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At Trillfit, workouts with hip-hop beats and no inhibitions

Head instructor Melisa Valdez (center) led a one-hour Cardio Dance class at Trillfit in Mission Hill, which holds its grand opening this weekend.
Head instructor Melisa Valdez (center) led a one-hour Cardio Dance class at Trillfit in Mission Hill, which holds its grand opening this weekend. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

She just wanted to feel comfortable in her body as a black woman.

“I was always on my fitness journey,” says Heather White, 30, “trying to get more active and athletic and lose weight. I just wanted to get fit and ultimately feel happier in my own skin.”

But gym after gym, trendy class after trendy class, she was often the lone student in those studios with skin the color of hot chocolate.

“I was really tired of being the only one,” she says between sips of a strawberry smoothie at The Breakfast Club in Allston. “One day I was in a core fusion class and someone played ‘Fast Car.’ No shade to Tracy Chapman, but this is not a song to get you amped. I thought maybe I could create my own vibe.”

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That was three years ago.

Today, in Mission Hill at 1484 Tremont St., is White’s scene: Trillfit. The studio quietly opened its doors last month, but the grand opening is this weekend.

Trillfit quietly opened its doors last month, but the grand opening is this weekend.
Trillfit quietly opened its doors last month, but the grand opening is this weekend.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

A mix of cardio dance and sculpt set to hip-hop and reggaeton, the class isn’t just one where the women with abs rush to the front row. Women with love handles, women with thighs that shake, women with ankle braces — all kinds of women, and occasionally men, confidently move together, not shy to see all those shades of melanin in the mirror.

They clap. They drop their booties low, pop their hips, and crank their legs up in the air. They rap along to Jay Rock’s “Win” and shout the curse words, uncensored and safe in this body party.

Afterward, they huddle into one big, sweaty hug and take selfies like old friends.

Mercy Bell, 28, is a regular already. She became a founding member, paying $120 a month. For her, it was about finding a community.

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“Here, connecting through a passion for dance, to move and sweat free of inhibition,” Bell says, “and it’s exercise? Hello.”

“Trill” is slang for true and real. And after one too many times feeling isolated in a room full of fitness junkies, White decided to create a workout that spoke her language.

It started over dinner with her then-boyfriend, Nick Collins, a Boston DJ known as Nick Bishop.

“I made a deal with him,” White says. “Let’s try this five times and see what happens.”

She wasn’t an exercise expert. At the time, she was a senior manager for men’s lifestyle at PUMA. A friend of a friend connected with her with choreographer Laurieann Gibson, who has worked with Diddy, Beyoncé, and Michael Jackson.

In September 2015, White and Bishop put on the first Trillfit pop-up class at Jamaica Plain’s Urbano Project. Bishop played the music. Gibson led two 45-minute cardio dance workouts. It sold out.

“I love the mission of creating a space where people from different backgrounds can come together and let loose and feel included,” says instructor Melisa Valdez, 33.
“I love the mission of creating a space where people from different backgrounds can come together and let loose and feel included,” says instructor Melisa Valdez, 33.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

“It got so hot in there, we had the doors open,” says White, brown eyes bright with the memory. “All the kids and families in the neighborhood came out listening to the music and watching us through the doors.”

She knew they were onto something. White wasn’t alone in wanting to disrupt the homogeny of boutique fitness in Boston.

Afro Flow Yoga and Hive Soul Yoga have long been doing the work in yoga culture, but pop-up workouts like Afrobeat Fit, Boss Chick Dance Workout, and Carnival Fit are flourishing, too.

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But it’s not easy work.

“Deciding to create a fitness movement in the age of Instagram yogi stars and not really being on my fitness game was daunting,” she says. “I didn’t look like everyone else doing it. What if people thought I was a fraud?”

But that was the point, to not look like everyone else, to be a regular person working out.

After the second Trillfit pop-up, she met Melisa “Meli” Valdez, then a Back Bay Zumba instructor.

“I love the mission of creating a space where people from different backgrounds can come together and let loose and feel included,” says Valdez, 33. “Even for me, as an instructor, there weren’t a lot of people that looked like myself teaching.”

Heather C. White is Trillfit’s owner/CEO.
Heather C. White is Trillfit’s owner/CEO.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

It wasn’t a slow burn for Valdez and White. They became fast friends, getting together and figuring out how to grow Trillfit.

“Meeting her was a godsend,” White says. “We’re both from immigrant families [White’s mom is from Belize and her dad is from Jamaica; Valdez and her family are from the Dominican Republic] and there’s something about that quality that gels us together and keeps us thriving. . . . I got to work on a strategic, foundational level with another woman of color, and that is everything.”

Together, in a little gym in White’s apartment building, they came up with what would become the Trillfit formula — a mix of athleticism and partying with your bestie.

Over the next year, they would host occasional pop-up events in New York and Los Angeles and teamed up with fashion house Revolve for special Trillfit parties at Coachella and in the Hamptons.

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But the goal for Heather was to take Trillfit pop-ups in Boston to a brick-and-mortar in the city. She says it had to be Boston.

Born in the Bronx, she grew up going to boarding school in New Jersey. Ever since she moved here 12 years ago to study creative writing and gender studies at Boston College, it has been home.

That love is largely because of her work at Karmaloop with the original team like Frank the Butcher and Leandrew Robinson. Malia Lazu, who cofounded Future Boston with Karmaloop’s Greg Selkoe, is her mentor.

“There’s this underdog mentality that’s in the tapestry of Boston and the cultural vibe here,” White says. “Growing up, I was taught to be so good they can’t ignore you. That’s the energy here, too. This is home.”

Alexis Johnson worked out at Trillfit.
Alexis Johnson worked out at Trillfit.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

That heartbeat for Boston paid off. Eventually, that monthly class became a weekly. They picked up a few more teachers and had four classes a week.

And they did this while White started a new career in lifestyle and integrated marketing for New Balance, enrolled in yoga sculpt teacher training, and planned her wedding.

Valdez worked in business administration at an architecture firm and as Trillfit head instructor and teacher trainer. White pitched Trillfit to Accelerate Boston, an entrepreneurial program, and won $10,000.

In three years, Trillfit boomed from a party pop-up to 21 classes a week in a brick-and-mortar studio. They offer sculpt, lunchtime express classes, and their most popular class, cardio dance. Soon, they will introduce cardio kickboxing.

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“This started out as Heather’s one idea,” Valdez says. “Now we’re here. There’s a sign in the studio. It says, ‘You belong here.’ When people walk in here, we want them to feel welcome. We want them to feel empowered. That’s what Trillfit is.”

On a Thursday night, the girl power is undeniable. The lights are low and the bass thumps. On this evening, women — black, white, and brown — are switching up the tempo between jumping jacks and lunges and twerking and body rolling. Valdez is the force that keeps them going, commanding the crowd, “Drop it low and pop it up.”

In the front row, 27-year-old Chantal Banuelos shines in a neon orange sports bra that says “Fearless.”
In the front row, 27-year-old Chantal Banuelos shines in a neon orange sports bra that says “Fearless.”(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

In the front row, 27-year-old Chantal Banuelos shines in a neon orange sports bra that says “Fearless.” She slinks to the beat, smiling and soaking up every sweaty second like a pro.

It’s her first class.

“I love it,” she says. “I usually dance like this in my living room. It’s nice to come to a space and work out with others who move the same. It’s the culture, the [butt] shaking, it feels good to express myself and move my body this way to hip-hop. It’s empowering to me.”

That’s the vibe.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.