Soaring Above All – Dee Durfee and Maria Choochkeh


Michelle Bright, Writer


Dee Durfee graduated from Northern Illinois University and has been teaching yoga and Zumba for the past 14 years. She discovered she wanted to teach during a high impact aerobics class.

“I remember the light bulb going on in my head,” Durfee said. “I asked the front desk that same day on who to contact to become an instructor. A woman named Paula took me under her wing and led the way for me to get in house training through Bally’s. I also received a Primary Group Exercise Certification through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America that same year.”

Teaching fitness was just something on the side, she really wanted to perform since that’s what she got her degree in the performing arts.

“The fitness industry sucked me in because I fell in love with teaching, the excitement of the group exercise and the joy I get from seeing my students and myself improve.”

Being inspired by different aerobic instructors played a role in her decision to teach.

“I felt like teaching would be something fun I could do, choreograph, and perform at the same time.”

Durfee stated she loves helping people, making them smile and laugh.

“Group exercise is also a place where you can make new friends, and feel a sense of belonging,” she said.

Along with teaching at NEIU she works at other places such as corporate gyms and community gyms. In the past she worked for ballet and Pilates studios.

Durfee faced challenges of her own in the group fitness industry.

“Some were surprising. (For example) how verbal you have to be as fitness instructor,” she said. “We have to use our voice in an efficient manner and project while getting our heart rate up.”

That’s not all, making people feel welcomed and safe in the environment while working out also plays a role.She pushed to maintain a healthy relationship with people who attend her classes.

“Students want to see results, because it is such a special relationship between instructor and student it is difficult at times to maintain my instructor position and keep a friendly distance emotionally from students,” Durfee said. “We have to maintain the integrity of our position as a teacher and keep our students responding to the class in a positive, respectfully way.”

Through her struggles Durfee has accomplished many things.

“I used to have social anxiety where I would not want to speak up, give presentations, or tell jokes at parties,” she said. “Teaching threw me in the deep end, I was petrified at first and still get nervous from time or time.”

Stott Pilates Full certification, Les Mills BodyPump Certification, and Polestar Allegro Certification are just a few of her accomplishments.

“I accomplished many things which can be documented on a piece of paper, but I have accomplished so much as a person,” Durfee said. “I am a more intelligent, more well rounded, confident and compassionate as a result of my teaching experience.”

Over the years she has seen an improvement in women’s sports.

“These days there seems to be a sense of androgyny where everything is for everybody and there is much less sexism and less rules of what a female should and should not do,” she said.

In years to come, Durfee would like to get her Masters degree in dance therapy from Columbia College. She wants to teach more yoga classes and obtain a certification in aqua fitness and plan for retirement, although she laughed when she expressed this.

“The key to life is breathing and concentration,” Durfee said.


Maria Choochkeh

Maria Choochkeh is a junior at NEIU and a group fitness instructor who has been teaching for three years. Her love for teaching became evident after she attended group classes at the P.E. complex.

“What sparked my interest in fitness was the time I hit a downfall in my life. It was after I graduated high school I was not satisfied with my body and most importantly my health,” Choochkeh said. “The summer of 2013 I decided to change my life.”

Her love of fitness started the first time she exercised in the P.E Complex. She saw NEIU offered group fitness classes and said, “I was kind of scared to attend one because I wasn’t comfortable with myself and working out as a group.” After some speculation, Choochkeh decided to take a class because it seemed fun and energetic.

“I needed another boost to get into fitness, stay motivated and I thought having an instructor would help,” she said.

After experiencing the classes she decided she wanted to teach. “I fell so in love that I wanted to be the one teaching, eventually I got my certifications and started teaching at Campus Recreation.”

Choochkeh stated her obstacles were speaking in front of a big group of people and multitasking by teaching a group of people that are on different levels of fitness. “All of these were hard at first, but eventually, I got the hang of it, and now it’s a piece of cake to me because of teaching fitness.

Being a woman means being strong, powerful and honest. I love being a leader in any circumstance, bringing up others to show them great opportunities, and not fearing what others or society thinks.”

Breaking into group fitness wasn’t hard for her but she had some advice for society in accepting women in sports. “I believe people should accept the fact gender shouldn’t interfere with anything. Were all equal and should be treated the same,” she said.

In the near future you might see Choochkeh with her own fitness website.

“I see myself spreading health and fitness and having clientele around the world,” Choochkeh said. “I love helping people and that’s what matters to me.”