“A lot of times, kids get into a sport where parents have expectations. Here, it’s just a game,” said Alissa Schmelkin, co-founder of the newly opened Gaga Center on the Upper East Side. “You don’t have to live up to standards.”
Gaga may be “just a game.” But played in octagonal pens – though rules can vary, the basic aim is to avoid getting hit below the knee – it offers a high-energy workout that kids seem to love, building endurance and flexibility, according to general manager Avi Gordon.
The Gaga Center – the only such venue in Manhattan – offers coed groups for kids under 7 and for 7- to 10-year-olds. The game – the ball is soft – is well suited toward the littler kids, though their games often devolve into simple passing of the ball.
“Israeli dodgeball” is a misnomer: gaga originated here in the U.S. at Jewish summer camps in the ‘60s, and was brought back home by Israeli counselors. Gordon grew up playing gaga at Camp Givah near Albany. “I actually forgot how good a workout gaga is,” he laughed. An ex-teacher, he recruited the Gaga Center’s five coaches, who spent two months training before the February launch.
Business is already booming, Schmelkin tells me; birthday parties – with DJs – are “exploding.” Schools send groups, and groups of friends sign up together for freestanding sessions, 50 minutes in length.
As an older kids’ session starts, the ball bounces twice. “Ga-ga, then you can hit it,” explained Gordon to the 7-year-olds, who are on the honor system to leave the game when hit below the leg. Ana, in a white t-shirt, poises herself for action as the game starts. A moment later, the ball catches the cuff of her pants. Resignedly she climbs out of the pen, resting her chin in the palm of her hand as she leans on the railing to watch. Within seconds, she is jumping and cheering for her friend.
The six-year-olds in the next ring are having a less rigorous game. “The honor system doesn’t always work,” Schmelkin laughs, as one tyke happily ignores being clipped by the ball and continues playing.
“No expectations” notwithstanding, some kids take gaga pretty seriously. Co-founder Marcy Singer’s son has “gaga knuckles”; he wore gloves to protect his cut-up hands. Classes for teens may be upcoming; at summer camps, the game is often played more aggressively, with harder balls and tougher rules. Gordon enthused that gaga can be great for adults – “as long as you have a good back.”
The Gaga Center is located at 230 E. 93rd St.