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With candles, choreography, and colorful strip lights, a student-led spin class gets a community active

<h5>Caroline Kirby ’23 during a spin class.</h5>
<h6>Photo taken by Grace Zhuang ’23 and given to The Daily Princetonian courtesy of Caroline Kirby ’23.</h6>
Caroline Kirby ’23 during a spin class.
Photo taken by Grace Zhuang ’23 and given to The Daily Princetonian courtesy of Caroline Kirby ’23.

“You can do anything for 30 seconds!”                           

This is a favorite mantra of Caroline Kirby ’23, a spin class instructor at Dillon Gymnasium. She pedals in perfect double-time to a remix of “Hot Girl Summer” by Megan Thee Stallion, sporting a matching light blue yoga set.

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“Don’t think about it — just go,” she yells to the sea of out-of-breath students facing back at her.

The Bronxville, N.Y. native instructs the class to “tap back,” and in harmony, the cyclists stretch out their arms and hover above the seat for two counts. They move their bodies right and left, in and out of the saddle. At her command, they turn up the resistance on their bikes, straining more and more with each pedal.

“This is hard, it hurts, it’s work, but it’s temporary,” she tells the class.

At difficult moments, Kirby changes the color of the room’s LED strip lights from light blue to deep red. Screams and claps erupt from the semi-circle of bikes. It’s an emotional and physical release — just as Kirby intended.

“I always say in class ‘we cheer, we scream, we yell,’” she said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “This isn't class, it’s 45 minutes to just work out and take out whatever sh*t you have on the bike.”

Beads of sweat cloud the room. The mirrors, covered with phrases like “embrace body neutrality,” are often fogged up by the middle of class. Most cyclists are red in the face, many are breathless, but all keep moving.

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To Kirby, the community element of spin is just as important as the workout itself. Her class, always full, draws both complete beginners and advanced regulars.

“I think the goal is just to make sure that everyone feels welcome,” she explained. “I’ve gained such an awesome group of people who come every week.”

Wells Carson ’22 had never tried spinning before this fall. Carson is a member of Charter Club, of which Kirby is the vice president. She sent an open invitation to the spin class in the club’s group chat, which prompted him to try out a class.

“I was intimidated having never done it before,” he said. “But she really set the tone of ‘go at your own speed’ — she tries to make it really fun.”

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Kirby’s overarching philosophy in her classes echoes this: “If you ever need to take a break, take a break. Try everything if you want, but it’s also your time.”

Carson, now a regular of the class, appreciates both the sweat and the sense of belonging the class provides. He even started the “Charter Cycle Chat,” where club members plan their workouts together.

“It has started this funky little community,” he explained. “It’s really uplifting.”

For Kirby herself, spinning began as a lifeline. She competed as a varsity runner in her freshman and sophomore years of high school, achieving recruiting times for Princeton and other D1 schools. But, during a 100-meter hurdles race, Kirby tore her achilles tendon in half.

“I really thought there was no shot I’d be able to run or be athletic again,” she explained.

The recovery took over a year. Kirby’s physical therapist suggested spinning as an alternative form of cardio. She began taking classes at her local SoulCycle, a phenomenon she herself describes as “culty,” and soon enough, she was hooked.

“Every time I left [SoulCycle] I felt like I accomplished something,” she said. “I would be crying in the back corner because I couldn’t do anything anymore, but I still felt like I had actually worked for 45 minutes.”

Kirby regained her strength and continued to spin even after she was fully recovered. The summer prior to her first year at Princeton, she decided to pursue spin instructor certification, inspired by a family friend and her SoulCycle teachers. After working as a substitute instructor at local studios throughout the summer, she submitted an audition video to Dillon Gym.

“I love [spinning] because it gives me a space to let out any stress I have, just through a really fun 45-minute class,” she said.

Her first class was once a week, and initially drew five or six people. Stringing Amazon LED lights on the walls and surrounding the base of her bike with fake candles, Kirby attempted to make the large group fitness studio feel intimate.

“Part of what spin studios do is they take you away from the rest of your day,” she said. “It’s tough to motivate yourself to do anything, and now it’s my job to motivate 20 people to bike for 45 minutes.”

Kirby’s own motivation has not faltered. In her time at Princeton, she has worked to improve her confidence as an instructor. For her, leading a class can be likened to “essentially public speaking.”

Kirby is also in charge of compiling music and creating programming for each ride, which have evolved dramatically from her early classes. Her classes consist of a warmup and a mix of sprinting, jogging, or climbing on high resistance.

“The penultimate song is always one that’s a lot slower,” she explained. “We turn off the lights for it and it kind of gives everyone a second to breathe, get their heart rate back down, and get fully geared up for the final song, which is usually sprints again.”

Even with the same basic class structure, Kirby still tries to make each class unique. She experiments with different lighting combinations, on-bike choreography, and class themes, making it a goal to surprise her riders. On Valentine’s Day, Kirby hosted two classes: one for the holiday’s lovers and one for its haters.

Jacob Raghoobar ’23 had just finished his first ever spin class when the ‘Prince’ spoke with him.

“You kind of get to escape from everything else around you for 45 minutes, which I thought was really cool,” he said. “[Kirby] and everybody else were very open and it didn’t feel like a judgmental space at all.”

When asked if he would consider taking the class again, his response was enthusiastic.

“I definitely think I will! It was really hard, but I think that’s what makes it rewarding,” he said.

With only 20 bikes available, Kirby’s class is a hot commodity. This past fall, the class would often fill up 30 to 40 minutes prior to its scheduled start time. Kirby described feeling “really bad” having to turn away upwards of 10 people per class.

This semester, Dillon Gym adopted a reservation system for cycling classes through the app “IMLeagues.” This system allows students to book their spot 72-hours in advance, as opposed to getting to Dillon early to save a bike.

According to Erika Liskovec, Dillon’s Coordinator of Recreational Programming, Group Fitness, and Instructional Programming, the scheduling system was developed as a response to issues Kirby noticed as well as feedback from the Group Fitness Survey sent out last semester.

With the new booking system, Kirby’s class has only continued to flourish. All 20 spots fill up within minutes of the system’s opening, and there are often waitlists with more than a dozen people.

Part of this influx of newcomers may be attributed to Dillon Gym’s new TigerWell funding, which enables all students to participate in group fitness classes free of cost. Before the grant was enacted in spring 2021, students had to purchase a ‘FlexPass’ for $40 per semester in order to participate in the classes.

According to Liskovec, allowing students to attend group fitness classes for free has been “huge [for] accessibility.”

“There seems to be a sizable increase of students that are coming to classes,” Liskovec said, “which is super exciting,” 

Kirby agreed: “I think these classes are filling out because suddenly students can just show up whenever they want, and [the cost] is not a point of concern.”

Another change this year: masks. Until the University’s mask mandate was lifted on March 14, Kirby and her riders were required to wear face coverings in class. Though she described the experience as something like “altitude training,” Kirby nonetheless was grateful to be working out with her community in-person.

“I am driven by … the feeling of everyone else being there, working hard and showing up for something physically,” she said. “That is something that I missed a lot, and I'm just excited that everything's back.”

Kirby took a leave of absence for the 2020–2021 school year, during which she continued to develop her teaching style, even auditioning for SoulCycle in March of 2021. The experience was intense, but she also found it incredibly rewarding. While a career as a SoulCycle instructor ultimately didn’t mesh with the schedule of a full-time Princeton student, Kirby found the intense audition experience to be worthwhile.

“People were so different. I was 21 years old, just a random college student, one was a drag queen and professional opera singer, one was a single mom,” she described. “It was super cool to see all kinds of diverse people being there, because they love the experience.”

Kirby has found that same diversity in her experience as an instructor at Princeton. In the final song of her class, Kirby instructs her class to push up and down on the bike’s handlebars. The LED lights strobe in a rainbow pattern. As Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” plays, a chorus of claps breaks out. Everyone is in it together: smiling, sweaty, and alive.

Isabel Jacobson is a News staff writer and Features contributor for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at ijacobson@princeton.edu.

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