I am in a pitch black room. Music is blaring. Sweat drips from my forehead, limiting my already blurred vision and my legs and ass burn with a ferocity I don’t think I have ever experienced. I grasp for a towel and wipe my face furiously.
“Great work babies, now you should be warmed up!” a bright voice reaches me through the darkness. Warmed up? The instructor must be mistaken. I have cycled the equivalent of a triathlon. But no. The SoulCycle class is only six minutes in. There are another 39 torturous minutes to go. My heart sinks as my neighbour raises her perfectly toned arm to high five me, an elated white smile stretched across her face. I want to cry.
SoulCycle, the location of this current torture, is the spin class franchise originated in New York’s Upper West Side in 2006. The brainchild of Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, the cycling company has a cult-like following and studios all over the world. In 2019 the first London studio, a convenient five minute walk from my office, was opened. So in October last year, channeling my inner Kardashian (Khloe is a devotee), I decided to try it out.
Five months later and I attend two classes a week. Religiously. On business trips, I set reminders to login to the app and book classes for when I arrive home. I have graduated from the hidden depths of the back row to take centre stage at the front, my body heaving and swaying next to the lulu lemon clad athletes next to me. I am now a card carrying member of the sunshine club.
The main reason for my conversion to cardio now sits in front of me. Liv Darcey, the 23-year-old instructor, whose class has become a permanent fixture in my diary, sits cross legged on a bench in the SoulCycle lobby, a chunky silver ring on every finger and a bleeding heart pendant hanging around her neck. She is not the peppy figure you might expect from a SoulCycle instructor, rather a compact, self described “small but aggressive” character who wants you to fail.
“There’s no point in perfection,” she explains to me directly. “I’ve been through a lot of anxiety and had depressive episodes and so I realise what it means to be able to come into a room and let go. That’s why I get everyone to scream at the beginning of a class. SoulCycle was the first place where I thought okay, I’m allowed to cry.”
When I explain to Darcey that she is not what I imagined a SoulCycle instructor would be, she smiles as if she has heard this before. “The first time I did a class, I was in LA and just thought hell no this is not for me. I had been teaching spin since I was 18 but it wasn’t until I did a class with Kelly Sheerins in New York that I considered becoming a Soul instructor. She came over to me after a class and said ‘I don’t know who you are or what you do, but Soul needs you’.” A month later auditions opened for the new London studio.
After five rounds of auditions, Darcey was one of three Brits selected to launch the London studio alongside seasoned American instructors. One audition required her to teach a class made up of rival applicants non stop for 90 minutes in a brightly lit room, with music playing only from a laptop. “The whole point was there was nothing to hold you. You couldn’t rely on any atmosphere in the room. You had to create the energy yourself.”
Creating energy is something Darcey comes to through years of performance training. “My whole life I trained in musical theatre. That means I am preprogrammed to look a certain way with my hair in perfect ringlets. And it was damaging. So finding a place where you can dress like a 12-year-old boy or not wear makeup felt like a revelation.”
In Liv’s class, an experience she describes as “very different to what you will have with other instructors,” riders can’t hide from Liv’s ferocious style of motivation. Springing from her bike, down to the floor and back again, it’s not uncommon for Liv to stand directly in front of my bike yelling me on. In an attempt to not let her, or myself down, I force my legs through the pain barrier and leave each class glowing with my accomplishment. This is not the environment for you if you like the carrot and not the stick.
Soul instructors are encouraged to be their true selves, something that had to be carefully adjusted for a London based audience. Darcey seems like the perfect candidate for the job, a balance between high expectations and spiritual openness which suits a more sceptical audience, allowing them to gain the feel good benefits without the ick factor.
“I distinctly remember training in New York and explaining to our teacher, ‘no, Brits don’t show emotion.’ If there is a carpet, we will sweep our emotions under it. But in Soul you can’t hide, there’s no carpet. You have to confront your fears.”
In April last year, Darcey decided to put the musical theatre on hold and take Soul instructing full time. “I still get to perform everyday, but instead, I am performing on the podium in the studio and I get to be me while I’m doing it.”
It would have been easy for this conversation to have slipped into an exchange of inspiring instagram soundbites, but Liv has a maturity and grit, which makes our conversation feel reassuringly authentic. In the class I took before this interview, Liv began by explaining it was the anniversary of her Grandfather’s death and that she needed the class to help her get through the difficult day.
“People sense whether you’re bullshitting or not. That honesty is so important. I’m not going to pretend I’m super happy and bouncy when I’m going through something,” she explains. Instead, Liv frames the class as an opportunity for healing, each slam down on the pedal a physical outlet for pent up anger or sadness.
All I know, in my sceptical British mind, is that SoulCycle works. I feel fitter, more energetic and generally less irritable than usual. And while it’s difficult to put my finger on the exact source of the magic, it is instructors like Darcey who make the expense and the cramped changing rooms worth it. Bottom line, I leave the studio feeling better than when I walked in. Every single time. Just don’t try and high five me.