Meet Dega Schembri, co-owner of City Fitness/Foundation Fitness
by Susie Zimmermann
Who could have known that someone else’s business trip would lead Dega Schembri to become a gym owner?
“It’s pretty amazing how one event can impact your whole life,” she marvels today, 35 years later.
Dega had been taking one of the first aerobics class offered at GW in 1983 while working at GW hospital and studying sociology and psychology. “To get myself to go regularly,” she recalls, “I would pretend I was the instructor of the class!” Apparently she did such a good job that when the real instructor—a GW alumni relations director—needed a substitute to fill in while on a work trip, she tapped Dega.
Soon Dega became a regular instructor, teaching at the IMF and World Bank when they decided to offer exercise classes onsite. An idea took shape to send instructors to other workplaces, and quickly snowballed into a new business. Dega graduated in June, kept her part-time job at Adams Morgan’s Millie & Al’s waiting tables, and managed her new business, The Female Physique.
The business targeted women, following the uptick in interest, for the first time, in Jane Fonda’s aerobics videos, Jazzercise and other exercise programs. But Dega’s classes were also attracting plenty of men, so she changed the business name to Fit Physique. That company still offers classes today at businesses around the city—and still at the World Bank—and is the parent company of City Fitness Gym in Cleveland Park.
From Class to Studio
In 1987, Dega opened an aerobics studio at 1500 Massachusetts Ave., NW, while still maintaining on-site fitness classes. Soon after, SELF Magazine named Fit Physique Exercise Studio one of the top 50 studios in the country. Dega first connected with City Fitness Gym when she was contracted to provide instructors for its original location at McPherson Square. In 1993, City Fitness Gym opened in Cleveland Park — and 3 years later Dega bought it — in partnership with one of her instructors, Lucinda LaRee, who was also managing the Cleveland Park location.
“That was a pivotal few years for me. I bought my house in 1995, paired up with my business partner and bought City Fitness in 1996, and adopted my son DeWayne in 1997!”
“I have a knack for organizing, taking charge, and moving things forward. I like to get things done!”
While she’s never taken any business classes, Dega has learned on the job. A guerilla marketer who knows the importance of word-of-mouth advertising, she’s adhered to a personal philosophy that has served her well. “Be true to yourself. Never be something you aren’t.”
A central focus of Dega’s business is the responsibility she feels to her employees and her clients. “I always try to pay my instructors and staff well while still charging reasonable rates. That’s hard to maintain but it’s important for me to take care of the people who work for me and provide the best that I can for my customers.”
commitment, community, and longevity
Dega still teaches three times a week on Capitol Hill with many of the same women—one of which is 90 years old—who were students in her Supreme Court Class. That class, which ended last year, originated with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she served on the Court. “It was the highest honor in my career to be selected to lead her class as well as have a personal relationship with her.”
The cyclical business and intense competition in the industry—today including a wide variety of specialty studios offering cycling, barre, pilates, and more—leads Dega to continually seek innovative ways to connect with new customers. Her latest initiative is participation in Class Pass which enables people to take classes at different gyms and studios without becoming a member.
No matter what, Dega says “exercise fads ebb and flow, but we stick to the basics rather than extreme forms of exercise that the body can’t sustain. The world is big enough for all of us. Our workout regimen targets longevity, strengthening and protecting the body so you can stay healthy and workout for decades. Most of all it should be fun. And we have the proof of that—clients have been with us since we opened!”
City Fitness also emphasizes a sense of community, where members know each other and their instructors. In return, Dega supports a variety of community causes, including the January 2017 Big Girls Sleepover that provided housing for women attending the Women’s March and the annual Fitness Fiesta supporting Girls on the Run DC.
Dega also is an active participant in the Cleveland Park Business Association and activities and events in the area to attract traffic and build awareness and pride in the neighborhood.
Still, this is a tough business and the high cost of doing business is one Dega grapples with regularly. Last year Lucinda and Dega formed a partnership with Foundation Fitness, which provided an infusion of capital and support for the administrative side of the business that allows Dega to focus on customer service and build membership. Lucinda concentrates on personal training.
Looking back, Dega says it all started with that aerobics class at GW. “It made me feel like a million bucks and I thought if this is how it makes me feel, I can make it happen for others. In this small way, I hope I’m able to make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve been able to support myself and raise my son while doing it, too. It’s not easy, but I’m pretty lucky…and very grateful.”