“It’s all in the lower back,” explained Zach McFadden, a limber instructor at Banana Skirt Productions to about 30 young women with their hands clasped together over their heads, attempting to twerk.
The event was Banana Skirt’s signature class “Ratchet Zooba,” a hip hop-infused take on the fogey-ish Zumba craze. Zumba was created by a Colombian dancer in the 1990s, but the mainstream didn’t catch on until the late aughts when it flipped the fitness industry with its joyous, everyone-can-do-it aerobics set to salsa and mambo beats.
While some of the moves at “Zooba” are similar, Banana Skirt is more Zumba to the Soul Cycle set. The lights are off and strobe lights spackle the walls highlighter-green, -yellow, and -pink to make you feel like you’re in a club. Before you can say “trap queen,” you’re freestyling to Khia’s “My Neck, My Back.”
Banana Skirt’s pop-savvy dance classes have existed in Manhattan since 2014. In addition to Zooba, it offers Adele yoga, Rihanna pilates, step-by-step instruction for copying moves by the holy trinity Beyoncé, J.Lo, and Britney, plus classes that run through the choreography of infectious songs like Missy Elliott’s “WTF” and Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” With no advertising, Banana Skirt has grown a cultish following of young and social media-hungry women who spread the word and the rhythm via Instagram. Internet personality Hannah Bronfman and tennis pro Victoria Azarenka have been particularly instrumental in getting the word out. Banana Skirt’s classes are now so packed that on January 23rd it’s expanding across the East River to a new location at the Smallwood Performing Arts Centers in Bushwick.
“Everyone in the class was only there because of Instagram,” said Claudia Oshry better known to her 19,000 Instagram followers–Harry Styles among them–as the popular account “Girl With No Job.” Oshry and her three sisters took the pop dance class that teaches the choreography to “Sorry,” Justin Bieber’s viral hit. She posted a video of herself swirling her arms. “I know you guys were missing more than my body so here ya go,” read the caption. The video was like 1,694 times. “I forgot everything the second I left,” Oshry said, “But I would definitely go again.”
For Akinah Rahmaan, the 38-year-old founder of Banana Skirt Productions, a song like “Sorry” is a goldmine. “It’s unstoppable,” she said, “It’s what Beyonce’s ‘7/11’ was in 2014.” When a viral song like “Sorry” or “7/11” hits, Banana Skirt gives fans the ultimate ‘grammable experience by teaching them the moves to replicate on the dance floor, but more likely, in front of their iPhone cameras to rack up likes.
Rahmaan said the social media aspect of her business was unintentional. But her predilection for posting stems from her previous role as Island Def Jam Music Group’s Vice President of Marketing, where she ran campaigns for R&B and hip-hop stars like Grammy-winner Frank Ocean, Big Sean, Pusha T and Jhene Aiko. “After years of treating artists like a product, it gave me an insight into youth culture and what an authentic voice is,” said Rahmaan.
Rahmaan is a lifelong music fan. She grew up looking over the bannister of her father’s nightclub in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where acts like Bell Biv DeVoe and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam made an impression on her. Rahmaan attended college to study the music industry at the nearby Morgan State University. After graduating, her plans to move to Los Angeles fell through following a breakup so she turned her focus to New York City, closer to home, and began at Violator Management as an unpaid intern in 1998. Eventually, she was managing artists such as Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J and Missy Elliott. Rahmaan moved up the ranks and also branched into film, providing musical supervision for films like Stomp The Yard (2007). Rahmaan’s third eye for music trends is a boon for her fitness business. “I read the music charts and pay attention to radio as if I was still in the music business,” she said.
But there is scientific reasoning behind the cardio dance class trend that Banana Skirt is also capitalizing on in the colder months. “When people are moving together and doing the same steps and it looks good, it’s very fulfilling on an emotional level,” said Julia Miller, the chair of the creative arts therapy department at the Pratt Institute. “Organized group dancing provides an aesthetic that’s not present in other forms of exercise like yoga or running on a treadmill, she said.
“With people who have emotional problems, dance taps into the creative parts of the brain,” said Miller. “A lot of therapy is verbal, but when you’re talking about an experience, you’re already creating distance to it. Enacting experience through dance or movement helps people reach their feelings more directly.” Plus, the simple aesthetic of visibly seeing yourself in sync with others sends a strong message to the nervous system, she said.
Rahmaan came to that conclusion in her own words. “People leave with a high every single day,” she said. “As a music executive, you only experience those moments of reward at a concert, seeing the faces and hearing the screams of fans who love the music your artist produces.”
A packed Banana Skirt class is a lot smaller than a major concert. But the feeling of being a fan, losing yourself to the moment and leaving with a sweaty forehead is there in a real way. Plus, it’s good for your emotional health too. There’s absolutely no reason to be sorry about that.