In Shondaland’s Joy Makers series, we spotlight creative curators who operate behind the scenes to inspire moments of elation. Their handiwork illuminates pathways to delightfulness, and their one-of-a-kind insights help us find happiness in our own lives. In this month’s installment, we explore the joy of movement.
Walter Kemp II goes by a few names: Soul Trainer. Booty Builder. Champ the Fitness Artist. If you ask the certified personal trainer what he does, he will tell you he works in wellness, not fitness. For Kemp, movement — whether it’s yoga or weightlifting — is truly spiritual. “It allows me to free myself,” he says, “and that is the most magical experience.”
The 35-year-old instructor at on-demand fitness network Obé has garnered attention for his bold classes, a hybrid of dance choreography and high-intensity interval training. Whether he is teaching a chair workout cleverly dubbed “have several seats” or demonstrating bite-size exercises that can be accomplished on an airplane, Kemp is calm, present, and confident. But he can also be fierce, energetic, and larger than life. His goal is to help people heal. Kemp knows firsthand the importance of finding self-love through movement.
After graduating from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in 2007, Kemp had a hard time finding work as a 250-pound dancer. “I wasn’t looked at as normal,” he says, recalling his eight years in the theater and entertainment industry. “I had a few directors tell me to go and try to lose some weight so that I could book work.” Following rehearsals with castmates and performances in front of crowds, Kemp began spending more time with himself and his body through workouts. “When I was dancing, it was all about entertaining other people, but when I started to exercise, it was a lot more personal.”
Kemp began jogging and locking himself in his room, turning on music and moving until he started to sweat. “It was so self-gratifying,” says Kemp, who lost 100 pounds in the process. “It was the first time where I really felt like I fell in love with myself.” He realized he wanted to bring that feeling to others. Kemp got to work. “I [told] people that I was going to be the Black Richard Simmons. Richard Simmons touched people in a way that no one has ever been able to since.”
Inspired by the Sweatin’ to the Oldies guru’s positivity and inclusivity, Kemp hired friends to be his backup dancers and convinced a designer pal to make him some shiny silver shorts and a matching striped shirt. Kemp topped it off with what became his now-signature headband. He recorded a promo video for an in-person workout class, and it quickly took off. After the team from Obé saw Kemp’s compelling approach, they hired him.
When building a workout program, Kemp begins with specific primary or core movements. If he has a 30-minute class, for example, Kemp chooses four high-impact pillars, like jumping jacks, mountain climbers, burpees, or quick shuffles. He weaves in an active recovery transition after each move to loosen up the body and mind. “My active recovery is something that’s light, fun, and feels like you’re almost dancing at a club,” he says, referencing kinetic dance moves or choreography consisting of arm reaches, body rolls, or a twerk for good measure.
During the pandemic, Kemp was one of four instructors offering classes live from the Obé studio nearly every day, speaking to a broken world through movement. “It was in that moment where I had to lift people’s spirits and remind them that where we were in life was temporary,” he says. “It was also the moment where I was ministering to myself.”
Kemp believes in the power of community that his judgment-free workouts provide. He treats his viewers and personal-training clients like his cousins or aunties. “I want my audience to feel like they’re hanging out with their best friend,” he says. While pumping out push-ups, busting out burpees, and dishing out dance moves, Kemp will often shout out viewer names that appear on a prompter, including the name of his boyfriend, who frequents his classes. “I’ll pull out familiar names and try to personalize each name that’s up there,” he explains. If there’s a Diana, he’s suddenly coaching Diana Ross. “I remember there was a Mary, and I was like, ‘Mary J. Blige! She just logged in. What’s up, girl?’”
Many of his viewers have compared Kemp’s wisdom-filled classes to religious experiences, inspiring the nickname “altar of Walter.” He says coming to the “altar of Walter” means showing up not just physically but also mentally and spiritually. “We have to be physically equipped to do what God has called us to do,” he says. “I would hate for us to get to our purpose, and we aren’t physically equipped to handle our purpose. Our purpose requires physicality.” For instance, a lesson on the value of using your own body weight during a workout could turn into a sermon-like message from Kemp. (“If you don’t have a dumbbell, resistance bands, [or] gliders, what do you have? You have you. And that’s what we’re going to utilize in this class. We’re going to utilize you.”)
After his classes, Kemp answers every direct message he receives from his followers, usually about 40 or 50 notes expressing gratitude. “I always turn to them,” Kemp says, “when I need validation or need to be reminded that I’m doing something that’s purposeful.”
Through movement, Kemp has found that he can be his most authentic self. No holding back. No minimizing himself. No toning it down. Kemp’s ultimate goal is for his clients not to realize they’re working out. “[I want] you [to] have so much energy and so much fun,” he says, “that you literally forget that you just did 30 burpees.”
Walter Kemp’s Three Tips for Making Fitness Fun
Move with friends
“Make it a group thing. Sometimes, you might not even make it through the workout. Me and some of my friends, we just laugh the whole time — and that’s a workout itself. Try to gather yourself and surround yourself with people you love and you enjoy.”
Play music you love
“Music is healing. … It’s a universal language. Everybody knows it, whether it’s in Spanish, English, or French. It’s something you feel in your body.”
Remember your why
“I always say, ‘I’m exercising because I love my body, not because I hate my body. This is something I’m doing because I love myself.’ With that in mind, you can’t go wrong.”
Mia Brabham is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter at @hotmessmia.
Get Shondaland directly in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TODAY