Some exercise phenomenons inspire cultish devotion (see: SoulCycle, CrossFit), but those companies typically have a professional marketing engine, a carefully curated brand, and a full-time communications team. That’s why the success of Melody DanceFit — the Austin-born “workout with a why” — is so remarkable.
On the surface, Melody DanceFit is just a normal fitness class, complete with people burning calories and sweating to the latest Cardi B anthem. The reality is so much more. Founder and CEO Melody Afkami has created a place of self-acceptance, joy, mental freedom, and a lot of clapping. It’s dance plus inspiration, with groups of amateurs and professionals alike hustling together while Afkami is dancing her heart out onstage and preaching freedom from whatever is weighing you down.
Today, Afkami teaches to sold-out rooms and for companies like Lululemon, but her journey as a business owner hasn't always been on beat.
“After graduating from UT, I went into an unfulfilling tech job. I knew instantly that it wasn’t right,” Afkami admits. “I needed something that allowed me to build and give — something that had meaning.”
To re-engage her creative spark, the native Austinite began volunteering and doubled down on dance classes. She also began teaching Zumba, but found the format too restrictive. Instead, she envisioned a community based in both exercise and empowerment.
“When women come together in love and support, it’s so powerful," she says. "I wanted to tell them that. I wanted to share my stories and theirs, to talk about the real stuff, cheer on and champion the people in class.”
Afkami rented a studio at Corazon Latino to teach her own dance classes, and in the process, says she found her voice. “Dancing, connecting, and being honest and present turned class into a kind of therapy for me and, surprisingly, for the people who attended,” she shares.
In 2015, she launched Melody DanceFit. Though originally she was only teaching to about 10 people, her popularity quickly grew and the classes spilled over into different days of the week and even private events.
With her business growing, Afkami began contemplating the next stage, wrestling with tough business questions like whether to hire new instructors or find bigger venues. “When you’ve created a brand that’s wrapped up in your persona, it gets convoluted," she says of the challenges. "How do I stay true to the heart of what I’ve built while growing and reaching more people?”
In January 2018, a video of Afkami dancing with strangers to Camila Cabello's Havana went viral, eventually racking up more than 23 million views. “Suddenly my inbox was flooded with people asking for training DVDs. DVDs? In 2019? But it signaled that there was a market for online training which is a way I was comfortable growing," the entrepreneur says.
Over the last year, Afkami has been building this new curriculum, eventually launching an online platform, which offers online subscriptions for $9.99 per month as well as online/unlimited class packages for $99 per month, still way more affordable than most local fitness studios.
Today, Afkami teaches classes three times a week at North Door, Corazon Latino Dance Studio, and The Parish. In addition to managing her business and corporate gigs, she also donates a portion of the Melody DanceFit fee to Dress For Success.
“What I’ve learned is that we’re all in this together,” says Afkami. “On stage I share stories of real people going through real things. People want to be seen and heard, to have strangers rooting for them. My class may [feel like] a fitness concert but I want people to know they’re the rockstars of their own lives.”
As for why Melody DanceFit has been successful, Afkami says it's ultimately about finding her path. "When you understand what makes you come alive," she says, "serendipitous things happen and people show up for you.”