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Health & Fitness

Checking In With Dallas Fitness’s Old Guard

Why veteran instructors are keeping the focus on health, not hashtags.
By Caitlin Clark |
Andrea Cobb

Last summer, Women’s Health named Dallas the “Best Destination for Boutique Fitness,” citing our “hyper-competitive” scene. And they were right. Since the arrival of New York-based SoulCycle in 2016, Dallas has turned into a boutique-studio boomtown, making it easier than ever for aspiring instructors to make fitness their full-time gig.

But much of the boom has been built on Instagram, where instructors who move from studio to studio can take their loyal following beyond the walls of the gym, developing a brand around athleisure photo shoots and inspirational quotes. For Dallas fitness’s old guard, the question has become whether or not they can stay relevant by continuing to focus on health, not hashtags.

“I had to pound the pavement for my career, but there’s a much more efficient process through social media now,” says Sharif Abboud, a 15-year fitness veteran who founded Evolve gym in downtown Dallas after years training the Dallas Mavericks Dancers. And though he doesn’t hold an Instagram account against anyone, he’s not interested in mastering selfies. “If that makes them happy, then by all means do it. Overdo it,” Abboud says. “I kind of saw how it was trending and thought, I’m going to stand out by being myself. That’s why you’re always going to see me taking photos with my shirt on.”

“We’ve seen so many kids come and go because, frankly, I don’t think they understand the work ethic you need to have.”

There is another danger for fitness influencers: a massive social media presence can create a demand far beyond an ability to supply. Take the unfortunate case of Brittany Dawn, a Dallas-based fitness influencer recently exposed for failing to send promised workout and personalized diet plans to followers who had spent as much as $300. It’s an extreme example, but a reminder that looking the part doesn’t necessarily guarantee the ability to handle a client’s health needs.   

“We’ve seen so many kids come and go because, frankly, I don’t think they understand the type of work ethic you need to have,” says Jason Harnden,  a former teacher at The Cooper Institute, a research and education facility that focuses on physical fitness as medicine, and a personal trainer for 20-plus years who’s counted Troy Aikman and former Dallas Star Jason Arnott as clients. “They’ll tell me they want to do fitness so they can set their own schedule, and that makes me laugh harder than anything else. I mean, I wake up at 3:30 every morning.”

“The marketing now is just so different,” says Kristin Moses, who’s been teaching Pilates in Dallas (currently at Session) for roughly 20 years. “SoulCycle has some incredible marketing. But then you look at a trainer like Sharif, and he’s just so passionate about working with people. I think that’s what it’s going to take to survive.”

Abboud agrees that the key is to build relationships, and that happens through person-to-person communication. “A lot of new instructors want to prove themselves by talking,” he says. “If you listen, you’re going to learn so much more.”

One thing veteran instructors can agree on: all the new boutique fitness blood is good for Dallas’ overall health. “It’s really hard for us to ever be down on anything that gets people off the couch,” Harnden says. “And with the saturation, if you know your stuff, you’re going to look that much better.”

While it’s difficult to predict a career path in such a trend-driven industry, the old guard of local instructors believes staying focused on your health and your craft is the key to longevity. “You look at these young instructors right now who are super adorable, and I’m like, What’s it going to be like in 10 years for all of them?” Moses says. “I just hope people stay authentic and real and take time to have stillness. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about showboating on social media. It’s about helping people get healthier.”

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