Each week, hundreds of women (and men, too) join fitness duo Valerie Fleurantin and Chaz Sandifer for what has become a movement of sisterhood, healing and community.
Together, the duo is Noir Elite Fitness (NEF), a start-up health and wellness powerhouse dedicated to transforming how women – especially Black women – view fitness. Nearly four out of five Black women are obese or overweight. It was such health disparities, in part, that initially inspired Fleurantin, to get into fitness.
“We wanted to bring culturally relevant music and movements, because that’s what makes it so fun for everybody,” Fleurantin explained. “You’re listening to music that’s yours. We are for the Black woman, but we are so open to everybody else. So, our classes are very diverse, but we don’t want the Black woman to change who she is to fit into somebody else’s culture.”
“That’s where we scored,” added Sandifer. “Everyone conformed to us. You know, now we have a ton of White women, we have a ton of Asian, Hispanic women.”
Since officially launching in April 2017 with their outdoor fitness series, Jammin’ In The Parks, they have amassed an impressive roster of classes and a wide following. They host pop-up classes just about anywhere they can bring music and bodies — from fitness clubs and grocery storefronts and parking lots to community centers and area parks.
Upwards of 40 people sign up for each of their 45-minute classes hosted throughout the week, which include Zumba, cardio kickboxing, boot camp fitness training, Trap Tuesdays, and a summer favorite, Jammin’ in The Parks.
Fleurantin and Sandifer have also developed partnerships with such organizations as Pillsbury United Communities through which they host donation-based classes at North Market. “They’ve been one of our major supporters,” said Fleurantin.
“We became their lifestyle and wellness coaches and when they opened North Market, we became their fitness company.”
NEF also has partnerships with NorthPoint Health & Wellness, Hennepin County Library and Insight News. Most recently, they secured a groundbreaking partnership with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) after an encounter with their own version of #PermitPatty.
Sandifer explained how the group didn’t have the funds ($500 a pop, she said) to pay for amplified sound for their Jammin In The Parks series, but she found “loopholes” to get started. “The neighborhood hubs really welcomed us,” explained Fleurantin. “They said, ‘You could use our park here, or you could use our park there.’”
But then someone called the MPRB after the fitness promoters accidentally put the park’s logo on one of their event flyers from a previous partnership. That landed them in front of the MPRB with a group of their fitness members, who they call their “sisterhood,” to share their story.
What could have potentially been the end of their series turned into a pilot program. Now the MPRB has partnered with NEF through October to host Jammin’ in the Parks at any park in its system.
“We met a couple of weeks ago and talked about the [Jammin In The Parks] program,” said Larry Umphrey, MPRB director of recreation centers and programs. “It looks like a dynamic, fun and healthy program, and that fits with our mission and values. We’re excited to see how it works out and hoping that our parks can get some enjoyment and a fun experience.”
In addition to continuing to host their biweekly Saturday sessions, Fleurantin and Sandifer are also adding four free Sunday pilot sessions in partnership with the parks at Fairview, East Phillips, MLK and Northeast. Umphrey said that after the pilot ends the park board will review whether to enter a long-term partnership with the fitness group.
“It has been a pleasure working with the park board,” said Sandifer. “It’s just a blessing because now Southwest Minneapolis gets to see us, Northeast, South Minneapolis. Everyone is going to be able to see us — not just on the North Side.”
Sisterhood and community are prevalent themes in the duo’s work, with many class members becoming sort of an ad hoc family. They work out together, have girls’ night out, celebrate birthdays, and even attend each other’s children’s extracurricular events. “It was huge to show people that Black women can get along,” said Sandifer.
Tavia Tindall, who has been attending classes for over a year, said that community is one of the most inspiring parts. “Feeling connected to something bigger than myself and also realizing how important it is to love the body you’re in and to want to take care of it — especially when you are starting to feel a little less young,” said Tindall.
“It’s just that much more important to appreciate what you have and to celebrate it and celebrating being alive.”
The sisterhood is also changing lives for the better, boasting multiple success stories with each session — including not only weight loss, but also improved health, mobility and outlook.
“One of our ladies has lost over 100 pounds,” said Sandifer of member Marie Chante Flowers. “She changed her whole life, changed her whole thinking, let go of being that 13-year-old girl that was abused and found who she was at 40. That was huge to see [her] make adult decisions and hold herself accountable finally for the first time really in her life,” said Sandifer.
Flowers said she was inspired by Fleurantin’s and Sandifer’s personal stories. “They shared a common goal: a healthy lifestyle for Black women,” she said. “After growing up seeing so many unhealthy women in my life, making sure I was healthy became a priority for me.
“Adopting a healthy lifestyle journey was not easy mentally, physically or financially,” Flowers added. “But knowing you had people in your life who were not necessarily walking the same journey but on a similar path helped me to understand what and who my ‘why’ is, and at the end of the day, that’s me.”
Both Fleurantin and Sandifer often share with members how they used fitness as healing to get over what they deemed to be situational depression stemming from divorces and other personal issues.
“I always felt better when I left [the gym]. What gave me my life back is really when I started doing Zumba and I started being like, I’m normal again,” said Fleurantin. “I’m doing something and I have a drive and I have a purpose.”
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” added Sandifer, “for people to see our vision and what we went through and understand how what brought us to this level was working out.” She revealed how she ate and drank her way through her divorce. “Working out…is so mentally stimulating and releases all the negatives.
“I want other people to realize that you do not have to take on the burden of everyone else’s troubles,” continued Sandifer. “And we do that, especially as Black women. What Val and I did was, in our own way, we created a space to come and just be. That’s what you need sometimes. I don’t want to be judged.”
“That’s one of the most beautiful things about it,” added Tindall. “It’s so open and inclusive and there is no judgement about body type or fitness level. If you are a beginner, you’re in the right spot, and if you’re advanced, you’re in the right spot.”
For more information on Noire Elite Fitness and class schedule, head on over to noirelitefitness.com.
Stephenetta Harmon is a Black beauty editor, curator, and digital media and communications expert who builds platforms to celebrate the power, impact, and business of Black beauty. She is the former EIC for Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (2018-19) and current host of MSR Forefront, a digital roundtable series. She is the founder of Sadiaa Black Beauty Guide, the premier directory dedicated to Black-owned hair and beauty businesses. Find her at stephenetta.com.