On a recent weekend afternoon, I found myself in a sun-filled studio in the Flatiron neighborhood of New York, holding hands in a circle with a group of women I had met mere minutes earlier. Dressed almost uniformly in head-to-toe black, our palms clammy, sweaty faces glistening, we closed our eyes, rose onto our toes and gyrated our hips in clockwise unison as a tribal beat shook the floorboards and a booming male voice yelled out militant directives.
No, I hadn’t joined a cult. Rather, I was being inducted into the Skinny Bitch Collective (SBC), an exclusive British fitness phenomenon with, well, a cult-like following. Founded by Russell Bateman, a trainer who previously worked with athletes and private clients in the tony Mayfair area of London, the invitation- and female-only classes have become a favorite among models and trim celebrities like Suki Waterhouse, Ellie Goulding and Nicole Scherzinger thanks to their mix of unorthodox movements and high intensity. As Bateman puts it, “The hype is such that people even lie and say they do the class when I’ve never seen them.” (The SBC Instagram handle has almost 100,000 followers.)
Oh, and that provocative (or infuriating, depending on your point of reference) name?
“Someone said to me, ‘Where are the skinny bitches today?’ And it resonated in my head. I liked the word ‘collective’ and glued that together,” explains Bateman. “Friends hated it and told me it was offensive, but I trusted myself and my foresight to go with something I knew would get attention.”
Such foresight has certainly paid off. In a crowded exercise landscape where anyone with time, funds and motivation can find a plethora of options to feed their physical upward mobility desires (bouldering? Pilates on a chair-cum-torture device? Spinning to the Hamilton soundtrack?), SBC sets itself apart not only with its content—more on that later—but its ethos: money can’t buy this class or the ass that, theoretically, comes with it. And less-fit mortals need not apply.
“There’s nothing interesting for me about making someone who’s overweight a little bit less overweight. The challenge is getting someone who already looks great into epic shape. I’m not about normal,” says Bateman. “In London, we have a class that’s like a well-oiled machine, an army or sorority of strong, lean women that move like animals. Some of the girls are models for Armani or Burberry, but regardless, they can ‘dance’ to the SBC beat and that’s what matters.”
I’ve never modeled and my dancing skills are atrocious, so needless to say, I was rather apprehensive as I made my way up the stairs to the Bandier studio, site of Bateman’s SBC New York pop-up space.
“You’re here for the influencer class?” queried the sign-in woman, before banishing me to a mezzanine for being too early (a quick peek into the studio confirmed a modelesque figure sitting in the otherwise empty studio, not the mezzanine).
Ensconced on a sofa in a barely lit waiting area, I watched as long-legged women in black leggings and Alpha Industries MA-1 Flight jackets made their way up the stairs. Once allowed entry to the studio, I stripped down to a tank as next to me, a tall, glowing brunette blithely ripped off her top, revealing a bright pink sports bra and concave abdomen.
Toto, we were not in Equinox anymore.
“Girls get nervous before they do SBC: it’s like that third date where you might just get lucky, however you never know what’s gonna happen,” says Bateman. “When you come to an SBC class, you never know what’s going to happen. The blueprint is in my mind, so I can constantly keep people guessing.”
With barely a moment to compose ourselves, Bateman, a slim, wiry man dressed in all grey, not unlike a trainer by way of a dystopian cinematic franchise, instructed us to find a place on the wooden floor and lie down. We took some deep breaths and did some dynamic stretches as an initial warm-up. Then, we stood in a circle and per his directions, put all of our arms straight up in the air, lined up so that our palms could touch.
“I don’t want to see any of this shit!” extorted Bateman, demonstrating a slightly bent arm. “Keep them straight!”
With that, we followed his lead and began gyrating our hips clockwise and then counterclockwise, maintaining our touching hands, standing on our toes, as a slow, easy beat played.
Things picked up when we were asked, hands still touching, always touching, to jump in a wave of successive split lunges, one, after the other, screaming out our names as we did so.
“Faster, faster!” yelled Bateman. “Get lower!”
Things were becoming a little less kumbaya and a bit more kamikaze.
Then we were jumping our feet in and out as the whole circle rotated clockwise, like a twisted version of the hora, sweat already dripping off our faces.
“The beat is simple! You should be able to stay with the beat,” said Bateman, as our circle became more oblong and less syncopated.
We would return to this orb of uplifted hands many times, as if reciting a chorus to the lyrics of a one hour class.
Next came partnering up. Luckily, I happened to be standing next to a sweet—and equally petite to my 5’3 frame—young woman named Eva. We squatted down, clasped hands and began pushing our arms back and forth furiously, as Bateman yelled, “Go faster! Maintain eye contact—stare into each other’s eyes!”
I tried my best, but it felt too intimate. I was already invading her space enough by clasping sweaty palms with hers.
Once back in the circle of life, Bateman had pink sports bra girl (clearly a model, aka Chloe) demonstrate the “can-can” move, whereby, hands on the floor, hips to the ceiling we kicked our legs up and down in (you guessed it) unison. We removed our shoes so our sock-covered feet could act as natural gliders as we attempted grueling pushups into knee tucks for 30 seconds. Apparently, Eva and I fared well in this endeavor, because Bateman, much to my mortification, ordered the rest of the class to watch us “demonstrate” the move on the second go-round. Chloe did not look pleased.
“It’s okay to throw [some competition] in sometimes, just to bring out the animal side of the person,” says Bateman. “It’s the quiet ones you always have to watch out for—they are dangerous!”
Also potentially dangerous? Taking a bunch of hyped up young women and asking them to pair up and take turns punching each other in the stomach continuously. Fortunately, I was once again with Eva.
“Punch her harder!” yelled Bateman as I tapped Eva’s abs as gently as I could.
“I don’t want to hurt her!” I pleaded meekly.
"Does she look hurt?” Bateman growled back.
“It doesn’t hurt, I promise,” encouraged Eva.
This was starting to turn into Fight Club. Or perhaps more accurately, playground wars, as we were next—incredulously—piggy-backing our partners around the room, turning the studio into a kind of human bumper car ride, with multiple, girl-on-girl squared and girl-on-girl-on-wall near collisions.
A few side planks, pushups into donkey kicks (those did not go well—“Land softly, like a ninja!” extolled Bateman as a general thudding, crashing noise filled the room) and one-armed burpees later and we were racing each other across the floor, dragging ourselves on our butts using only our shoulders and triceps. There were handstand mountain climbers against the wall and then the pièce de résistance as half the class crawled around on all fours in pairs, trying to slap each other as the rest of the participants watched while in a wall sit position. The scene from Mean Girls, in which Lindsay Lohan envisions her fellow teenagers transformed into fighting African mammals came to mind.
“It’s raw, it’s evolving, it’s emotional, it’s bonding,” says Bateman of the emphasis on partnering and touching. “We are human, after all. You’ll play with each other. You’ll hold hands. You’ll smack someone’s ass. You’ll close your eyes. But you’ll never forget it. Human contact is great for your hormones—oxytocin is a cuddle hormone.”
I could have used a hug. Instead, I returned to the ring one last time for some isometric holds (clutching hands, always) before collapsing onto the ground to stretch, a collective groan of relief escaping from all but Chloe and her fellow model, Ash.
“You’ve just got to leave any ego at the door and realize you’re going to get a little fucked up doing things you’ve never conventionally done in an exercise class,” says Bateman of the SBC experience, adding, “It’s built to make a girl leave the session leaner, stronger and make them feel like they just had an orgasm.”
Was it as good for you as it was for me?