The year was 1980, before burpees, Jazzercise, Jane Fonda VHS workouts, Richard Simmons in spandex on TV sets—all of it was still to come. It was the beginning of group fitness and in a YWCA gymnasium in Montreal, fresh-faced 21-year-old Sylvia Ozbalt, who had never taught a class before, was asked to sub for the usual aerobic dance instructor.
“I taught that class, and it’s like this other person came out of me,” Sylvia remembers. “The music, everyone moving together. I’d always loved to move, but I’d found my place of expression.” She has never looked back.
Syliva’s passion for movement connected with her students, her classes gained momentum, and soon, she was teaching full time. In the years that followed, Sylvia opened her own fitness studio in vibrant, creative Montreal, with a second location following in Québec City.
“I really built up a following,” she remembers fondly. “I think people liked my style because it was authentically joyful. I’ve never had a moment where I didn’t love teaching a class.”
Today, at 65, Sylvia is still teaching fitness classes and inspiring her students to grapevine, step-touch, and rocket-jump, all while laughing, sweating, and singing along to one of her famous playlists (think: Neil Diamond and Kylie Minogue).
Sylvia’s genuine connection with her students has kept them coming back for decades; some from that first YMCA in 1980 still take her classes, online or in person, in 2023, over four decades later.
“I think we’re all built to move differently,” she says with a sense of passion. “I believe in honouring your body, exactly where it is, and being amazed by the uniqueness that is you. We are differently abled, different bodies, different injuries. I move whatever I can, and in ways that I can, and I try to inspire and encourage others to have that attitude. I even made a program for a friend of mine, who fractured her wrist and ankle. She couldn’t walk, or use crutches, but we still made a program for how she could move. There’s always something—some kind of movement that you’re going to love.”
“There’s always something—some kind of movement that you’re going to love.”
Sylvia has witnessed fitness transform over the years with one of the biggest shifts being the move to online fitness. She now leads her own online platform, People Gonna Move, and teaches fun and accessible fitness classes with Movement. Her transition into online teaching happened while leading Retro-Fit, a throwback to her early YMCA days, at Tight Club in Vancouver. The fun, retro-aerobics-inspired class was an instant hit and during the early days of the pandemic, she started teaching it online as a way to help others release, move, and connect with an online community during those challenging times.
“Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be teaching online!” Sylvia says. “My whole thing is running around, being in peoples’ faces, encouraging them, laughing, sweating. I think one of my biggest things is interactivity.” But Sylvia found that she could connect with a wider group of people, and brought the uplifting energy she’s known for into a flexible, adaptable format.
The foundation for her fun, exuberant approach is Sylvia’s decades of experience and expertise. She holds certificates from the Functional Aging Institute and the American Council on Exercise, and she’s constantly self-educating through webinars on fitness and exercise science.
“I’m aging, we are all aging,” she says. “I’m very aware of the potential for injury, people’s contraindications. I have students who are 68, 75—I have one student who took classes with me back in 1982. She was still active, but after coming back, she’s just transformed. Body composition, strength, confidence. It can’t get more rewarding than that.”
Beyond movement and music, Sylvia has a gift for bringing people together.
“Last fall, in Montreal, I rented a studio in the same building where my gym was in 1983,” she shares. “I got the old gang together, we taught a class, then went for dinner. Many people have told me back then was one of the most important periods of their lives, that it shaped their practice and their attitude towards movement. It was a joyful, crazy, experimental time.”
Sylvia brings that energy to her online classes whether it’s Grapevine, a fun retro 6-minute cardio explosion of fun, or Chair Creativity, a strength and mobility class where she turns a chair into a novel prop to rocket-jump off of. Sylvia’s passion for creating inventive, accessible, and fun classes combined with her vivacious self telling the viewer to ‘groove it out’ and ‘make it more dramatic’ is the ultimate in feel-good movement. Sylvia says her biggest wish is just for people to keep moving, and we can’t agree more.
Visit the Classes by Sylvia collection to start moving today.