There is a belief that boutique fitness studios — the SoulCycles, Pure Barres, and Core Power Yogas of the world — cater only to the uber-thin, the uber-rich, the uber-young, and, well, the uber-white.
For the record, I’m neither uber-skinny nor uber-rich. My uber-young days are behind me (sigh). And I am not the least bit white.
Yet I still sweat my way through these sometimes pricey, always vigorous workouts. Often the only curvy chocolate chip among a sea of Nilla Wafers, I have never felt unwelcome in these classes. But it did take some time for me to feel comfortable, like I truly belonged.
So I get why many post-millennials and those who refuse to pay more than $25 for yoga class won’t give these boutique spots a chance. It’s hard to call them safe spaces when barely anyone in them looks like you.
Enter SMART Fitness, the 2,650-square-foot Bala Cynwyd niche fitness studio owned by 62-year-old certified spin teacher and personal trainer Debra Williams. The name is an acronym for Williams’ approach to getting in shape: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
The studio has been open for a little over a year now and offers a variety of classes, including indoor cycling, dance fitness, and strength training. Starting in April, Williams will begin offering Tae Bo, and on April 27, the workout’s founder, Billy Blanks will make a SMART Fitness appearance. Williams says she tries to keep her prices lower than her boutique fitness competitors — she charges $20 for a walk-in spin class compared to the $30 a pop for a SoulCycle class in Rittenhouse Square — but make no mistake, she has the accouterments of other niche studios.
Her typical client is a woman of color in her mid-40s. The women who take her classes are on their own personal journeys to health, and they aren’t necessarily skinny Minnies.
“I just wanted to open a space where people feel comfortable and safe,” Williams said. “I want people to see people who look like them and I want them to know they won’t be judged.”
That extends to the exterior: Those getting their sweat on can look through the front window and see City Avenue, but people can’t see in. To Williams, privacy is important.
Throughout the space, mantras are stenciled in black block letters on the clean white walls: “You can throw in the towel, or use it to wipe the sweat off your face” and “Be Awesome Today.”
“It’s comfortable, it’s nice, and I don’t have to deal with people who look like Twinkies,” said Anthea Butler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who describes herself at middle-aged. Butler trains with Williams two to three times a week. “When I come to work out, I need to be focused. I don’t like people walking in and out of the door … I don’t want people [other than my trainer] critiquing my form.”
In the training room are a treadmill, rowing machines, medicine balls, and assorted weights, as well as yoga mats and blocks for when Williams finds the yoga instructor who will be the right fit for her studio. That, she says, has been hard.
“My customer likes to dance. She enjoys the strength-training class. She’s not ready to go into the yoga space,” Williams said, “Not yet, anyway.”
Williams never says it — and it’s not to say that sisters don’t do yoga (I do yoga) — but I wonder if black women don’t see themselves as yogis because they’re not marketed to. That gets to the crux of the issue: Williams opened the gym for people who unfortunately don’t see themselves as yogis or Soul Cyclers or Crossfitters, not because they don’t want to participate, but because they don’t think they are the ideal clients for those groups. They don’t think it’s for them.
Why? They’re not represented.
Williams has trouble putting up ads for classes like indoor cycling, because the only people represented in the stock art are skinny white women. Those pictures, she says, aren’t welcoming to her clientele.
But, Williams says, despite the anecdotal demand for spots like hers, minority studio owners — especially African Americans — run into roadblocks. First of all, opening a studio isn’t cheap. Williams wouldn’t give an exact figure, but she said the cost of designing SMART Fitness and leasing the equipment was more than $75,000.
Still, once women find SMART Fitness, they stick with it.
“I hadn’t been to the gym in years,” said 45-year-old Angela Sposato, a Spanish teacher who took her first Zumba class recently and who now calls herself a regular. “[Williams] was so welcoming. I was so comfortable. I didn’t feel like everyone was laughing or looking at me. We were just enjoying the music.”
Williams wasn’t always the confident, fit lady with the cute, cropped auburn haircut she is today.
In the mid-’90s, when Williams was in her 40s, she weighed almost 200 pounds.
“But I was 5’8, so I thought I looked good,” Williams laughed. “The weight wasn’t the issue for me, though. It was my health. My blood pressure was much higher than it should have been. I had trouble walking up a flight of steps without breathing hard. I was sweating. I just felt terrible.”
Williams — who still has her day job as director of special events at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication — began practicing portion control, cutting out pizza and chips, and got serious about exercising. She started working out three to four times a week, taking aerobics and cycling. She lost more than 50 pounds.
After she shed the weight, her friends asked her how she did it and she started taking them with her to the gym. In 2003, she became a certified spinning instructor. The next year, she took a trip to New Orleans, where she visited a boutique gym and fell in love with the concept.
In 2008, Williams became a certified personal trainer with the American College of Sports Medicine, but it wasn’t until 2014 that she decided to open her own space. By then, she’d solidified her mission of inclusion.
“I call SMART Fitness my Cheers,” Williams said. “I just look up sometimes and say, ‘Thank you.’ We are all here because we want to be healthy. Nobody is trying to be a size two.”
SMART Fitness Studio is at 2499 N. 50th St., Ground Floor, Bala Apt. Bldg. Call 215-878-0100 or visit smartfitnessstudio.com.