"There he is!" someone calls out.
The music is thumping; students are filing in. They're setting up their step benches, saying hello to each other and smiling at Bocian, 48, who is trotting around like a hyped-up politician, slapping people on the back and grinning broadly.
"Good to see you . . . It's been a while!" the King of Step says. "Everybody happy? Positive energy!"
Bocian's classes at the fitness center on Research Boulevard long have been packed. His students adore him. But when he missed work recently, they weren't sure he was coming back.
They found out last spring, more than a year after Bocian himself got the news, that their aerobics instructor has cancer and probably doesn't have long to live.
But Bocian draws strength from his class, and despite the tumors growing in his lungs, he says he'll keep pumping his muscles to the beat as long as he can.
Shadow of his former self
Bocian was a partier 20 or so years ago. He smoked. He drank. He didn't exercise. He was overweight and out of shape. Then, while living in Houston, a girlfriend encouraged him to go to a gym.
"Back then, all they had were free weights, Stairmasters and this new thing called step aerobics," Bocian says. He immediately got hooked on step, a style of aerobics in which students step on and off a low bench. He started attending classes three times a week. He dropped 75 pounds.
Still, as much as he loved the classes, he hated the music that went with them. "That's why I became the teacher," he says. He imagined classes moving to the beat of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Janet Jackson and Uncle Kracker, instead of the sugary sounds of Britney Spears or Kelly Clarkson.
Over the next few years, he trained to become an aerobics instructor and his rock 'n' roll version of step aerobics was born. Eventually, he moved to Austin and landed a part-time job at 24 Hour Fitness, juggling aerobics around his schedule as a computer programmer.
Then, during a regular checkup in January 2004, doctors found tumors in Bocian's lungs. The cancer already had spread to his lymph nodes. The outlook wasn't good. Without treatment, he would die.
"I found out this stuff and I stayed in denial. I didn't tell anybody," Bocian says.
Although numbers are improving, the 13 percent survival rate for lung cancer is lower than for most cancers. Bocian had known people who had gone through chemotherapy and radiation, and he didn't want to suffer the side effects. He has steadfastly refused such treatment, saying, "Those are the things that kill you."
"Why extend your life a year if you're sick all the time?" he says. "If you do the treatment, the quality of life is gone. I don't want my quality of life to change, I want to enjoy every last minute I've got."
He also started eating foods such as carrot powder, beets and seaweed. He thinks they might extend his life, but there are other reasons why he is still alive. "I think it's probably helped, but obviously it's God. And this whole teaching thing Â the positive energy keeps you alive."
But his October medical report says the mass in Bocian's lungs has "markedly increased in size." His prognosis isn't good. "If I make it to Jan. 1, I will be in the 2 percent of people (who survive that long)," Bocian says.
Bocian's oncologist, Dr. Demetrius Loukas, says it's rare for patients Â especially relatively young ones Â to decline treatment without even trying it.
"No patient is ever forced to take therapy," Loukas says. "You offer them a choice, you show them statistics Â here's survival with therapy, here's survival without therapy. Every patient makes that choice from day one and can change their mind at any time."
While Bocian has declined radiation and chemotherapy, he has started taking another drug called Tarceva, usually given to patients with advanced lung cancer who have not responded to chemotherapy. Research shows that the drug, approved in November by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, might block tumor cell growth. So far, Bocian hasn't had any side effects from it.
One big family
His brown hair is short and spiky on top, and pulled into a ponytail in back. He always wears black, down to his baseball cap and tennis shoes.
Bocian drives a black Nissan Pathfinder, with personalized license plates that read KNG STP (another trainer dubbed him King of Step and it stuck). His mantra of "positive energy" flows at two step aerobics classes each week at 24 Hour Fitness. He also leads a weekly spinning class.
Married in the early '80s, Bocian never had kids, and he's single now. He lives in Bertram, in a home on 10 acres that he shares with nine cats.
The step classes are his family now. The students, who range in age from their 20s to 80s, are airline pilots and pharmacists, lawyers and Homeland Security employees. He has nicknames for some of them Â "New York" and "Yasko" and "L.A." He looks for the new ones and tries to make them feel at home. He e-mails them when he knows he's going to miss work. When his classes resumed recently, he messaged: "The King is Back."
The classes draw 30 to 60 people each. At Christmas, he brings in jingle bells for students to attach to their shoes. On his birthday, they wear party hats. Tony Cooke, 37, started taking Bocian's classes five years ago because they looked less like a dance class than most other aerobics classes. "Everyone came out dripping sweat," Cooke says.
Cooke learned this spring that his favorite instructor had cancer. "Sometimes he'll go into the locker room and say, 'Sorry about my energy,' and all of us will be covered in sweat."
Bocian never talks about his illness in class. "He wants the class to be positive," Cooke says. "He doesn't want to bring anyone down."
"You forget there's someone mortal teaching the class," Cooke says. "We're all cherishing the classes a little more."
Carmin McLaughlin, 41, first took one of Bocian's classes eight years ago. She stuck with it because she liked how his personality came through, and how he'd e-mail students and encourage them to attend class. "He motivates everyone, whether you're beginner or advanced," McLaughlin says.
Since last spring, Bocian's been in and out, leading class when he feels up to it, staying home when he doesn't. His students Â the ones he has inspired to lose weight, get in shape and stay fit Â are now inspiring him.
"Last night's class gave me a 2-minute standing ovation," Bocian says of his first class after six weeks off. "I got teary."
Bocian calls his step aerobics classes (he recently taught his 1,808th class) the ultimate high. He says his students "are giving to me, and it's the most awesome high in the world."
But it's harder now to lead classes, and it's always been a matter of pride for Bocian to do the exercise steps along with his students. He tires more easily, and if he pushes too hard one day, he might not be able to lead class at all the next.
"I think for Paul, it's very, very hard for him to lead and not 'take' the class," says Kristi Lankford, group exercise coordinator for 24 Hour Fitness. "I tell him, 'You're an instructor Â you're not a participant. You should be walking around, making sure everyone is safe and having fun.' That's hard for him to do."
She calls Bocian a "huge force" for filling the fitness club's evening schedule. "He's a staple . . . and he has a very loyal following of members. It's not quite like anything else I've seen.."
He took medication for severe back pain and headaches for a while, but didn't like how disconnected it made him feel. He quit taking it and the pain, for now, has subsided. "It's obviously God," he says. "There's something I need to learn or do."
Bocian describes himself as spiritual, but not religious in the church-going sort of way. Each morning, he pulls three ceramic stones out of a dish of stones. Each has a word written on it Â things to focus on that day. Today's words: magic, health and life.
Not easy slowing down
"Born to be Wild" thumps in the background. A student tapes a green poster to the wall: "Return of the King!"
Bocian starts to move, stepping on and off the low plastic bench in front of him. About 35 people mimic his moves at the late November class.
"No mercy today Â let's get to work!" he yells. "Are you all right? Yes, you are, because you are here!"
He launches into a steady stream of cues, prompting the students as they move: "Single knee, side leg, left curl . . . One more. Hop turn, bring it home, two jacks . . . "
One rock song blurs into the next, and Bocian keeps up the pace, joining in the moves as he calls them out. "Hang in there!" he shouts as "Funky Cold Medina" blares. After a while, though, he pauses. "I'm going to cheat!" he says, grabbing a water bottle and walking around the class.
"It's so good to be back! Sorry I haven't been here for six weeks," he says. The clapping drowns out his voice.
Forty-five minutes later, class winds down with some abdominal work. The music fades. "Man, it's tough to work out when you've been out six weeks . . . but I will get it back," he says as the students disperse.
Not all the effects of cancer have been bad. Because of the disease, he's gotten back in touch with some of his five siblings, who had drifted apart over the years. They'd grown up in a military family and are scattered across the country.
"There's no big deals any more," he says of the normal stresses in life. "It's really calmed me down a lot as far as anger. So what if someone cuts in front of me? So what? I just value the good days," he says.
"And when you have someone who appreciates step, it's so cool."
Sometimes, though, he gets depressed. "There're days when I lose it," he says. But mostly, he's just grateful to have another day.
"Everyone's going to go. We're all going to leave this physical body," he says.
When that happens, Bocian knows how he wants to leave. "I have my fears. I just hope that when I go, I go right away. I want to be teaching step and I disappear in a puff of smoke and the music keeps going."
He chuckles as he imagines the reaction. Then he gets serious again. When thoughts of his future bring him down, it always comes down to one question Â "If I could change places with any other person on the planet, who would it be?
"If you really, really think about it, my answer is always no one."
I'll miss him at the gym...