Fitness has never been so sassy, as a new-to-Surrey ‘Army’ shows (photos)

Program combines fitness with dance, high heels — and a whole lot of attitude

Shay Burnham leads a class during an introductory session for a program called Army of Sass at Surrey’s DanceWest Studio on Sunday morning (Sept. 25).

SURREY — It was a few minutes after noon on a Sunday. A time when some people are casually getting out of bed, slapping together a brunch, or taking a leisurely walk. It is, for the average person, one of the slowest times of the week.

But for the “average” people arriving at Surrey’s DanceWest Studio, the morning was about to pick up. It was, in fact, about to get downright daunting.

At the helm was Shay Burnham. Dancing since the age of three and now into her 13th year of professional instruction, Burnham is accustomed to demonstrating and teaching complex, demanding moves to aspiring young athletes wanting to dance competitively.

Today, however, Burnham’s charges weren’t quite so… hardcore.

The occasion was a freebie introductory session for a program called Army of Sass. Billed as “a heels dance performance and training program for women of all levels, from beginner to professional,” Army of Sass is Canadian-based and popping up in cities across the country.

Now it was Surrey’s turn.

The plan is thus: Ten weekly classes in which participants – who needn’t have any prior dance experience but must be at least 18 years of age and must wear heels at all times – train and learn a whole bunch of serious moves.

At the end, three Army of Sass franchises (Surrey, Maple Ridge and Tri-Cities) are pooled for a pre-Christmas spectacular on Dec. 4 at Terry Fox Theatre in Port Coquitlam.

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PICTURED: Jennifer McFarlane with other Army of Sass participants in Surrey. (Photo: GORD GOBLE)

“We welcome everyone with open arms,” say Burnham. “Our motto is ‘No good woman is left behind.’ There are no cliques here, none of that sort of stuff. We see moms, lawyers, schoolteachers, and a handful of women in their 50s. You really see everybody.”

The session last Sunday was as wild as it was arduous. At one point, students knocked out a few dozen sit-ups, then spent a few more minutes doing planks. Then it was straight into a whole series of pure dance moves. This boot camp meets dance studio routine would continue throughout.

And it was, of course, sexy. Provocative stances, shaking hips, hair flips, pouty looks – it was, as the name says, an army of sass.

Chrys Luongkhamdenga, a 28-year-old Surreyite who works at a chocolate factory, was among the students.

She said up to this point in her life, she was too shy to take the dancing she loves so much out of her home and into the public eye.

“When I was a little kid, I was really interested in taking dance, but I’ve always been an extremely shy person,”  Luongkhamdeng said.

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PICTURED: Chrys Luongkhamdeng. (Photo: GORD GOBLE)

“I’ve pushed myself out of my shell in the past few years though. I saw a post on Facebook, and I said ‘You know what? I’m going to try this.’ I’ve never taken classes before. I’ve only ever danced at home to music videos. They were my dream world – I’d emulate the moves. But I’m loving this.”

Luongkhamdeng loved it so much that after Sunday’s class, she signed up for the entire program and will be on stage with her peers this December.

She is, in many ways, precisely what Army of Sass is all about. That she already looks the part – dancing like she’s been an extrovert all her life – is the icing on the cake.

There is, however, some fallout.

“Doing those drills and the warm-ups and the exercises – you really feel it the following day,” she says with a laugh.

It’s a sentiment that seems common for members of the army. And for good reason.

Just ask Kate Prefontaine.

A Delta teacher, Prefontaine jumped on board a couple weeks back with fellow high school instructor Jackie Gaspar.

And after Sunday, she has no qualms in saying, “She (Burnham) kicked my butt. I’m still sore!”

But she won’t quit.

“I used to dance a lot when I was younger. But I had to stop due to a bad injury (to her back).”

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PICTURED: Jackie Gaspar and others in the class. (Photo: GORD GOBLE)

Today, the problematic back remains an issue, though Prefontaine has learned ways of managing the pain. And that allowed her to join.

“I’ve always missed dance and wanted to give it a try again. Unfortunately, there wasn’t that much close by, or without crossing the Fraser. And a lot of dance studios cater to younger kids. Or if they cater to adults, they cater to pros, or tap.

“So I found this and signed up for it, but none of my friends bit. I talked to Jackie about it, and she got intrigued.”

Gaspar, too, has a distant history with dance and echoes those feelings of next-day pain.

“It’s called Army of Sass for a reason. I’m surprised we didn’t do pushups too. And now my fiancé is watching me hobble across the floor.”

Jennifer McFarlane also danced as a kid, coincidentally enough, under the tutelage of Burnham. But life got in the way, and McFarlane stopped dancing 11 years ago.

Then, “randomly last year, Shay reached out and said she was starting this program.”

McFarlane signed up and enjoyed it so much that she’s now the Army’s administrative assistant and social media co-ordinator.

“It’s so hard to describe what it’s done for me…how I hold myself. It’s changed my life 100 per cent. And that’s what this does. It gives you confidence and body positivity.”

Check out Armyofsass.com/surrey for more details.

gordgoble@gmail.com

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