NEW YORK — There are people who obsess over working out, and there are those who take Derek Mitchell’s videography classes at Crunch. Mitchell’s moves, set in time to, say, Janet Jackson or an up-tempo J.Lo groove, inspire the kind of devotion usually reserved for religious leaders or the pop stars themselves. After all, though 80 people may show up for his class, only 55 get in. Professionally employed fanatics used to send their assistants ahead to wait in line for hours outside his studio until the Crunch management got wise. Now the fans have to go wait in person. But reworking their schedules around Mitchell’s exercise class doesn’t deter his devotees.

So it’s no wonder that when an e-mail circulated a few weeks ago — RE: National Derek Day — announcing his last Manhattan class after two years at the gym, the Derek fans came out in droves. By 7:30 p.m. there were already 15 people waiting at Crunch on Lafayette Street. The class wouldn’t start until 9:30 p.m.

This story first appeared in the August 30, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I’ve scheduled my life around his class,” admits one woman, a psychotherapist. But she can justify the behavior. “I think this is therapy. It’s an incredible stress release.”

Some mental health professionals seem to disagree, however. “Once when I’d taken 24 classes in a row my shrink said ‘I don’t want you to say the words “Derek” or “Crunch” or “videography” for the next half an hour,’” says a landscape designer named Lawton. “So I got a new shrink.”

Mitchell is a bouncy, baby-faced 27 year-old with bright eyes and well-developed musculature. He began dancing at age 7, mesmerized since the curtain went up on “42nd Street,” and hopes to choreograph or direct his own music videos once he’s moved out to Los Angeles, where he’ll introduce videography at the Crunch on Sunset Boulevard in early September. “I just love the medium.”

But pinning down what makes Mitchell’s class so special isn’t easy. It stems not only from his students’ passion for dancing like divas, but the bonds they’ve forged in the community that has grown up around him.

“The phenomenon is insane,” he says with a bemused smile. “My choreography is no better or worse than the other teachers’. But my focus is having a good time and getting to know my students. Here everybody wants to feel like a star and I help facilitate that.”

Ariel, a pretty brunette who rearranged her vacation plans to make it to this last class, and who practices Derek’s dance routines in front of her office’s bathroom mirror at Fox News, hugs him as he passes through the gym. “After September last year I needed an hour not to think about what was happening,” she says. “Derek gave me my sanity back.”

“And he’s cute,” says Ariel’s friend Morgan.

“Yeah,” adds Ariel, “and he’s got a great ass.”

At 9:30 sharp the latecomers are turned away and the lucky ones quickly stow their bags and begin stretching. The music starts — blaring Nelly — and Mitchell springs to life, performing moves that everyone seems to know. They twist on their toes. Elbows snap. Hips jut. Derek moves like he has springs in his sockets. People start to sweat. “Take off your shirt, Derek,” one woman screams.

And that’s just the warm up.

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