Originally published in July 2017
If you want to know what “fit” looks like, meet Brenda Kokenge.
The lifelong East Valley resident has been teaching Jazzercise in the Yakima Valley for 35 years, and she is the defining image of a fitness instructor.
Five-foot-3, 114 pounds and all muscle, the 57-year-old Kokenge exudes boundless positive energy as she guides eight classes a week through a series of choreographed routines.
She has been a licensed Jazzercise instructor since graduating from Central Washington University in 1982, perfecting nearly four decades’ worth of dance moves.
But don’t even bother to ask if she’s slowing down.
“I’m so fortunate to have a job I love; not many people can say that,” said Kokenge, who holds weekly classes at YAC Fitness, the Yakima Athletic Club, Achieve Fitness and the Harman Center. “I’ve been doing it forever, and I want to keep doing it for a lot longer.”
Teaching Jazzercise is the only job Kokenge has ever known, starting up her business two months after earning her education degree from CWU. Her former instructor, Janie Gilmore, encouraged her to take a workshop and Kokenge was sold from day one.
“I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do full time,” she said.
In the early years, she taught in Carpenter Hall, Terrace Heights Elementary, the Yakima Athletic Club, among others. She has been with YAC Fitness in Terrace Heights for the past 20 years, and has been at the Harman Center for 12.
Kokenge estimates that 80 percent of her clients are seniors — most, but not all of them, women — making the Harman Center an ideal stop on her weekly Jazzercise tour of Yakima.
“I’ve always attracted older folks because I don’t have many evening time slots,” she said. “One of the things I love is the rapport I’ve been able to build with my customers. Some of them have been coming here since day one, but we also see a lot of new people. That’s motivating for me.”
Kokenge wants to dispel the notion that Jazzercise is an outdated 1980s fad. If anything, it has been building momentum.
She says Jazzercise is huge around the country, with more than 8,000 instructors and 32,000 classes a week.
“Some people don’t know we’re still around, but Jazzercise is stronger than it’s ever been,” Kokenge said. “I mean, if I wasn’t teaching, I would want to be out here doing this. You’re getting cardio and strength training, pilates, yoga.
“People think we’re just out there dancing around, but you’re hitting every major muscle group and doing it in a way that’s safe and structured. It has really evolved over the years.”
Kokenge says that as a franchise owner, she receives new routines every 10 weeks. She is always introducing new formats, music and routines, hoping to maintain a fresh appeal for her weekly visitors.
With her roster continually growing, Kokenge knows something is working.
“There’s so much competition in Yakima right now — 25 clubs — so for Jazzercise to be competing with that really says something about what we offer,” she said. “Yes, it’s a workout and it’s not easy. But the main thing is it’s fun.”
It only takes a few moments with Kokenge to feel her genuine love for Jazzercise and fitness.
Her youthful exuberance extends beyond her classroom, and she says the constant movement and strength training keeps her body fit for downhill skiing and water skiing.
Best of all, she gets paid to do what she loves.
“This isn’t just a hobby; it’s my business,” she said. “But I’ve been able to make a pretty good career out of it, and I appreciate all of the loyalty in the community that has helped me get this far.”