeks before Lauren was born. Six weeks later, she was back at work.

Jazzercise isn’t limited to women, either. Don Facey has been attending classes with his wife of 61 years — and with Hellstrom-Leonard — for almost two decades. “We were fairly active, but we wanted to do something while we were in Florida,” he says. The couple enjoyed the classes so much that back in Massachusetts, Facey made an exercise room in the basement so they could exercise to videos. “It’s not as exciting as with Sandi, though.”

In addition to everything else, Hellstrom-Leonard runs multiple races each year, from 5Ks to marathons. In last year’s Sunrise Theatre Dick Hellstrom Memorial 5K Run/Walk, Hellstrom-Leonard finished second in her age group. And the overall male winner in the same race was Kent Leonard; he and Sandi had been engaged a whole week.

“We performed together a million years ago,” Hellstrom-Leonard says. Widowed for several years, with nothing to indicate that would ever change, Sandi offered Kent a ticket “on a whim” to come see her dance at the fifth annual Dancing with Our PALs, supporting the Fort Pierce Police Athletic League. To her surprise, he sat in the first row.

About five months later, when Hellstrom-Leonard crossed the finish line at the Disney Princess half-marathon on Feb. 22, 2015, Leonard was waiting at the finish line, holding out a ring box. Jazzercise class members hosted a bridal brunch for Hellstrom-Leonard in March, one of the happier moments in the life of the “family.” The couple married on April 5.

At 65 and the only instructor in St. Lucie County, Hellstrom-Leonard has no plans to quit teaching, but she’s also experienced enough loss to occasionally think about the end of the road.

“I hope my legacy will be that I made people feel happy, either from teaching Jazzercise or performing in shows,” she says. “I love to see someone learn a new step, or tell me they enjoyed the class, that they felt welcome and special. That hour or so is for them to enjoy and feel better about themselves.”



ALEXANDRA ‘SANDI’ HELLSTROM-LEONARD

Age: 65
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Jazzercise franchisee/instructor for 34 years
Family: Husband, Kent Leonard; daughter, Lauren Hellstrom; stepsons Mark and Michael Hellstrom
Background: Helped obtain grants to restore the Sunrise Theatre; organized multiple fundraisers and 5Ks; runs marathons and performs in community theater.
Something most people don’t know about me: “I was at the original Woodstock — probably the straightest person there!”