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EXHALE

By Robin Hamilton
EXHALE

A profile of Leslie Salmon Jones

In her career as a wellness coach, Leslie Salmon Jones (left) combines a love of fitness borne out of a life spent dancing, an awareness of the importance of healthy living fostered by her father’s work as a surgeon, and a connection to the importance of maintaining one’s inner tranquility. (Photo courtesy of Errol Grimes Dance Group)
After years as a professional dancer, Leslie Salmon Jones tried her hand at acting and modeling, eventually securing a deal with Reebok to become the first woman of color to work as a print model on contract for the successful athletic company. The experience led Jones to the next phase in her career — becoming a fitness instructor and wellness coach.

To watch Leslie Salmon Jones glide across the floor is to witness a dancer’s grace, an athlete’s speed and a healer’s spirit. Jones says she wears all of those hats for one reason.

“No matter what tool or method,” she explains, “I love helping people find their strength and their purpose. That’s what my purpose is. That’s why I believe God put me here.”

On this evening, Jones is leading an Afro Caribbean dance class at Springstep in Medford. The classically trained dancer and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater veteran teaches the class one night a week. Though she is a seasoned professional, it’s only a small part of what she does.

“OK, you got it!” she shouts to several students, now out of breath after trying to imitate her quick footwork.

Jones laughs and, despite their frustrated grimaces, the students laugh with her. She calls fostering such good humor one of her goals.

“I want to teach people how they [can] carry themselves through life and make that mind-body connection,” she says.

Jones, who came to Boston after spending years in New York, has parlayed her attention to that connection into a successful career as a wellness coach and health expert. In her work, she draws from her lifelong experience in the arts, fitness training and professional modeling.

Early in her career, Jones traveled around the world as a dancer. The art has been her passion since she was young; for years, she studied with her aunt, Marjorie Sorrell, an accomplished ballet teacher who owned a well-known dance studio in Jones’ hometown of Toronto. At age 13, Jones’ aunt took her to New York City to spend the summer training in dance. Jones says that experience inspired her to dance professionally.

Back in those days, she could only dream of performing with the Alvin Ailey troupe.

“I was in love with the spirit of the company and what it represented,” she says.

In addition to her love of dance, Jones has also long had a passion for health. The interest was only natural — and it picked up in intensity when she spent her summers working with her father. Orphaned at a young age, Dr. John Douglas Salmon would grow up to become Canada’s first black chief of surgery, as well as one of the first surgeons to perform a gastric bypass on a morbidly obese patient.

“I would listen to his patients’ stories of struggle and hardship when it came to their health and wellness,” Jones says.

Jones says that both of her parents were excellent role models. Though they lived in a primarily white and privileged Toronto neighborhood, the importance of humility was always emphasized, she says.

But she admits that she sometimes lost her footing in her late teens and early 20s.

Divided between what it meant to be black and the reality of her upper-class upbringing, Leslie says she didn’t feel fully accepted by all of the people in her neighborhood, or by blacks in surrounding, less affluent towns. As she searched for her true identity, she found herself associating with people who tested her values.

“I lost sight of what was important to me,” she says.

Her guiding light then was the foundation that her parents established for her and her three siblings, Douglas, Warren and Heather.

She saw her mother, Beverley Salmon, work as a community activist, human rights commissioner and politician. That commitment to community service would later inspire Jones to get involved in teen mentoring, become a member of the board of Free Arts for Abused Children in New York and work as a consultant on the New York Knicks’ healthy lifestyle clinics for at-risk youth.

“I saw my mother fight for us,” she recalls. Seeing her parents’ strength of character helped her when she tried to find her own path: “I saw how you have to pull yourself up when … others are trying to drag you down.”

Another of Jones’ aunts, Stevella Concepcion, encouraged her to take a look at who she was, as well as what type of people she was allowing into her life.

“My aunt taught me the power of prayer and gave me a mantra to repeat: ‘I, Leslie, will not let a person, place or thing ruin my inner tranquility,’” Jones says.

Slowly, Jones began making healthier decisions.

“I started drinking a lot of water, taking care of myself and dancing … something [in] that resonated with me,” she says.

By tapping into that love of dance, she regained her focus and accomplished her childhood dream — auditioning for, and being accepted into, the Alvin Ailey company.

Living and dancing in New York, she found the work rigorous, but rewarding. It also led to other opportunities, like winning a scholarship to the London Contemporary Dance School and working with greats such as dance legend Judith Jameson, jazz icon Wynton Marsalis and famous comedian Bill Cosby.

After years of dance, Jones says she still enjoyed performing, but decided it was time to try some different things. She tried her hand at acting and modeling, and the resultant exposure generated another opportunity — a booker sent pictures of her to Reebok for consideration in a fitness campaign. The executives liked what they saw, and Jones became the first woman of color to work as a print model on contract for the Canton, Mass.-based athletic company.

With Reebok behind her and community activism in her DNA, Jones used her new platform to reach out and mentor young women about a number of self-esteem-related issues. She also started to focus more on the business of being fit.

Jones says she recognized a niche for health and wellness in the city, which led her to attend New York University to study the health sciences. While there, she became a certified fitness instructor and later earned a bachelor’s degree in dance and health sciences from the State University of New York.

After school, Jones landed a job as a co-host and fitness expert on the cable television channel QVC for two years, then took a leap of faith and opened a fitness studio in Manhattan. While her personal training efforts were helping clients get fit, she earned certification as a wellness coach, aiming to extend her practice beyond the gym and provide a more holistic approach to improving one’s well-being.

Stretching herself professionally would also mean a change of scenery. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Jones and her husband Jeff, a Boston native, decided to spend more time developing a Boston real estate business and strengthening their local networks.

Jones quickly tapped into the city’s holistic community. Once in town, a chance meeting with a masseuse named Mikkie Harvey helped her get in touch with prospective clients who wanted to get in shape in a fitness regimen that engaged the mind and spirit as well as the body. She started to craft her own wellness business with the goal of overall life improvement: “It’s [about] focusing on what you do have and cultivating that within you, so [that] you can be your best you.”

The approach has worked well for Jones. Today, she says she sees as many as 60 clients per week in a variety of settings — personal training sessions, her fitness and wellness coaching, core conditioning classes that she teaches in Lexington, Mass., the Afro Caribbean dance class in Medford, and a strength training class for “We Can Row,” a wellness and recovery program for breast cancer survivors. She also gives seminars and workshops on childhood obesity, self-esteem, energy management and a number of other wellness topics.

While she is reluctant to say which of her many professional activities she likes best, Jones says her one-on-one sessions can be very fulfilling.

“When someone has one-on-one, they want accountability, someone to push them,” she explains. “But I don’t want them to be dependent on me. I want them to have the confidence to do it on their own.”

Jones recently produced two fitness DVDs — “Core Strength” for beginners and “Core Power” for advanced exercisers. Given the many health challenges now facing Americans, she says she is more motivated than ever to reach as many people as she can.

“With the rising rates of unemployment, health care, obesity and health disparities, especially among African Americans, it is imperative that people get control of their health,” she says.

One of Jones’ proudest moments as a coach occurred when a human resources company asked her to counsel a couple of very difficult employees, one of whom had engaged in a physical fight at work.

She coached him for three months, eventually helping him to release some buried anger and find his dream — to work as a firefighter. Jones says she believes the sessions helped him gain the strength to leave the job that had left him feeling unfulfilled.

“It’s all about the will, the will to make the change,” she says. “I just hold up the mirror.”

Jones stays centered by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which she shares with husband Jeff, an engineer and musician. She says she is at a place of peace and happiness. You can see it in the way she skips across the floor during the Afro Caribbean dance class, and hear it in the encouragement she offers a few students who get tripped up trying to complete a move.

“That’s OK!” Jones says. “You got it — just keep going.”

Not only is it an attitude that she says is part of her own foundation, it’s also one of the keys to a happier life.

“It’s really the journey and being patient … accepting who you are,” she says. “I really believe in living for my heart.”

This article was featured in the Banner’s premiere issue of Exhale:  Tips for Healthy Living.  For information about Exhale click here.

Come see Leslie live courtesy of the Bay State Banner at the free Health and Fitness Expo, click here for more information