Becoming a Broadway hoofer was Petra Kolber's dream. But in the mid-1980s, during her first New York audition, the young British dancer realized she'd be lucky to land in the chorus: "I just wasn't as good as I thought." She trotted her bruised ego to this "weird" class called aerobics: "People were dancing and having a great time," she says. "It was an instant fit."
Petra started teaching aerobics, and her classes grew because the women identified with her. "My classes were not about comparing yourself to the woman next to you. I knew how unhealthy that was," she says. "I wanted to break down those barriers."
She started by focusing not on looks but on her students' newfound feelings of strength and energy. After all, she'd had her own problems with body image. As a young dancer, her weight climbed to 170—a number almost scandalous in her profession. "The scale determined who I was," Petra says. "It was so self-destructive. So I made a commitment not to weigh for six months. I focused on enjoying my workouts, and that's when life began to change."
Soon she was making CDs and videos, traveling the world to teach fitness professionals how to keep people motivated. But despite her accomplishments—fitness instructor of the year awards from top organizations and national television appearances among them—she's kept her bearings. "I'm not a surgeon or philosopher," she says. "I do grapevines and bicep curls for a living."
Her grounded perspective comes in part from cancer. She's a two-time survivor: a melanoma scare was followed in 1999 by a diagnosis of Hodgkins lymphoma. "Living with cancer brought me into the present," she says, now cancer-free. "I started saying no to things I didn't want to do. I read more. I went to Tai Chi in the park."
And those things, at the end of the day, mean more than top-billing on Broadway, Petra says. "Did I help someone lead a better life? My purpose on the planet is to recognize—and share—what a gift we have in health."