It’s a Sunday afternoon and instead of reading a newspaper in bed as usual, I’m heading to an art gallery in Norwich, dressed in my running gear. I am attending a free event where, I am told, art and exercise collide. I arrive, as instructed by a website, on the grass outside the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a colossal Norman Foster building made of reflective glass and the destination for a flash-mob-style workout called a “slet”. The exercises hail from a traditional Czech youth gymnastic movement called Sokol and, says the website, will be energising and fun.

I walk over to a couple who are milling about, looking just as lost as me. “I looked up Sokol on Wikipedia,” says 19-year-old Joseph Murray who has come from Suffolk with his girlfriend, “and this picture came up of people in vests and shorts doing communal exercise and it looked really funny.”

About 40 people have shown up to take part on this sunny day: young and old, men and women. Before there’s any more time to ponder what lies ahead, organiser Felicity Croydon booms through a megaphone: “Hi, I’m so glad you could come. Can you all stand on the coloured markers? We’re about to start.”

Part exercise routine, part social event, these slets are jointly organised by south London artists Caroline Jupp and Croydon (who is also a trained dancer). “Last spring,” says Jupp, “we went to the Barbican Centre and, without asking permission, performed a pilot slet on the grounds outside it. Only a few people turned up and it was a really cold day, so passers-by just looked at us like we were mad. Then we did another slet outside Brockwell Lido in south London, earlier this year.”

The idea for setting up slet events in the UK emerged two years ago, when Jupp, who specialises in social and community-based art projects, attended the Modernism exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum. The show featured images of people from the Czech Republic exercising together in a slet, in the early 1900s. The word “slet” means “a flocking of birds” and was used to describe the mass exercise displays, which were a part of the Sokol movement. Gymnasiums would come together and perform synchronised routines in the open air, highlighting the benefits of outdoor exercise.

“After the exhibition I wanted to know more so I went to the British Library, looked at books and found an amazing Czech archive,” explains Jupp. “There were fantastic photos of these characters wearing hats with falcon feathers, because ‘sokol’ means falcon, a symbol of courage.”

Jupp saw slet as an antidote to today’s culture of fitness where people scurry to the gym, hit the running machine and don’t talk. “I really hate that,” she says and so, keen to revive a old tradition, she decided to instigate a slet revival. She and Croydon pored over archive footage and stills to work out the synchronized routines. Then they mixed in some traditional keep-fit moves such as “half [jumping] jacks” to make it more accessible. “The traditional slets were all about exercising en masse and the beautiful shapes everyone made together,” says Croydon. “So I had to think carefully when arranging the routines, because there are lots of things which you just can’t do en masse because they don’t create the nice shapes I saw in the footage.”

The duo wanted the venues for each slet to reinforce a sense of wellbeing – they had to be light, spacious and, most importantly, outdoors. “I chose sites with new or modernist architecture, because they reinterpret modernist ideals of that time, which connected architectural light, space and openness with health,” says Jupp.

“We’re going to start with a basic stretch,” says Croydon, balancing on the mini podium. “Then we’re going to make a magpie,” she adds. The magpie involves a star-shaped stretch before bending down to touch our shins, then another star stretch before bending down again, this time making a diamond shape with our hands between our legs. Once the group masters that, we split up to create an inner and outer circle, jogging fast in opposite directions and changing when our leader claps her hands. I feel like a child in the playground and am soon giggling with the rest of the flock, who have quickly transformed from total strangers into my friendly exercise buddies. We’re falling all over the place and there are frequent near misses as people don’t change direction quickly enough.

“Keep your knees high and stop chatting,” shouts Croydon. We laugh some more.

Next, it’s the dove (all the exercises have bird names), which involves – gasp – partner work. We jog, then stop and face each other at arms length and swing alternate arms back and forth seven times, ending with a high five. My partner is Lithuanian and speaks very little English, but she gets the routine spot-on while I’m so bad at it that I burst out laughing again. Success in this routine is down to hand-eye co-ordination, which is not my strong point. Plus the wind (a welcome alternative to the air conditioning inside a gym), while refreshing, is so blustery that its almost pushing me over. Still, wind resistance means harder exercise.

We move on to some military marching in rows. “It feels a bit like barn dancing,” says 20-year-old Eleanor Mortimer. A few more bird-shaped stretches follow, and we are all (more or less) synchronized, arms extended while we turn 360 degrees as a group.

“Stretch up to the sky,” says Croydon. I follow obediently and marvel at the blue sky and the sun shining between my fingers.

“One of the best things about teaching outside,” says Croydon, ” is that you’ve got the sky to look at, the grass to touch and the trees in the distance, whereas in a studio you have to create visual pictures for people to imagine. Also, people seem much happier – each time we do a slet, I have these faces grinning back at me.”

We finish after an hour and nibble on fresh orange segments, discussing the slet. I’m out of breath and my arms ache, but Susan Avenal, another participant who is a self-professed fitness fanatic says: “That was more like a gentle warm-up.” She might not be so impressed, but I’m glad to have got out of the house and had a dose of vitamin D. The British Heart Foundation says that 30 minutes of the jogging and vigorous marching we did today are exactly the type of pulse-raising exercises they recommend to strengthen your heart and help with weight control.

Stretching exercises (such as the magpie), are beneficial too. “Stretching helps to align the muscle fibres and keep the tissue healthy,” says personal trainer Annabel Arkwright. “It improves flexibility, mobility and can be used to correct postural problems.” Walking away, I pin on my new slet badge with pride and go home to check out the time and location of the next one.

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