At Harlem Cycle, Fitness Classes That Speak to the Soul

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When Tammeca Rochester met with the fitness instructor Charles Tyler to discuss opening the first boutique cycling studio above 92nd Street, the two clicked immediately, she said.

“We wanted people to come and hear the music they heard on ‘Soul Train’; the music they heard in church; music that made them want to move their bodies and that left their spirit feeling moved,” Ms. Rochester, 35, recalled of the 2015 meeting. “And, of course, we had to have a brick wall, because Harlem.”

And Mr. Tyler, 53, who had taught fitness classes for more than 25 years at chain studios like Equinox, yearned for something with more of a community feel, he said.

Just over a year later, in April, Harlem Cycle opened on the ground floor of a brownstone on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Several of its classes touch on the culture and history of the neighborhood, and the business already has established ties to some of its neighbors, like ACP Coffee, near West 134th Street.

Mr. Tyler, known to his students as Jojo, is Harlem Cycle’s master instructor and teaches its most popular class, called “Striver’s Row.” Named after the group of rowhouses that housed a black elite during the Harlem Renaissance, the class typically starts with some soul music, includes some Harlem history, and often ends with either “Harlem Blues,” by Cynda Williams, or “Striver’s Row,” by the saxophonist Sonny Rollins.

The second half of the class is spent off the bike, with a focus on strength training and Pilates.

“It’s a full-body workout that I’ve never gotten at any other studio, and it’s more affordable,” said Gisela Perez, a business analyst and resident of the Bronx who has tried other cycling studios.

“Tammeca’s bringing something good to the neighborhood, and for our people who need a place to feel like they’re part of a community,” Ms. Perez, 60, said.

In addition to highlighting Harlem’s past, classes may also feature songs that speak to current events. A class was devoted to the music of Prince after his death in April, and in the days following the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, instructor playlists included songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Angie Stone’s “Brotha” and “War” by Pastor Charles Jenkins and Fellowship Chicago.

“I never want to get too political, but I’m aware of what’s happening outside the walls of this studio and I can’t ignore it when I teach,” Mr. Tyler said. “I wanted to teach in a place with community, and talking about those issues that affect us is part of that.”

The studio recently participated in Harlem Week and plans to begin hosting theater performances this month.

Most of the studio’s clients live in the area but many come down from the Bronx, Ms. Rochester said. There are now nine instructors and the studio’s 15 stationary bicycles fill up during the weekend. The gospel-themed “Soulful Sunday” class is especially popular.

As for the space’s walls, some are brick and some are covered in orange graffiti, but not a single one is mirrored. “I want people to really focus on how they feel and getting the motions right, not obsess over how they look in the mirror,” Ms. Rochester said.

In the growing boutique-fitness market, it is hard to avoid comparisons to other studios, especially cycling ones, but Ms. Rochester and Mr. Tyler insist that those other studios are not their competition.

“We’re not trying to be SoulCycle,” Mr. Tyler said. “We are a fitness studio, not just a cycling studio, and for us, ‘soul’ is our culture, it’s who we are in our blood.”