Joy Booker draws on past experiences to create cutting edge
fitness and dance studio
By Jennifer van Gundy Special to the Dispatch
Gilroy – If you walk through the doors of Ultimate Cardio in downtown Gilroy you had better be prepared to kick, punch and sway your way to fitness.
Owner Joy Booker has enlisted a cadre of professionals trained in everything from kickboxing to mambo to get her clients in shape. At 29, Booker has created a cutting edge fitness and dance studio by drawing upon her previous life experiences as a police officer, firefighter and EMT. Her unique approach to fitness unites everything from martial arts to dance to yoga, all under one roof.
When Booker moved to Gilroy five years ago she recognized that Gilroy was a city teetering on the “brink of expansion.” A self-styled “city girl,” she decided it was time someone brought a bit of the big city to Gilroy.
“I wanted to do something nice for everyone,” she said. “Something upscale, high-quality, fresh … trendy in a sense.”
At home in her new Monterey Street studio, Booker is surrounded by the fruit of her labor: wall to wall mirrors, beechwood floors, a vaulted and beautifully beamed ceiling and an array of colorful mats, body bars, Pilates rings and exercise balls.
Booker’s easy confidence and career in law enforcement belie the fact that 15 years ago she never could have foreseen the course her life would take. As the youngest of three teen-age girls growing up in a conservative Christian home in San Mateo, Booker had no idea what she wanted to do. Then, at the age of 16, Booker’s contact with a female police officer completely changed the course of her life.
“I saw law enforcement as a thrilling career,” she said. “I kind of had this dream inside but I dismissed it. She really changed my thinking.”
Shortly thereafter, Booker began pursuing her dream of a career in law enforcement. At 17 she began training with a professional kickboxer to learn how to fight. Her trainer was a tough, seasoned world champion.
“He made me bleed, he made me spar with him and he was a big guy. He broke me like that,” she explained, snapping her fingers to make her point.
By 19, Booker had completed her Reserve Officer Training at the College of San Mateo. She began to immerse herself in field-related volunteer work, first as a mediator for the Service League of San Mateo County and then as a jail coordinator for the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center. She then went on the study Criminal Justice at the College of San Mateo.
At this point, Booker’s beeline toward her goal was temporarily derailed. She got involved in a relationship that would prove to be the source of tremendous heartache and great joy all it once.
“It was a rough marriage,” she said.
At 21, Booker broke off the relationship and started applying for jobs and waiting tables. Though her marriage only lasted 2 1/2 years, it did result in the birth of her daughter Jasmine, now age 9.
It was at this point that the rubber met the road in terms of her law enforcement dreams.
“I knew that if I wanted to be an officer I had to get fit,” she said. Booker, who at one point weighed 190 pounds, began working out, first with videos at home and then by taking various fitness classes. Soon her teachers began asking her to sub for them and in wasn’t long before she began teaching fitness classes on her own. All the fitness training was a mere means to an end.
“I had this fire inside of me,” she said. ” I would not quit until I had a job (in law enforcement).”
In 1998 Booker was hired by the Mountain View Police Department. She initially worked as a community officer and then as a field evidence technician, but found she wasn’t satisfied.
“I wanted to carry a gun,” she said.
That desire led her to the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety Correction, which encompasses both police and fire units, where the training is known for its intensity. This was only an added draw for Booker.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.
Booker then spent six months at the Alameda County Sheriffs Regional Training Center.
“It was incredibly difficult,” she said. “It was run like a Marine boot camp. We marched the Marine way, ran the Marine way and did exercises the Marine way.”
One test to graduate was to fight a professional boxer in a two-minute fight after already fighting two other people. Getting knocked down and staying down meant that your time at the training center had all been in vain.
“They told us, if you don’t get up every time you will fail to graduate,’ ” Booker said.
The boxer may have ripped off the bottom of Booker’s lip, but she got up, walked away and eventually graduated. She even received special recognition for her sharpshooting skills with an AR15 assault rifle. She was the only one in her class to earn a perfect score: 300 shots from different angles, dead center in the target.
Booker returned to SDPS where she worked for two years before being forced to walk away from the career she loved. The problem wasn’t the department, the problem was the team of five officers she trained with. Booker had styled herself as a serious female police officer and she said her team members failed to appreciate it.
“My thing was to be the best officer,” she said. “I wanted to be a professional. I didn’t want my femininity to get in the way.”
She prepared herself for the possibility of sexual harassment and she remained silent up to a point. She drew the line when the harassment became physical. Booker’s teammates would take her to dark, abandoned parking lots to “train” her in an unsupervised setting.
“The point was to harass,” she said.
Meanwhile, her teammates were also engaging in civil rights abuses and excessive use of force out on the street. As the pressure mounted, Booker remained stoically silent. Finally, two other female officers in the department gave Booker an attorney’s card.
“(The two female officers) would literally put me against the wall and say, ‘We know what’s going on,'” she said.
The breaking point came after a week in which some sort of “incident” occurred every day.
“During that week I was really buckling down in prayer and facing the reality of needing to leave because my will, my pride, my ambition, everything, was to stay,” she said.
Then, she was accused of falsifying a report and realized her career was coming to an end, so she made the best of her final day.
“When I got back, I put my gun and my badge in the locker and I never went back,” she said.
She did, however, approach the one captain she thought she could trust. An investigation ensued and shortly thereafter the entire department was in an uproar.
Later, one of the officers in her team was arrested by the FBI on 12 federal counts.
Booker, along with three other female officers from the department (one of whom joined at the last minute) filed a successful lawsuit resulting in a $2 million settlement in April 2004. One million dollars went to the attorney and the remaining portion was divided four ways. Booker used her share to pay off the debts she had amassed while she was waiting tables as a single mom in the process of achieving her law enforcement career goals.
When it was all over Booker discovered that even though she was a star candidate she couldn’t find a job in law enforcement because of the notoriety connected with the case. Since she was still teaching fitness classes and had quite a following in her signature class, Cardio Combat, Booker decided it was time to branch out on her own.
Drawing upon all her previous life experiences, Booker took the fragments of a dead dream and created something new. Now she is the sole proprietor of a dance and fitness studio that utilizes everything from Kuk Sool (Korean martial arts) to salsa dancing for the purpose of fitness. The focus of the studio is cardio training and it is a place where you are just as likely to train with a judo master as you are to endure boot camp style training with a drill sergeant.
Why the eclectic approach to working out?
“Keeping the workout fresh and exciting motivates and challenges students to achieve their personal goals,” Booker explained.
On staff at Booker’s new Monterey Street dance and fitness studio is a team of “top notch” professionals and the classes they teach in kickboxing, salsa, Pilates, hip-hop and East Coast Swing are just the beginning. Booker also has on hand a group of guest instructor including such notables as Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero (boxing), Steaphen Fick (European martial arts and sword fighting) and Master Tommy Winston (various types of martial arts).
Despite the array of daunting talent she has amassed, Booker’s instructors were selected because they deliver, not intimidate.
“I get people all the time who haven’t done anything and they feel comfortable here,” she said. “One of the advantages to being the sole proprietor is that I know every person who walks through that door and I can meet their needs.”
Catering to the needs of the individual is at the heart of the fitness philosophy driving Ultimate Cardio.
“(When I teach) I’m not a drill sergeant,” Booker said. “I don’t try to train people to be like me. I try to pick up on what the person needs. Some people don’t need to be pushed, some do. I try to help people meet their fitness goals.”
Booker isn’t afraid to challenge her clients. After all, she has lived the reality that “you have to go through that painful moment to get to the other side. That’s the hard part,” she added, laughing.
Sword fighting is not the most provocative of Booker’s offerings. She also offers a “Body ‘n’ Motion” class to women 18 and older. The class is sexy with the purpose of making women feel at home in their own skin.
“My biggest thing is for women being able to learn about their bodies and feel comfortable with them,” she said. “Self esteem is huge.”
Booker’s described the class as a place for women to feel good about themselves, to feel secure, to let their hair down, laugh, learn how to move and how to listen to music.
“It is very tasteful,” she said.
The motivation behind all that Booker has accomplished is her daughter, Jasmine, a student at Pacific West Christian Academy, who loves to dance and play basketball.
“She’s a great kid,” Booker said. “She has a heart for people. She makes sure that everyone feels okay. She is very wise.”
Even with her busy instructing schedule, Booker is committed to spending time with her daughter. She takes weekends off so they can go to church and be together. Booker knows that she is deeply indebted to her family for supporting her dreams and helping her take care of Jasmine when she was a young, single mom trying to make it on her own.
“My family’s been with me every step of this journey,” she said.
For now, Booker hopes to see her latest venture take off. She is offering free Health and Wellness seminars once a month to benefit the community and come January, she will be adding more classes, including a pole dancing class.
When asked if she plans to stay in Gilroy, Booker laughed.
“Yes!” she said, pointing emphatically to the studio. “I’m just getting started.”