An introduction to one of WIN’s first members – she can’t remember when she joined, and definitely way before the current Board and membership – starts with the story of an 18 year old, who won a citizenship award in high school for practicing values of kindness and compassion and used the award money – a princely sum of $100 that allowed her, in 1969 to travel to Florence to visit her sister who was living here at the time.
Laura spent three months in Florence, learning Italian, adding to the French and Russian she learned in high school. When she returned with her husband and son in 1972 for her second stint of 15 months, her love and skills in language took her to Florentine streets, street selling art, her husband’s etchings, at Piazzale Michelangelo, one of the first people to bring art to the visitors of one of Florence’s most beloved landmarks.
Her love for Italian saw her complete her higher education at the University of Minnesota where she learned Italian and was certified as a teacher of English as a foreign language or TEFL. When the family moved back again to Italy in 1977 after she graduated, this time forever, she continued to street sell art, this time full-time outside the Uffizi gallery, where her interactions from her regular and transient customers always led to the question ‘but what do you want to do, for yourself?’
The answer to this question emerged in 1983 when on a visit to the US one summer, she caught up with the then new rage for aerobics, championed by Jane Fonda. Given her love for dance all through her childhood – at one time, she considered choosing dance as her professional career – she decided to bring aerobics back to Italy. Despite the blank looks when she first started introducing aerobics to Florence, renting different spaces to teach classes, it caught on, and in 1984 she opened her own gym Bodyworks, in the Le Cure neighbourhood.
A neighbourhood gym that is still open today, Bodyworks is a success story in today’s world where businesses are transient and don’t last very long in competitive environments. But Bodyworks is a testament to Laura’s deep belief in the importance of human connection as the centrepiece of any business or enterprise. She has seen generations of women go through her gym – little girls who then became mothers themselves of little girls, all coming to the gym to enjoy the different classes and practices that the gym offers. The gym is a centre for the community, and Laura’s kindness and connection to all members is demonstrated in the fact that she offers a variety of options for people who may have financial challenges in sustaining membership of a gym – such as offering exchanges for young students (eg working at the reception in exchange for use of the gym, or classes), discounted membership for migrants from Africa to enable them to keep up their physical exercise despite the insecurity of where they live or how they sustain themselves financially, and countless other ways.
Laura believes that her “rewards lie in helping” as she puts it, not in earning money. She runs classes for senior citizens, helping them improve the quality of life in line with her mission encapsulated in her motto: “Life is an adventure. Train for it”. She believes in giving all her clients the foundational tools to live and experience life to the fullest extent possible.
Laura embodies this motto herself. She has run several marathons and ultra-marathon and was a pacer for the Venice marathon. She participated in the Passatore, a 100 km race from Faenza, running through the night, for 6 years in a row. In 1998 she was listed as one of the top 5 ultra-marathoners in Italy. Her training in Iyengar yoga in India and other practices, led her to write a book on “Stretching for runners’ in the 1990s. She has taught numerous workshops throughout Italy for fitness instructors and physical therapists.
Always ahead of the times, Laura keeps up not only with American certifications for teaching fitness and aerobics, but has branched out to new areas, including receiving high-level training in craniosacral therapy, zero-balancing and massage. She deeply believes that “we are on the planet to learn lessons, to grow and to love’. Through every experience Laura has had in her life, she has found opportunities to renew, grow and give to others. She still loves to hike and in 2019 walked the Via degli dei along the Portuguese coastline as part of the Cammino di Santiago. Numerous hikes and runs over 17 years have kept her fit and agile and in touch with nature. Her heart is in Tuscany, where she enjoys time with her poodle, Mica, and loves travel, reading and stargazing. ‘Life is all about the simple things” she says, ‘and living in Italy teaches us this’.
The writer mentions kindness several times and that is the essence of the Laura Gilbert I have known and loved since I met her at the Uffizi in 1978. She truly loves what she does — and not everyone can say that!
Laura’s life is an inspiration to all, about the importance of connecting within ourselves, to others and to Nature.
I taught dance at Bodywork’s in the late 80’s. It was a fantastic job and Laura was always so supportive and kind. I met such wonderful women there – Anne, Janet, Ulrika, to name a few – who I’m in contact with to this day. The atmosphere within the gym was always positive and welcoming and this was because of Laura. Thank you Laura for giving me the opportunity to develop and grow as a teacher and for the friendships I made there.🥰