"Who sent you here?" aerobics instructor/dominatrix Michelle demands to know after the hour-long workout called Whipped. The hard-bodied mistress recently began teaching the class and judging by her puzzled expression, I could tell I'm the first sweaty subject ever to show up in full S&M regalia: a studded leather thong, wrist cuffs, and spiked dog collar.
"No one sent me," I fib, drying my sweat and undoing the hardware my drag queen friend, Pussila, lent me. "I've never worn a thong before. I just wanted to check out your class."
There I was self-consciously bare-butted, in the back corner of the exercise studio at Crunch, once among South Beach's most opulent gyms. In better days the club bragged of visits by supermodels and Madonna. Now the frou-frou fitness center (of which I am a member) must work it like a paunchy writer fast approaching 40 to maintain its high-profile image. Earlier this summer Crunch was featured in news snippets around the world because of its striptease-aerobics class. Whipped is the latest publicity ploy.
Like a good fetishist, Michelle, a Cubana-Americana graduate of St. Brendan's Catholic High School, embraces her role as she commands us to squeeze and twist. She wears six-inch heels, a tight black corset, and fishnet stockings. Accessories include a dog collar and riding crop, and her hair is piled high in a power ponytail meant to intimidate.
I play my role, bending over and squatting on cue, hoping not to poke myself with Pussila's deadly dog collar. Meanwhile a University of Miami broadcast student films a segment to be aired on a Coral Gables cable-access channel and a photographer snaps shots of Michelle whipping my butt to be published in some British glamour rag.
We lunge, hop, twist, and lift little weights as Michelle lightly bosses a fortyish condo mom who doesn't understand the command, "Grab your toes." I hope to hear a little crack of the whip hitting damp flesh when the woman fails to do as she's told. But when my Cubana fraulein in Dolce & Gabbana combat boots repeats the order in sweet-toned Spanish, the condo mom quickly obeys.
"What a wuss," I think.
During pushups Michelle crouches low in her tight bodice and places her riding crop at my lips, suggesting without words that I lick the leather. As I grit my teeth, I say to myself: "Belkys Nerey would never do this to get a story." And then, "Perhaps Michael Putney would."
As I writhe on the floor lifting my hips during stomach crunches, I begin to shed my vanilla self-consciousness and feel a certain sense of freedom. I glance at my glistening bod in the mirror, sucking in my paunch and thinking to myself: "Heel, dog, heel!" As I leave, Tania, the striptease-aerobics instructor, begs me to attend her class. Perhaps I will -- if she's lucky.