When the coronavirus pandemic shut down New York City in March 2020, gyms and health clubs were among the first businesses to close their doors. And some never reopened.
One of those gyms was the Kingsbridge location of 24 Hour Fitness, permanently shuttering that June. But while COVID-19 spelled the end for one location of a national chain, it actually gave birth to a much different homegrown fitness group — the Female Fight Club.
In only a little more than a year’s time, Female Fight Club founder Joanna Edmondson has grown her group from a small contingent exercising in Van Cortlandt Park to what is now her own studio at 5919 Riverdale Ave.
“I get a lot of the question, ‘How did you do this?’” Edmondson said. “I really don’t have a blueprint for it. I feel like it was all done from love and compassion. I repeat those words a lot. Love and compassion. Because I feel like at that time, a lot of us were in a lot of fear.”
Ironically, “love and compassion” was intended to be the theme of a class Edmondson was supposed to teach the day after the pandemic started. “So, those two words are stuck in my head.”
The new North Riverdale studio space held its grand opening earlier this month, taking over a storefront across from the Riverdale post office that was once the home of a Mathnasium tutoring franchise. With her team of nine instructors, Edmondson offers a variety of exercise classes including Zumba, Pilates, yoga and kickboxing.
And now that the studio’s opened, Edmondson has officially left her career as a schoolteacher to run Female Fight Club full-time.
Edmondson originally conceived Female Fight Club in 2019, she said, thinking of it as a space where women could come together for boxing classes. But because Edmondson had a full plate with her family and school, she just couldn’t make her idea a reality.
Then the coronavirus came. Suddenly, Edmondson had the time and the motivation to get the club up and running.
“I started it because I felt like women needed a platform and needed a place during the pandemic,” Edmondson said. “A lot of the group fitness classes were the first things that went. Everything was shut down (like) group fitness classes, which is what (a majority of) women do.
“Group classes are best for women. (They are) where we feel motivated. Where the community exists, and we feel supported.”
The absence of group fitness classes — finally pushed Edmondson to start exercising with some friends near Vannie’s Tortoise and Hare statue.
Slowly, more and more people started joining her workouts until a woman named Sandra shared a story with Edmondson that convinced her the club could really become a community.
“She told me a little bit of her story and how she was stressed out at home and depressed, and the anxiety,” Edmondson said. “You could see the despair. And after that, I felt like this platform should be open to all the women in the community.”
Using some 90 workouts she developed, Edmondson hosted a variety of free classes six days a week beginning at 9 in the morning and running to just after lunch. These workout sessions included activities like total body conditioning and yoga, followed by downtime where group members could socialize.
One of the fight club’s longtime members, Belqui Rodriguez, said the outdoor workouts provided some much-needed stress relief from her work as a domestic violence counselor. It also helped a few of her clients, who joined Rodriguez on some of her workouts.
“Just working out and making them feel good about themselves was one of the basic things,” Rodriguez said. “Just seeing that smile. Seeing that they’re enjoying the exercise, the outcome of everything with the Female Fight Club was just to bring something positive to the ladies.”
The club may have helped a number of women, but the city’s parks department wasn’t too keen on what Edmondson was trying to accomplish, she said. Worried about the growing size of the club, parks officials kept telling Edmondson to move her workouts to new locations. She says she ultimately moved around Van Cortlandt Park four times.
Eventually, dealing with the parks department and carrying the equipment led Edmondson to want a permanent indoor space for the club.
“Even though we had more space in the park, we wanted more,” Edmondson said. “To be in a more committed and more structured place, and be more consistent with this ‘fight’ that we have. That we want to continue giving a fighting chance to ourselves to stay healthy mentally and physically. And now we have more options.”
And Edmondson’s new studio has done exactly that. It gives her the freedom to hold classes at night, which was difficult to do in the park. The space also allows them to have equipment, like ceiling-mounted TRX resistance bands, that expand the kinds of classes Edmondson and her team can teach.
Opening a new studio and buying new equipment also meant the Female Fight Club could no longer offer free classes. Now they charge for memberships.
Although Rodriguez says she’s going to miss the outdoor workouts at Vannie, she’s really excited about the new studio — and the community — Edmondson created.
“She’s an amazing person. She did something great for the community,” Rodriguez said. “The (grand) opening was awesome. I was there with her. And I’m still going to be there with her.”