Skipping Town 

St. Louis joins a nascent fitness movement

There's something so familiar about Mary Kay Lane's skip -- that alternating extra hop on each foot, kind of a giddy shuffle. When the skip is over and the participants have gathered at a picnic table, plumes of breath steaming in the brisk air, she 'fesses up: "I was trying to do the yellow-brick-road thing." Of course. Lane, already feeling playful in the midst of an invigorating skip, had simply incorporated The Wizard of Oz into her routine. She was Dorothy, off to the see the wizard. The others were equally caught up in the exercise, some at various times breaking out from the orthodox skip, experimenting with a high-stepping prancing skip or a twirling skip or a backward skip, their faces flushed with excitement.

The first major skipping event in St. Louis was held Nov. 12 at the old Chain of Rocks Bridge in North County. Head skipper Lane, 35, had hoped that most of the 15 people on her mailing list would turn out to skip en masse across the nonvehicular mile-long bridge spanning the Mississippi River near Riverview Avenue and I-270. Lane, a lithe Crestwood housemom and part-time librarian, was a bit nervous: After all, this was her fourth organized skip; participants for the first two, held in city parks, were no-shows. Of course, it takes a few false starts to get a movement chugging under its own steam -- and skipping is an organized movement, in its incipient phase.

The skipping movement started in April 1999 when a San Francisco woman, Kim Corbin, decided that skipping, which raises the heart rate and the spirits, was the perfect exercise for the new millennium. Corbin wants to get the whole country skipping, and she is serious. She works in public relations for a publishing firm, so she knew how to write press releases and get stories placed. As a result, media coverage on skipping for fun and health has been prolific, including outlets such as The Donny & Marie Show, Time, Ms. and Sports Illustrated for Women, all in the last year. When Lane, an avid runner, read about skipping in Fitness magazine earlier this year, she got in touch with Corbin at her Web site, www. iskip.com. "Kim then asked me if I would be the head skipper for St. Louis," says Lane. Right now, 38 other head skippers serve as point persons, organizing skips in American cities and towns in Canada, England and Australia.

Lane says that compared with running, skipping is easier on the joints, although she admits it is "not a very efficient way to ambulate. It does, however, provide an aerobic workout that's also kind of fun. You can't be in a bad mood when you're skipping." Lane assigns skippers to three broad categories: "Some people do it for fitness, and some do it to get that "kid-again feeling,' and some don't do it at all in public, yet they would like to. Those are the closet skippers."

Bob Pashos is a confessed closet skipper. He was one of the six adults and three children who turned out for the Chain of Rocks Bridge skip. "I've been going to Pere Marquette State Park and skipping the paths when no one is around," says Pashos, 44, a computer-repair technician from Wood River, Ill. "I've always wanted to skip more, but I've been afraid of what people would think." Certainly Pashos doesn't have to worry about being ostracized or sniggered at in this group. He is in like company. "I really feel liberated," he remarks after the two-mile skip. "There's such a great feeling that goes with this -- it's kind of a special expression of creativity; it's like letting go. But it is difficult, doing something that most people don't feel comfortable with."

"Yeah, it's kind of putting yourself on the line for people to judge," agrees Barbara Hughes, another skipper who, like the others, came to the event after seeing it posted on the Web site. Hughes, 49, recently got into skipping and loves it. "I work in an office building," she says, "and during breaks, a few of us skip up and down the halls. We really enjoy it. I also skip when I walk my dogs, and they just think it's the funniest thing -- they just crack up."

Dogs are not the only ones cracking up. Not long ago, the E! television channel ran a spoof commercial on skipping. The spot "promoted" a skipping video that caters to all fitness levels and then showed a fat man skipping across his office to get some doughnuts. There is even a cynical Web site, www.bringdown.com, that takes a dim view of the skipping movement and once named Corbin "Moron of the Month."

To Corbin, these digs are simply proof that the movement is taking hold. Judging by the running diary that she keeps on her Web site, it's doubtful that anything short of skipping off a cliff could dampen her enthusiasm: "When the judgment of others is no longer an issue," she writes, "magical things can happen. Your spirit is free to soar and the kid in you remembers what it feels like to believe that anything is possible."

Sunday's event may have been the first interstate skip, Missouri to Illinois and back, although it was not the first bridge skip. In October, the Skippers of New York held a Brooklyn Bridge skip. Twenty adults showed up. Meanwhile, a half-continent away, the view from the old Chain of Rocks Bridge is magnificent, with the Arch and downtown St. Louis off some 10 miles to the south. Lane says it's really OK to stop for a gander. "Skipping is supposed to be fun," she stresses. "Don't worry about the distance. Many skippers walk for most of their workout and add a block or two of skipping to raise heart rate. Some skip for miles at a time, and others skip a few steps to elevate their mood. The way you skip is entirely up to you."

Lane passes out "iskip" bumper stickers to the walkers on the bridge. Some gawk and guffaw at the jouncing group, but others, less inhibited, catch the mood and skip along for a few yards. "You see?" says Lane. "Skipping is a spontaneous outburst, something to do with your body when you're in a good mood."

She's talking about holding regular skips once a month in novel locations. Or maybe she'll take a cue from the San Francisco group, which enjoys happy-hour skips, teetering from watering hole to watering hole. Whatever the location, rest assured -- they will be easy to spot.

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