The beat in electronic dance music is like a hammer. Tonight in New York, Tokyo, Moscow, and Ibiza, partiers will crowd in to bars and nightclubs and pay a high price to move their bodies to a pounding beat. The beat is inescapable, especially when amplified by industrial sound systems, and it makes dancing simple. All the dancer has to do is move regularly, even monotonously, to the rhythm: up and down, side to side, like tribespeople swaying to a primal drum song.
Fairly soon the dancers are intoxicated, whether from alcohol or adrenaline or both. The body approaches a multisensory high. The rush of endorphins from fast-paced exercise, the euphoric effect of up-tempo electronica, the smell of sweat of the opposite sex, the flash of lights in the darkened room, the thrill of a crowd moving like a single body: they make the dancers forget everything but the pleasurable intensity of the moment. They are more confident, less inhibited. They are more likely to think of themselves as attractive and approach someone they think is attractive. They leave buzzing with wellbeing. The feeling fades a few hours later.
Fitness companies are modifying the nightclub’s formula for feeling good, blurring the line between a workout and a night out. In studio fitness classes across the US, UK, and elsewhere, exercise bikes and treadmills replace of the dance floor. An instructor replaces the DJ. The bar serves cold-pressed vegetable juice instead of vodka. The music is electronic dance music – the same as the addictive rhythms pulsating in sold-out nightclubs.
1Rebel opened six months ago in London’s financial district. It is not a gym. 1Rebel is a “boutique fitness studio.” It offers two classes: a spinning class based on stationary bikes (“RIDE”), and a running-and-strengthening class based on treadmills (“RESHAPE”). Each class is 45 minutes long, and they run throughout the day. They are set to uplifting, up-tempo music. FUSE attended the Ride and Reshape classes, which were nearly full. The fee is £20 per class, and that includes a post-workout visit to the well-appointed shower room. 1Rebel was profitable after its fourth month.
1Rebel shows the international popularity of a new formula for fitness. This formula – which originated in New York in the mid-2000s – blends the music of a high-end club with the design of a high-end boutique hotel. It throws in elements of motivational coaching and group therapy. All the while it provides a meet-market environment for young single people who know that, if nothing else, they have fitness in common. These classes promise that you can have all the fun of indulgent group activities like drinking and dancing while becoming healthier in body and mind. They create a community defined by positive reinforcement. It is no accident that “cult” is frequently used on social media to describe this latest movement in studio fitness.
At 1Rebel’s 6:15pm spinning class, the London DJ (and Game of Thrones actor) Finn Jones set up his playlist in the corner of the room. This was a Live DJ Ride. Forty-five “rebels” (as the instructors calls customers) filed in. There were about two women for every man. They mounted their bikes, clipped cycling cleats into the pedals, and sipped water. The lights pulsed in different shades of blue, but the room was as dark as a nightclub. The instructor cheerfully dispelled any notion that the next 45 minutes would be a painful physical struggle akin to cycling up the lower slopes of Mont Blanc. “Let the music take over your body and your mind,” the instructor said, beaming his smile around the room.
You want to be fitter, leaner, stronger, healthier. You’re doing that right now. But it is earned, not given! It’s getting tougher, but you’re pushing through it. Come on! Push it! Give me twenty more seconds! Show me why you’re a rebel!
The music and the workout were synchronized precisely, as physical exertion rose and fell in pace with the tempo. DJ Finn led the class as much as the instructor. Crouched above their bike seats, pedaling hard and sweating harder, the riders pivoted their torsos in a triangle – from up to down-left to down-right, and up to down-left to down- right – in a classic dance move set to the beat.
Abdominal muscles and thighs ached, but the mind was on a joyride. The mind pushed the body to sprint-pedal up the “hill.” It was obvious when the hill was crested, because the music suddenly dropped down-tempo, releasing another rush of endorphins. “Take it down a notch,” the instructor said redundantly.
Electronic dance music is the perfect complement to an intense workout, fitness companies like 1Rebel have discovered. Mental stimulus builds even as the body tires. The mind pushes the body to stick to the beat, even if the beat is too fast for comfort.
If the music does not motivate, the instructors do. “Remember the reason you came here,” said the instructor in the Reshape class, her hands on either side of her six pack. Several Reshapers struggled to lift dumbbells over their heads after sprinting uphill on a treadmill. “Remember your goals,” she said, like a yoga instructor repeating a mantra. “You all came here today for a reason. You want to be fitter, leaner, stronger, healthier. You’re doing that right now. But it is earned, not given! It’s getting tougher, but you’re pushing through it. Come on! Push it! Give me twenty more seconds! Show me why you’re a rebel!”
James Balfour named the company 1Rebel because he and his father were rebelling against the “big box” gym model that made the family fortune. Mike Balfour founded Fitness First in the 1990s and built it from a British mass- market fitness club to an international chain of over 300 gyms. The family sold to BC Partners in 2005. James, 32, is critical of the Fitness First model.
“My dad to an extent pioneered the big fitness club and its system of 12-month contracts and monthly dues,” he said. “We wanted to rebel against all the things we’d done in the industry before.”
“Industries are being flipped on their heads by the likes of Uber or Airbnb,” he continued. “They needed reconstruction. In particular they needed to recognize that millennials want to purchase things in a different way. If you believe in two premises, then the fitness industry will also be disrupted. The first premise is that health clubs don’t get you fit; they sell you access. The second premise is that nobody wants to sign a 12-month contract. That is something the industry foisted on us. It is not in line with the easy, frictionless way that millennials prefer to buy things.”
“With no contracts that lock people in, we have to focus entirely on our relationship with the consumer. We have to offer them a best-in-class experience. We have to act less like a gym and more like a prime retailer where everything is about customer service, a prime location, the intensity of the brand, so people keep coming back.”
James was speaking from New York, the center of the fitness movement that he is adapting in London. SoulCycle opened on the Upper West Side in 2006. It offers spinning classes (aka “cardio parties”) in sleekly designed spaces pumping with high-energy electronic music and positive motivational messages. It has 41 studios in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago, and it plans to open around 60 studios by 2016. SoulCycle estimates that 50,000 customers per week take its spinning classes, which cost $30 per class. The company, which recently filed for an IPO, believes it has a created a “movement,” not just a fitness company. It presumably believes it can better exploit this movement with more capital.
The intensity of the SoulCycle brand is transparent. The company inspires devotion among its community of “rockstars,” as it calls its customers. “I’ve come to learn and appreciate that there is an instructor and a class for every mood,” wrote one SoulCycle client in a testimonial on the corporate website. “If I need to cry, I know whose class to take. If I need to laugh, I know whose class to take. If I need a really hard workout, I know whose class to take. If I need an amazing playlist, I know whose class to take.”
1Rebel will soon open its second studio. It has a long ride ahead if it wants to catch up with the likes of Soulcycle. Locally it faces competition from London studios such as Psycle as well as the “big box” gyms like Fitness First. James, however, wants to create something as ambitious as SoulCycle: a new approach to fitness that can be scaled in all the places where consumers respond to its brand of experiential luxury.
“We wanted to make fitness an experience,” he said. “The most important thing in designing the classes was to make people think, ‘I had an experience that was different from what I can achieve on my own.’ In Ride classes we looked at taking your mind off sweating hard through music and percussion and themed rides where only a certain kind of music was played. Experiential luxury is a trend we are really interested in. People want to feel like they’re in an intense workout session – maybe they are boxing – but then immediately afterwards they’re in a luxurious changing room. And they could not find these two things together in any other place.”
Before the second 1Rebel studio opens, James is already looking at sites in Scandinavia. His target demographic – “fashion-forward people with expendable income and a propensity to group exercise” – is there. The Balfour family is accustomed to their fitness enterprises expanding internationally and offering a wider and wider range of activities. 1Rebel will expand at a slower pace than previous ventures, James said. Sticking to the studio format, it will never become a gym.
“Studio fitness classes simply address the customer’s needs best,” he said. “If you really want to get results in a gym you need a personal trainer. Otherwise you are pushing weights around, and you come away with a maintenance workout rather than real progression. With the studio format you get the results of personal training. But it is in a group environment which of course is more fun and social anyway.”
The social element of 1Rebel greets Riders and Reshapers as soon as they open the door. Long benches are placed outside the studio rooms. The benches are packed with men and women chatting and flirting as they put on their cycling cleats and wait for the studio to open. The vibe is similar to the queue outside a rock concert or the smoker’s area outside a bar, where strangers chat about the fun that is happening around them. 1Rebel’s bar – the Roots and Bulbs juice bar – is full of post-workout “rebels”. The thump of the beat in the studios is audible behind closed doors, while a mellower playlist streams through the reception area.
The whole 1Rebel experience is a substitute for drinking and dancing in a fashionable nightclub. But it is also a place people visit en route to a night out. It has positioned itself as yet another chic urban fixture in addition to – not instead of – a life of enjoyment.
“We are for people who work hard and want to have a social life,” James says. “We don’t want to be like some holier-than-thou personal trainer who shames people into thinking of all the ways they are not keeping fit. We talk to consumers honestly and tell them they are coming here for 45 minutes of high intensity exercise. If they want to go out and have a few drinks afterwards, that’s fine. Just repeat the exercise the next day.”
A 1Rebel fitness class has a few advantages over a night of drinking and dancing. The cost of listening to high-quality electronic music, raising the heart rate, moving the body rhythmically, meeting people of the opposite sex comes to a total of £20. And this all-natural high is followed by no hangover.