Authentic & soulful reminders of your story
Embrace Dance Fitness instructor and owner, Sammy Jo, reveals the struggles and triumphs of being a single parent whilst embarking upon a new career and launching a business deep in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. A raw and honest tale of dedication and determination!
Suzanne – “Let’s start with when you first started really enjoying exercise…“
Sammy Jo – “It was about 16 years ago now. It all happened when me and my daughter’s dad broke up. She would go to his house for tea a few times a week and I found myself thinking, What do I do now with all this free time?
So I started going to the gym. My cousin worked there and that was the only reason I chose that gym. I started out just in the gym, on the machines on my own with my headphones and I used to look into the classes and think, I’m not sure if that’s for me. I was doing the treadmill, rowing machine, cycling machine and doing my own thing. But then, I started seeing how hot and sweaty they were all coming out, my fitness was getting better because I was doing that other stuff on my own so I thought I’d give it a go.
Someone I knew worked at a different gym and I thought I’ll go to class with them because I know someone then in the class. From then I never looked back. I started going five, six times a week, early morning, if I could, or evening, and then ended up being there more than some of the instructors or doing more classes than some of the instructors!
So when the owner of the gym asked me if I would do my course, it wasn’t something I saw myself doing, it was someone else that saw it in me!”
“So that’s how you started getting into teaching. Okay, that’s really interesting. And so, when you started out, what were you teaching?”
“At the time I was working at Asda because while my daughter was young, they were brilliant. I never missed a school play, sports day, or anything – it was so easy. I started working before she started school all the way up through reception to high school. Dropping Lil off to school, going to Asda and trying to do the classes all in between. At first I did a lot more hours at Asda, and when I started doing all the exercise, I would only do one class. Then as I got busier with exercise classes, I cut down the hours at Asda and then I ended up teaching full time.
The first class I taught was Pound, which is a drumming fitness workout, but to pass the course had to do aerobics, so there’s a little bit of that too, but nothing else. There was no other dream to do anything more. I just sort of thought it was something for me outside of working at Asda and it was easy. Then I started working at about five different gyms all over the place. For the first year I was doing both teaching and working at Asda. I was working seven days a week for the first year and had to take what I could get because when you first go into gyms, you have to take what everyone else doesn’t want. So I was doing Sunday mornings at 07:00, the late classes at 08:00 at night…. I just had to take what I could!
With my first qualification, Pound, I was the first person to bring it to the county so I had had lots of interest. It got me out and about! The more gyms I was working at, the more things I saw and got involved in. People would say, “Will you cover this class”? And I’d give it a go, enjoy it so then would go and qualify. Or I’d do things that I never thought I would, like spinning or something else I never thought I’d try, but just did it as a bit of help and the ball kept rolling.
Now I think I’m qualified in about eight, nine different fitness classes!!! Which is good – different every day!”
That must have been really tough especially having a young child at the same time. You must have been really driven to be working 7 days a week, being a mum and adding in the new training qualifications too?!
“Yeah, it was hard, especially when I was doing the seven days – that used to kill me but exercising didn’t feel like a job. To be honest it still doesn’t – I just come in and have fun.”
“Why is exercise important to you as a mum? What benefits does exercising have for you outside of being a parent?“
“Doing exercise as a mum is hugely important to me. Just to have time on your own, to be you, do your own thing. You’re not just exercising to be healthier and have a longer life with your children, but you’re coming in, you make friends, it’s a place to relieve stress. You can really come in and just do you, get out what you need to get out then go home and be a better mum, because you’ve come in here. It really does improve mental wellbeing, it 100% makes you feel better.”
“Okay. So exercise is important for mental wellbeing. Is it better to exercise in a class environment to feel the benefit? You said you started out on your own, is it better to start that way? Are there more benefits for being in a class?“
“There are a definitely more benefits for going to an exercise class rather than exercising alone – both socially and emotionally, because you talk to people. My gym friends have seen me in more states than my friends have! When you’re at the point of thinking you can’t do something or you want to give up, having those friends to push you is really important. Any exercise is obviously better than none but when you join a class it’s totally different. The endorphins are different, there’s just something special that you don’t get from just going to the gym, putting your headphones on and not looking at anyone.”
“I can’t do the gym solo, I did it for a while but it’s never been a place that I’ve thrived. I found being in a class is more motivating because there’s more pressure on you not to give up. You can’t just walk away when other people are in it with you – you’re not just struggling along on your own.“
“And even if you are struggling, they are, too. You’re all in it together, aren’t you? I did love the gym, but I’d never been in a class before, so I didn’t realise that I needed the classes because at the time I thought the gym was enough.”
“Now your daughter is older, do you find the work / life balance easier?“
“No, as she gets older, I find it more and more difficult. When she was a baby and I was doing those seven days a week, I didn’t feel the guilt that I feel now. I think as she gets older and there are big milestones, like the last day of school, the prom…..they make you realise that the time has gone so quickly and you have so many questions going around your head. Was I there enough? Did I do enough?
Even though things with me and Lil are great and we have a really good friendship, as well as that mum and daughter relationship, because it’s just been us, so we’ve always been quite close. But it’s a different kind of guilt now because she turned 16 in January and I’ve definitely had more mum guilt this year than ever had before. We have lovely days; we spend a lot of time together. But, there’s something that comes with them leaving school.”
“The more mature your children grow they are more aware of you and what you’re doing aren’t they? As they get older, children start questioning where you’re going or when you’ll be back, or why you won’t be there to give them a kiss good night tonight. Having to miss things that they’re doing at school that you’d like to go to because you’re working, brings huge guilt that you’ve missed out doesn’t it?”
“Lucky for me, Asda when she was young was brilliant. I never missed anything. And when I haven’t been at Asda, I’ve been self-employed, so I have never had to miss anything, luckily.”
“Did you ever have to take your daughter to work with you?“
“Yes, when she was younger, she used to love it. She would come to class with me and she used to come to Zumba when she was at primary school. After primary school she started to say no and I didn’t want to push it because I thought if I push it too hard, I would put her off coming. But the older she’s got, the more she doesn’t want anything to do with it.”
“Has exercise gotten you through tough times as a parent, has there been moments where without it, or, without that community, you would really have struggled?“
“Yeah. I do think mental health wise it makes me, see things clearer. Or if I’m feeling frustrated, angry, sad or anything, exercise just makes things better. Sometimes, when I felt anxious if I just put my headphones in and went outside and just did ten minutes of running or went on a long walk or to the gym and did my thing, or came in here (to the Embrace Studio) and did a HIIT session or something it made those things easier to cope with and sometimes those feelings would disappear 100%. It’s definitely helped me with my mental health.”
“What’s your advice for people to keep motivated to keep exercising and not let it drop off?“
“Coming to classes, rather than going to a gym, keeps you motivated because you can find yourself a workout buddy if you need to. You can say, I’ll pick you up, you pick me up. That makes you go because you can’t let someone down? Or saying, yes, I’ll meet you here for that class. Or even finding yourself a workout buddy before you come to classes and then trying everything for the first time together. It really helps to give you that motivation you need.
Some people have lots of motivation and I always look up to those people because it’s really hard to keep yourself motivated. But if it’s something that you love and I think if you’ve got that support, it’s a lot easier.
I try to be the kind of teacher that knows everybody’s name in class. I like to say goodbye to everyone as they leave, have a little chat and to become friends with my clients and enjoy the journey with them. If they’re having tough days or they don’t feel motivated, I hope they are able to come to me and say, I’m finding it hard to come, what do you suggest? What can we do to change it?
I just try and keep things relaxed and fun rather than serious because I want to make the class somewhere people want to come. I want them to think, oh, it’s Thursday, tomorrow, it’s Clubbercise night and I want that to be part of their life so that they get that longer life. Exercise shouldn’t have to be boring and hard, it should be fun and enjoyable.”
“What makes classes at Embrace Dance Fitness great for mums?“
“You’re always going to find someone that you have something in common with when it comes to being a mum in here. 99% of our clients are ladies and I’d say 90% of them are mums. Even before you walk through the door, you’ve got something in common with everybody already! If your kids are driving you crazy and you need to come in here for an hour and forget, they’ll help you with it. All the people in the class are there to enjoy it as well as you. There’s always someone says, “Oh, mine too”, and you can have a chat and vent to them. 90% of them in there are a mum which says a lot!”
“What’s been your biggest struggle with being self-employed and juggling family life?“
“Probably the mum guilt. I love my job and I wouldn’t change it, but the worst thing about my job is the hours I work, unsociable hours, after school, weekends, all the events I have to do, always at Saturday or Sunday. So that is the toughest. It does come with I wouldn’t say sacrificing family time because I try and find it in other ways, but, yeah, it is tough.
When I first took over at Embrace as well, that was definitely one of the hardest times.”
“When did you take over Embrace Dance Fitness?“
“This October (2022) will be my two year anniversary as the owner of Embrace Dance Fitness. Taking over Embrace was like my fitness journey – I was in the right place at the right time. Like when I got asked to do my qualification, that was somebody else seeing something in me that I didn’t see myself.
When I first I started working for Gill at Embrace Dance Fitness, we met because her daughter went to school with Lily. We were chatting in the park one day after school and Gill said, “Why don’t you come and do some classes for me”? My gut just dropped. I thought, “Okay, I’ll come and do Pound, but that’s it”. Because in my head I was thinking, but I’m not a dancer, I’m not a dancer, I’m not a dancer. So I started at Embrace with Gill’s encouragement, she told me, “you can do it, you can go and do your Zumba qualification”. She made me believe in myself a bit more and that maybe I could branch out. Gill was the one that pushed me to go and work with children at school. I never would have thought that I would enjoy doing that, but I love it.
One day I came to Embrace and helped with an open day where we (fitness instructors) all showed our classes for ten minutes each. Here I met Jeni, one of the other instructors, who she runs a company called Fit To Wiggle. Afterwards Jeni pulled me to one side and said, “I’ve been watching you all day. I like the way you interact with the clients, I really want you to come along to the Fit To Wiggle team”.
That has been one of the best things in my whole life and it’s something I never, ever would have done myself. (Fit To Wiggle works with adults with additional needs, running dance classes for groups in Gweek, Helston, Camborne, Falmouth, Penryn). That’s something I never would have done without somebody asking me.
Me and Gill always used to go on dog walks. Instead of coming into the studio and having meetings, we would take the dogs out and just chat on the dog walks. Two years ago she said to me, can you come meet me? This was about eight months after Covid had started and hit in the March. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m losing my job, she’s going to have to close” – I was doing a lot of work at Embrace then and it was my biggest contract, I was thinking what am I going to do? I knocked on her door, she answered the door in tears and that made me think, “That’s it, I am losing my job”.
So we started out on the dog walk and ten minutes in she said, “I’m going to sell Embrace”. I thought, “That is me out of a job then”! Then she said, “I want you to buy it!” So I took Embrace over in October 2020 and we were open for eleven days before another lockdown began. In those first six months, I was only open for twelve days. I was thinking – what have I done?”
“How did you get your business through lockdown?“
“We took our classes online. It was really hard. At one point I was panicking so much about paying the girl’s wages, I thought, “oh my God, I’ve got to do something”. So I decided to do a boot camp. At that point it was our third lockdown; nobody had any money, so I did a two week boot camp at a really reduced rate and had 60 people sign up, which was really good. I just had to pull stuff out the bag, literally to pay the girls. It was really tough.
That was when I had lots of mum guilt as well, because I had just taken over Embrace and I was at the studio all the time. I probably went over a year without paying myself because it was really hard. But it’s all paid off, so I can’t complain. I mean, it was hard for everyone, wasn’t it? And you do what you have to do; luckily we’re still here now.”
“Okay, let’s have a bit of fun. What’s been your biggest parenting fail?“
“It sounds stupid and it sounds really simple, but it’s probably lack of routine for Lils. I’m really scatty. I do things as and when I want to. She wasn’t bought up with a solid routine. I was out working four or five nights a week. So bless her, she just had to be like dragged around with me, like, come on, we’re going here tonight. We’re going here. I’ve got an hour’s class; you’re going to have to come with me. You got to read your book in the corner.”
“I think that sounds like a win not a fail! You demonstrated what hard work is and you taught your child that you have to work and can’t just sit around and expect money to come to them.
“I think no matter how you’ve done it you’d feel bad though wouldn’t you? Even if you think you’ve given someone the perfect upbringing, you probably still find something bad in it.”
“I think you’ve done an amazing job!“
“Okay, one of my biggest fails was when we went to Disneyland for Christmas. It was just me and Lil’s and we missed the aeroplane home because we were on the carousel then we stood in line to meet Mickey Mouse for 2 hours while we were supposed to be on the plane!
She hated me for that and wouldn’t talk to me because we had to go to a little budget hotel and wait the next day for another flight and yes, she absolutely hated me, she was so angry. She must have been about year six then? Yeah, probably about ten and yeah, she was so angry. That was bad. £400 for another flight!! The day before she thought I was one of the coolest mums ever because we were standing in line for a rollercoaster and I’m ringing the school saying “Lily’s really poorly and can’t come to school”, while we’re really standing in line at Disneyland. So one day I’m like the cool mum and then the next day she hates me because we’ve missed the flight because I wanted to get a picture of us!!”
“Top tip for keeping organised?“
“Well, that is one thing I can’t help you with because I’m not organised!”
“You manage to do it somehow!“
“If I didn’t have Stacy sitting in that office, I don’t know how I’d be able to cope.”
“So your advice is to have a personal assistant to stay organised ha?!“
“Yes! She knows everything. I’m the type of person ….. Well – I’ve just handed in my tax bill for two years ago because I’m getting them in so late. I’m late with everything. I need a personal assistant in my life, not just for this place. I need someone to be doing things for me. If something’s got to be in 30 days, I’ll send it in on the 29th. Like, I’m panicking and yeah, I’m always like that. And I still haven’t learnt my lesson, so I can’t even help!!! I’m rubbish!!!”
“What do you do to take care of to take time to yourself and practise self-care outside of exercise?“
“This is one I’m bad at as well. I am so bad. If I’m poorly, I won’t ever go to the doctors. If I’m injured, I’ll let it go on for months. I am pretty bad at looking after myself. If I’m ill, I’ll still come to work. I’m quite shit doing that stuff. The one thing I do really enjoy is every day I get half an hour or an hour out with the dog, no one else around. That’s my head space time. That’s probably my only thing I do that helps me stay sane and my a little bit headspace. But aside from that, I don’t look after myself. I’m pretty rubbish.”
“You are very driven, though, and determined, aren’t you?? You’re working all the time and it sounds like you’ve been working really hard for a long time?!”
“Yeah. If I’m going to say something, I do it and I’ll get it done. I’m good at that. But then I’m one of those people, you know when you’ve got a list of things to do and I think, “okay, I’ve got all that stuff to do, but I’ve signed up to climb a mountain, so I’m going to go and do that and leave that stuff behind”. I’ve done some good challenges in my life and I’ve done lots of things that I’m proud of and stuff.”
“The world would be a better place if?“
“The world would definitely be a better place if people just took time to feel joy. Like when I’m in here at Embrace and I see people lost in the music, dancing like no one’s watching them or when I go to Fit To Wiggle they’ve got no barriers, they don’t get embarrassed, they don’t care what people think. I think more people should be like that. If people were like that, everyone would be much happier. They would be freer with their emotions, more free with just being in the moment. Just let things go, let your guard down. I’ve definitely learned that from being a fitness instructor because you can’t be a person that gets embarrassed in my job.
It takes a hell of a lot to embarrass me now because I’ve done it all in front of everyone. I think if more people just stop caring about what people think, especially when I hear people say “I’ll come to class when I get fitter” or “I’ll come to class when I lose weight”. There’s always something. Whereas if you didn’t have those insecurities or those barriers, you’d be coming to class and enjoying yourself. So yeah, I think if everyone stopped caring a bit more definitely the world would definitely be a better place.”
ABOUT PROJECT MOTHERHOOD
This blog series exists to champion the astounding achievements of awe-inspiring mums. Because the truth is – motherhood is a full time job in itself. It is tough (and rewarding). There is no day off (we’d miss them if there was). There is no escape button (except the toilet – sometimes!). But, we’re in it for the duration and we wouldn’t change it for the world.
And when you throw another job, building a business, career or anything outside of motherhood into the mix – then, life gets a hell of a lot more of a challenge!
Somehow, against all odds, we pull through and get that shit done! Because we need something for ourselves. We need to feel a sense of achievement outside of being xx’s mum. We need to feel a sense of who we were before.
So here’s to you all mommas who are absolutely killing it. You are amazing, you are awe inspiring – you are champions!
Do you know an awe-inspiring mum who deserves the spotlight? Or perhaps you have some useful life hacks or advice to share with other mums in this blog series? If so drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org . They (or you) will even get a few photos in return to say thank you x