Belly dancing, beadwork and baking

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Are you ready for your second (or third) childhood? According to British child development specialist Penelope Leach, small children don’t distinguish between playing and learning. And it seems we’re learning from the kids. In classrooms, craft stores, and restaurants, you’ll find women learning things “just” for fun. Whether you want to try Cajun cooking, belly dancing, beadwork or short-story writing, or learn how to purchase fine wine or cheap real estate, there is a mind-boggling array of classes available.

Diane Jorgensen has sampled many of them. In the past five years she’s taken at least 15 classes through Minneapolis Community Education , from one-night stands to eight-week commitments. Her initial motivation: fixing up her fixer-upper. She studied window repair, drywall repair, hardwood floor refinishing, cement repair, stained glass and more.

“But I always took fun classes in between,” Jorgensen noted-though her idea of fun might give some of us pause. There was the kickboxing class: “Oh, man. I always took a nap as soon as I got home,” she recalled. “I didn’t realize how strenuous it would be. We ended each class with 100 sit-ups.”

The fact that the class was for women, like some others she took (yoga, home repair for women), increased her comfort level. Jorgensen also appreciates Community Ed’s affordability. “The fee is so nominal, you can just try things,” she said.

There’s a lot to try: Minneapolis offers 800 to 900 courses per quarter. Especially popular offerings include languages, self-defense, fitness and couples’ dance classes.

St. Paul Community Ed also offers a vast array of classes (the Spring/Summer 2006 catalog is over 140 pages).

The Learning Annex, the nation’s largest adult education program, is the 600-pound gorilla on the scene. Many classes seem clearly aimed at women. One wonders how many men sign up for “Create Your Own Natural Skin Care Products” or “The Art of Exotic Dancing.”

Indeed, anecdotal evidence and statistics suggest that most students in personal enrichment classes are women. At Minneapolis Community Ed, for example, about three-quarters of students are female, Program Assistant Brenda Eccleston said.

Mary Cummings, education director of The Loft, the nation’s largest literary center, estimates that three-quarters are women. Weekend workshops tend to attract more men. “The ongoing, weekly classes in which writing is slowly developed are generally more appealing to women,” Cummings noted.

The gender gap at the Chef’s Gallery is less dramatic, according to Cooking School Director Stephanie Jameson: About 65 percent of students are women. The school offers classes in everything from the basics (sauces, stocks) to the advanced and exotic (fancy cakes, French Moroccan cuisine). Jameson said most students come in groups or pairs: couples, friends, mother/daughter teams.

“Once in a while there is a group of guys,” she added, “but that’s usually when the wives have gotten together and sent them!”

You won’t find many guys at the Textile Center, a national center for fiber art, which is probably their loss. Recent offerings include “Create a Handbag out of Duct Tape” and the reassuringly titled “It’s Not the Boogie Man under Your Bed, It’s Your Knitting Machine.” Approximately 90 percent are women, guessed Education Manager Becka Rahn. “I think there’s a generation out there who haven’t learned how to sew and knit from their moms and grandmas, and they’re looking for a way to learn it,” Rahn said.

Cynthia Werner appreciates the balance Textile Center classes add to her life. “My professional life is very analytical, and satisfying in that way,” she said. “For me, the evening classes are for fun and really appeal to a different set of interests.”

Sometimes,taking classes helps you discover a passion. Dawn Margavage always loved animals and knew she’d like to work with them professionally. But she didn’t want to become a veterinarian, and wasn’t sure what other career options were available.

Taking classes with local herbalists sparked a passion for natural healthcare, and she saw a way to combine her interests. Through self-study and practicing on her dog and five cats, Margavage learned how animals respond to various herbs. Now, she teaches several classes per year at co-ops and other venues, and plans to start her own business as a pet herbalist.

Asked what she enjoys about teaching classes, Margavage cited the “instant feedback” from students.”You can tell right away if what you’re saying is hitting the mark if you see heads nodding and people taking notes,” she said.

Donna Kallner, who teaches at the Textile Center, puts it in similar terms. “I love to see the light bulb go on over students’ heads, to see them take a few raw materials and a hazy notion and transform them into something that delights them or inspires them to explore further.”

Taking a class may not necessarily take your life in a new direction. As Kallner sees it, the process of learning is more important than the content of a class. “My mother was an elementary school teacher for many years, and she always said that her job wasn’t just to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, it was to teach kids how to learn,” she said. “My job, I think, is to remind those kids, now that they’re adults, that learning is a lifelong adventure.”

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