New York — You can tell it's not an aerobics class: no Spandex suits. It's not a game show, either: no Vanna White facsimile. So why is a woman dancing in place, holding both of her host's hands, and yelping answers to rapid-fire questions?
Welcome to self-improvement, the Dale Carnegie way.
Some people view Carnegie's gung-ho teachings skeptically: lessons in overnight success through insincere flattery.
But after 74 years, these goodwill-breeds-success ideas are finding a ready audience in a young, career-minded generation weaned on such offerings as ``The One-Minute Manager.''
Last year, a record 137,000 individuals (or their companies) plunked down $350 to $850 each for a Carnegie course. Indeed, Carnegie's ``How to Win Friends and Influence People,'' the half-century-old Simon & Schuster best seller, stands as the Magna Carta for this and hundreds of subsequent self-improvement books and courses.
Dale Carnegie & Associates, based in Garden City, N.J., now orchestrates classes in 68 countries, offering half-a-dozen business sales and management courses. Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca and many other Fortune 500 chief executives rank among its graduates.
But the primary draw remains the ``Public Speaking and Human Relations'' class, first taught to Manhattanites by Mr. Carnegie in 1912.
``Am I alone in here? I want to hear it with enthusiasm!'' yells Carnegie instructor Bob Hower.
It's just after 6 o'clock on a Monday night, Session 8 of a 14-week course, and Mr. Hower (by day, a J.C. Penney marketing manager) is stoking the fire beneath two dozen students (mostly aged 25 to 40) stuffed into a small classroom in a midtown skyscraper.
``Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until the good is better, and the better is best,'' shouts the group in unison - between jumping jacks and jogging in place.
After warm-ups, Hower moves briskly into tonight's first assignment: a one-minute talk designed to develop the students' ability to describe a technical aspect of his or her life or job.
Cindy, a Chemical Bank employee, bounds to the front of the room first. She zips through a spiel on how to care for contact lenses.
Peggy, just setting up her own dental clinic, follows with a blurb on ``Why you need a root canal.''
Everyone has a turn. Some are more polished than others, but there are no major gaffes.
Each talk is punctuated with loud words of encouragement (``Great!,'' ``Uh-huh!'' ``Excellent!,'' ``Sure!'') from instructor Bob standing in the back of the room.
``It's a little rah-rah sometimes,'' comments Adrienne, vice-president of advertising sales at Whittle Communications. ``But it's effective. I've sold ads for 10 years. I've taken courses with some of the best, and I haven't been disappointed here.''
She says the course is a good refresher for her sales presentations. But she also says that the ``most tangible benefit is that the principles have given me a calmness enabling me to be better in all aspects of my life.''
John, a computer programmer at American Express Bank, dubious initially, now praises the program.
``The first night,'' he says, ``I was looking for the back door. I was really nervous. I'd taken a public speaking class at college. It didn't do me any good. I am learning how to speak here. But I'm finding the human relations principles are becoming more important to me than the public speaking.''
He explains: ``I understand people better. Before, I always thought about myself, what I wanted out of a relationship. Now, I'm learning how to be more concerned about other people. It's helping me in and outside of work.''
During the second half of the evening, students give two-minute testimonials about applying Carnegie precepts.
John recounts his unhappiness (sluggishness, he says his boss called it) with his job. But he sets a goal of approaching his work with new enthusiasm - one of the Dale Carnegie tenets.
As an incentive for meeting deadlines, John rewards himself by doing something he truly enjoys: exploring a new computer system.
As a result, he's ahead of schedule, and he recently landed an assignment designing a data base for the new computer system.
From computer programmers to mothers, company presidents to Wall Street analysts and college students, one can't help being impressed as each confidently stands before a group after seven classes and glibly cites Carnegie-inspired progress (from promotions to overcoming procrastination) in two-minute talks.
``The change in people has been incredible,'' notes Adrienne. ``You could just feel the sweaty palms when we started.''
The game-show enthusiasm is part of the self-confidence building process.
Hower explains: ``Fear prevents us from succeeding. I think it's fear, more than laziness, that we're chipping away at here.''