Never mind health and fitness, it’s a cool place to meet for business, do your homework, listen to new music, spot celebrities, have coffee with the girls or get the latest weave or manicure. It’s even become a tourist attraction, with tour buses now including it in their stops.
In less than a year, Soweto’s Virgin Active gym, an imposing glass monolith overlooking Chris Hani Road next to Maponya Mall, has evolved into an all-embracing community-cum-lifestyle centre for everyone from toddlers to pensioners and township heroes to curious outsiders.
Such has been its growth and popularity that it even took Virgin Active proprietors by surprise, proving how sorely in need of such a facility Sowetans were, and that this community embraces a healthy lifestyle.
“Our target when we opened last August was 3 800 members. We now have nearly 4 700 members (they stream in at different times). It’s been phenomenal,” says club manager Thabo Pietersen.
It’s not hard to see why, because this 3 400m2 gym has to be the coolest in Joburg.
On the treadmills and stationary cycles – which overlook a swimming pool and then, through floor-to-ceiling windows, a panorama taking in busy Chris Hani Road and Soweto’s two cooling towers – are bodies in a brilliant array of colours, “lumo” being the in thing in gym gear. It’s a spectacular, historically textured vision full of fashionable pops of reds, oranges, greens and blues.
Then there’s the sound seduction. Walk into the place on a busy weekday afternoon and you’re immediately enveloped by the soulful house music being spun by the resident DJ, Tee Kay, a gentle-faced muso who has made an art of “tuning in” to the mood of the day.
“I play hip hop, kwaito, house and jazz. It’s Soweto-specific, and it varies according to the vibes of where we are in the week. I keep it quite chilled on a Monday, for instance,” says Tee Kay, who over weekends is invited by club members to play at their weddings or parties.
He and his DJ booth, adjoining the vast stretching and weight-training areas full of colourful mobiles dangling from the ceiling, is a unique sight, and his music often inspires a break into a brief dance by the gym bunnies as they pass.
“Sowetans like to boogie, so it’s not unusual for people to dance their way to the studio for a class,” laughs Pietersen.
The aerobics studio, meanwhile, is the biggest one of its kind in SA, and popular classes there include Zumba (Latin American moves), Shape Mix (all over muscle toning) and Move (dance combined with cardio exercises).
Interestingly, Pilates – once a fringe exercise discipline focusing mostly on strengthening the core – has also become one of the more popular classes.
For a dash of star power, members can do a Zumba, Move or Spinning class with TV actress-cum-group training instructor Carol Behane.
Celebrities and local heroes trickle in throughout the day, and they include soccer stars, actors and actresses, musicians and DJs. One of the members is Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.
And flashy businessmen often go there to meet, says Pietersen, as next to the Kauai food outlet is a lounge set-up and some tables and chairs alongside a panel containing three flatscreen TVs. It is also a WiFi zone.
So for mothers of young kids, it’s an ideal place to take a coffee break and go online, as the Club-V child-minding facility provides supervised play and a range of “edutainment” options in a futuristic space full of colour. The lime green PlayStation cubicles alone make for an unusual experience.
Older kids often go online on one of the 18 internet stations and do their homework assignments, while mom indulges at the Beauty Palace salon, where she can get the latest weave or braid, a manicure or pedicure.
Most people come here to do some exercise, of course, which in a state-of-the-art gym like this one can be akin to taking the controls of a starship.
All the cardio equipment (treadmills and cycles) has 10 TV channels from which to choose, or you can dock your iPod or insert a memory stick and listen to your own music through earphones while the handlebars pick up your heart rate as you run.
Alternatively you can play games using the touch screen, to stimulate your mind while pumping your muscles.
The Tracker machine, meanwhile, measures heart rate and blood pressure, as well as your body fat and weight, and aside from a training programme, can provide an African and halaal diet plan.
“Instead of queueing at the clinic, our pensioners come in and use the machine to measure their blood pressure,” says Pietersen.
Suffice to say, Virgin Active and the new Soweto Theatre are outstanding examples of what modern, empowered and synergised Soweto is about and where it’s going. And it’s as world-class and on-trend as you’ll find anywhere.
WORKING OUT OUTDOORS ALSO ROCKS
In the three months since it opened, Soweto’s outdoor gym at Petrus Molefe Eco Park in Dlamini, which has 10 sets of equipment that can accommodate 20 people at a time – for free – has proved so popular that plans are afoot to launch more such initiatives.
Tim Hogins from Green Outdoor Gyms, which partnered with Joburg City Parks to launch the outdoor gym in March, says it is seeing “about 100 people an hour” using the equipment. “There is a very high demand. It gets crowded,” says Hogins.
Thus the second outdoor gym opened a month ago in Diepsloot, and plans for more health and fitness ventures are in the pipeline for Soweto, though Hogins is tightlipped about the details.
The equipment at the outdoor gyms consists of exercise bikes, chest and back massagers, elliptical cross trainers, leg-press trainers, parallel bars and pull chairs.
Its primary role is to reduce obesity, a widespread problem in SA.
“Actually people in Soweto embrace exercise and are keen to stay healthy, but now they have attractive facilities, including ourselves and the new Virgin Active, to do it,” says Hogins.
“And we haven’t had any incidents of vandalism. People even come with sponges sometimes to clean the equipment.”