Eat to the Beat

The Buns of Butter program helps America melt the weight -- and the weights.

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Kristen Baumlir, pumping calcium in her Moreland Hills gym - Walter  Novak
Kristen Baumlir, pumping calcium in her Moreland Hills gym
Like any red-blooded American, Kristen Baumliér drank beer while keeping fit. During her leg lifts and arm curls, she'd sip from a cold brewski to prevent dehydration and sweat to the tunes of her favorite postpunk bands.

But being the constructive type who pushes limits, Baumliér wasn't content with just guzzling. So she started pumping 40-ouncers, then graduated to five-pound tubs of ice cream, fusing the link between calories and calisthenics.

Greased by dairy products and fermented hops, the wheels started spinning. Why waste precious energy idly avoiding fatty foods, she wondered, when you can work out with them and lose weight at the same time? Plus, by incorporating everyday comestibles -- such as cheese blocks and potato chips -- into your fitness regimen, rather than Stairmasters and Life Cycles, you can save money.

So she hired a team of dancers in sequined shorts, sought the services of a lawyer/welder, and made a video. And a way of life, or at least an inventive inclination, was born.

"It starts with a warm-up," says Baumliér, explaining her Buns of Butter workout, which includes such cream-filled cardiovascular selections as the Donut Spin and the Cheesecake Pass Pushup. "The ice cream jump -- that's when you're jumping over tubs of ice cream -- it's very, very high intensity. Then there's sit-ups and the Beer and Brat Cool-Down -- you're wiping your brow with your beer and bratwurst -- at the very end."

Currently on an extended tour of the Midwest (she's lives in Moreland Hills and spent time in Iowa City), Baumliér was born in Milwaukee, "where they drink the most beer per capita and have the most taverns." Her workout, in some respects, is sort of a tip of the bottle to her crocked hometown. The Beer and Brat Cool-Down, with its jubilant cries of "Beer on Belly!" and "Brats on Belly!" and jerky funk movements, incorporates straight-from-the-freezer delicacies found in any industrial-size fridge.

But her workout's appeal is not restricted to the plaid-shirt-wearing masses. When she performs Buns of Butter in Cleveland on June 10 at the Center for Contemporary Art, she'll introduce the Butter Shake -- a routine in which dancers pour whole cream in a jar and shake it up to make butter, in honor of the city's cellulite sensibilities.

"I think it takes about seven minutes," she says. "So we'll probably do a short workout, and I'll probably get the audience volunteers to shake it up during the Butter Butt Shake"-- another routine, which involves working out your "buttorial region" by inserting five pounds of butter in a customized holster made from clothesline.

"I like to use local food," Baumliér says of her live routines, noting that, for a performance at the Iowa State Fair with the Buns of Butter Dancers, she introduced the Corn Dog Relay. "It's sort of like a relay race, but with corn dogs instead of batons," she says. "You'd pass off, wait, and then you'd pass off again.

"We were also going to do a cool-down dance with cotton candy, but when I turned around to get the cotton candies, they had melted into a pink goo."

A real crowd-pleaser is the Donut Spin, in which the dancers twirl frozen chocolate doughnuts on dowel rods as they run in place. For the fair, with temperatures hovering in the hundreds, Baumliér changed that routine to the Onion Spin.

Rene Paine, who used to work with Baumliér at the public access cable channel in Iowa City, enjoyed a short tenure as a Buns of Butter dancer, wearing the regulation uniform of a T-shirt with a Blue-Ribbon Butter logo silk-screened on the front, teeny gym shorts "like Richard Simmons wears," and knee-high tube socks. During a public performance of the Donut Spin, Paine and her boyfriend got into a sword fight with the dowel rods and ended up eating the doughnuts mid-spin.

"Kristen performed at a bar in Iowa City, and people were really getting into it; they were hooting and hollering," Paine recalls. "They thought it was a crazy performance-art piece. But the people at the state fair, I think a lot of them were really kind of stunned. Like "Is this for real?'

"They were used to seeing legitimate state fair acts. Kids singing and things like that. So they probably didn't know what to make of it."

Raised in "America's Dairyland," where billboard images of cheese wedges pepper the horizon, Baumliér nonetheless came from a home where stuffing one's face was not encouraged.

"My family is a very fat-conscious family," she says. "Maybe a little too much so. Like, we never ate butter. My dad was overweight when he was a kid, and about 15 years ago, he stopped eating potato chips and cheese and that, and slimmed down. So my parents look young, and my whole family has this thing about looking good."

An artist with a reputation for humor and social commentary, she started giving public performances when she was a child, gluing ceramic tiles to the soles of her shoes to make taps and putting on magic shows for her bored brother and his friends. She exercised her Gene Kelly genes again, after she earned an MFA in textiles from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1994, with the splattery Rainpuddle Tapdance on a drenched street in California and the muffled Wisconsin Snow Tapdance performance in a big snowdrift in Milwaukee.

But her family was most proud of her when she ran track in high school. "They'd always talk about how our family prides itself on being fit," she says. "It's a little bit weird, but I can deal with it."

Knee problems inspired her to rethink her obsession with exercise and ultimately incorporate her beer-swilling into Buns of Butter. Since she was living on a farm in Iowa at the time, she first experimented with farm-related themes, such as shot-putting pumpkins and designing an exercise machine that lifted bales of hay.

"But the thing with food seemed the most poignant for me, the most ironic," she says. "And also the idea of a workout using the kinds of things you have in your house."

Depicted in her workout video at the grocery store, shopping for supplies, she stresses improvising. If you don't have the Sara Lee for the Cheesecake Pass Pushup, stuff a TV dinner down your pants and jump around -- a stunt she does in the video, with the help of smiling brother and sister workout team Ned and Kate Wiese.

"I always talk in the video about using whatever you have," she says. "Like in the Pizza Spin, if you have leftover lasagna, you could spin lasagna."

The Pizza Spin, which involves a lot of pivoting and tossing, is rarely performed anymore. "Pizzas are really expensive, and the pizzas fall on the floor and I can't eat them."

The rest of the food she refreezes and eats later -- if the dancers don't get to it first.

"I like to have them nibble on the food during the routines," she says. "I want them to be fresh. That's part of the show, and that's part of everyday society. I do the workout, but they can stop and take a break and take a sip of beer or nibble on a doughnut."

Joe-Jack Kaye is not only a Buns of Butter dancer, but also Baumliér's lawyer/welder. He's helped her with some legal paperwork and welded a "cheese kick contraption," for the Cheese Kick routine, a takeoff on cardio kickboxing in which Baumliér kicks a block of cheddar encased in a metal holder with springs.

"The rules aren't too strict," says Kaye, who will be shaking butter in Cleveland this week. "Usually, I drink one of my two beers, and yes, the beers explode when you open them," providing another quick cool-down.

Inventing exercises like Kick Your Own Butt and the Hoova Loova -- and recording self-referential theme songs to go with each routine -- Baumliér was something of a cult hero in Iowa City. There, she hosted a kids' program in which she talked into bananas and held cereal races to see who could eat a bowl of cereal the fastest, spun thrift-store 45s on a radio show called The Scratchy Record Show, and played the ukulele to cows.

"I play bass, but I really don't think I'm a bassist anymore," she says. "I feel more like a ukulele player."

Buns of Butter aired frequently on Iowa City cable access, against a backdrop of sewn-together tablecloths and winged sticks of butter that drop from the sky during the Butter Butt Shake.

"They're kind of my main symbol," she says of the flying butter. "I don't know what they mean. I just like them."

Plans to air the workout in Cleveland are unformed, since Baumliér just moved here last August.

"I want to take the format to different places," she says. "I'm excited about my music, and I'm excited about Buns of Butter. Actually, I want to make this whole gym, with a little fridge where they could do the Ice Cream Lift. And then I wanna have these exercise bikes with different themes." She's already made a "Western" bike with leather holsters on the sides and a red button that, when you push it, plays a little song about getting fit and going west.

Though Baumliér dreams of someday taking her show to the American Dairy Council, for now she'll have to settle for state fairs. Making the cut in Iowa wasn't hard, she says; you just have to run with the right crowd, so you know when the tryouts are.

Luckily, she had connections, having won a ribbon for her "Spicy Tuna Dish" at the fair a year earlier. "I didn't make it too hot, though, because I wanted to win." She videotaped the awards ceremony, and she's working on a theme song to go with the recipe.

"I'll probably have a verse that changes, and then a refrain. Something like "I'm going to the state fair, don't know if I'm gonna win.'" If she doesn't, she can always use the leftovers.

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