The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us much about ourselves, and many of us have started to reevaluate our short-and long-term goals, prioritize families, friends, and other relationships, and center what matters most. The same is true for celebrities like star fitness trainer Shaun T.
After more than a year of many of us being physically quarantined, the man born Shaun Thompson learned to recommit to bringing joy, energy, and fun back into our lives with his all-new dance conditioning program called “Let’s Get Up.” Shaun joins Cassius to discuss how his priorities have pivoted from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to the present and the meaning of family, fatherhood, and joy, especially during Pride month.
Preston Mitchum: It doesn’t escape me that we’re speaking during Pride Month, one of my favorite times of the year. I often think about so many LGBTQ ancestors, like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde,, Bayard Rustin, and of course, Marsha P. Johnson. We have a rich history that should never be forgotten. Can you tell our readers what Pride Month means to you?
Shaun T: It means a lot, but really to hone it in for what it means to me this year is I’m actually celebrating Pride Month for the people who can’t really celebrate their pride. For the people who are still in the closet, for people who are teased for being gay that have never come out. I just think that I, and a lot of us, are now living a lifestyle where we can be like, “Hey girl,” we can party up, live our best lives, post on social media. And there’s so many people out there who can’t do that for fear of being ridiculed or being disowned by their family. And, so, Pride Month for me this year is I’m just going to do what I do best—to inspire, motivate, and try to celebrate for other people because it’s really hard.
Before we come out, we are living a life that’s not truly who we are. Many people are afraid and not yet able to really stand up for themselves. I’m celebrating Pride Month for those people.
PM: Sometimes being Black and gay teaches us how to be courageous a lot earlier than we would expect. So, anyone following your journey knows that you have worked your way to the top of the fitness world. You’ve done tremendous amounts of work in physical fitness and the creator of so many best-selling programs like Insanity, Hip Hop Abs, and Focus T25. As someone who has worked out with Insanity, or at least attempted to do so, can you tell us about LET’S GET UP!? What makes this one special?
ST: LET’S GET UP! will be less of attempting and more of showing out. I created it for the people who want to cut up and have fun during a workout. I created it for people who can’t just get up and want to do 10,000 burpees, pushups, and power jumps. I did it for people who want to have a good time in their work out, or people who want to reset their journey. In addition, I created LET’S GET UP! because we’ve been in a pandemic. If you look at a lot of stuff online, many will see dark rooms and everything is in a warehouse and it’s dark. I wanted to create something bright, exciting, fun, and who doesn’t love to dance? Even if you don’t know how, who doesn’t love to cut a rug?
I also wanted to create something where you burn calories, you can lift that booty. Because we are coming into summertime and we are going to be fast out there in those speedos and bikinis. I wanted something that people could get great results and still have a really good time.
PM: I must admit how jealous I am of the speed with which you learn how to do TikTok dances. So, as a self-proclaimed good dancer, I’m trying to get on your level. When did you start realizing how much you loved dancing, and learning the dances and that can be used as exercise and fitness?
ST: I’ve wanted to dance since I was an 8-year-old. I actually asked my mom if I could be a ballerina but as many young boys often hear, “Little boys don’t dance.” So, I didn’t start dancing until I was in college, and then I became a professional dancer. I pick up choreography extremely fast for the most part. I love the choreography, it’s fun. These little TikTok dances sometimes take me 20 minutes. But most of the time it takes me probably about 10 minutes. And, then, I still do it 15 times because you aren’t going to catch me up there messing up. I think a lot of people try to do the steps too early. It’s like, “Just watch it. Let it sit in your body for a second, and then go for it.” I think it’s a great way for people to engage on social media instead of only political talk, divisiveness, and shame.
PM: Well, I won’t tell you how long it takes me to learn.
ST: I don’t judge. *laughs* No, I’m kidding. But I do love the interpretation of TikTok dances.
PM: We know that dancing is a form of exercise and also helps with physical, mental, and emotional health. As a Black gay man, what makes health so important to you?
Being healthy is also recognizing when you’re feeling overwhelmed, or feeling stressed, or, for some people, depression and anxiety.
ST: I think when I was younger, it was suicide. I wanted to lose weight and I wanted to have a six-pack, whatever. But now it’s more about mental fitness. It’s about just overall well-being and knowing that if you are as healthy as you can be, and you’re eating healthy, and you have a general fitness regimen, you feel confident.
Regardless of how much you weigh, it’s the fact that you’re doing something that’s aiding in your health and wellness, it just means you feel more confident. And if I can go here, people always associate health with a six-pack. And okay, it’s very easy for me to say what I’m about to say because for the most part, I keep my little abs or whatever, but not everybody needs a six- pack. So just love yourself and the confidence will shine through. And somebody’s going to come get that number.
PM: You talked a bit about mental health, obviously, as much as physical health. And so how do you stay mentally healthy?
ST: I stay mentally healthy by doing things that I love, surrounding myself with people that really lift me up. And I just am very self-aware especially when I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. I think the biggest thing is don’t be afraid to admit you’re overwhelmed. As a Black gay man, I had to be the strong person and growing up expressing myself was a sense of weakness. But we all have weaknesses. We’re not all good at everything.
When it comes to mental health, I think the sooner we know when we are on maybe a downhill or a decline, whatever, in our mental health, it’s better to recognize it sooner than later. So you don’t need to hit rock bottom. Just be honest with yourself and don’t be afraid to tell it to someone. And it is tough.
Even just recently, I had to talk to my husband about how stressed mentally I am. It’s really hard to go to somebody and say, “I’m feeling really weak emotionally.” If you have a cold, if you have the flu, you can say, “I have the sniffles. I have a fever,” and people are like, “Oh, I see that you’re sick.” But when it comes to mental health, it’s looked at as a sign of weakness if you can’t push through. Being healthy is also recognizing when you’re feeling overwhelmed, or feeling stressed, or, for some people, depression and anxiety. It’s a real thing.
Regardless of how much you weigh, it’s the fact that you’re doing something that’s aiding in your health and wellness, it just means you feel more confident.
PM: Mental health can also be impacted by police killings. It doesn’t escape me that a year ago, we had a resurgence of Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. As a gay Black man in the United States, with many stories of violence and discrimination, how, if at all, are you holding onto joy? How are you creating pathways to healing for yourself and others?
ST: I realize that many people are unhappy with the way that I handle these things. But, for me I have to do what is naturally me. There are activists out there who are really powerful and great at speaking up and taking a stand. And, for me, I take the stand of showing people here’s how you find joy in your life, even though we’re struggling, even though there’s a ton of divisiveness. I think that I should be allowed to be a pillar of strength for people in that way. People would get mad about, “You’re not talking enough about Black Lives Matter.” I’m like, “Well, there are people out there who really do that, but I’m not a news organization. Let me be that person to help bring you joy and laughter when you’re scrolling through social media. Let me be the person that actually brings a smile to your face.
On the flip side, I do think there is power on social media. I have a podcast where I talk about my struggles, and the struggle I have with my family. Many times my son and I are the only Black people in our family, and I have discussed the complexities surrounding that. So, yes, I do use my voice but, when it comes to my work and when it comes to my social media platforms, I want to try to bring joy to as many people as possible. In the end, you don’t have to be all things for everybody. You can be something really good that provides people with whatever it is that you want to provide.
PM: With many projects, an incredible Instagram and TikTok, maintaining your mental and emotional health, and tending to your family, how do you maintain a work-life balance?
ST: I have a really great, communicative relationship with my husband. To the point where sometimes he will buy me a flight and book a hotel for me to get away for two and a half days by myself. Or when we need alone time with just us, we’ll take that time.
Also, I work with people that I really enjoy. We have a small team and they’re part of that group that lifts me up. I try to create a really fun work environment so that it’s not as hard to balance it out. I just think it’s really important for people to put up boundaries for themselves like we did in a pandemic. And as you probably know, the 5:00 clock out time didn’t matter. People were like, “Well, you’re home. You should answer my email at 11:00 at night.” And it’s like, “I’m actually going to be with my family, or I want to put my kids to bed, and I want to spend time with my spouse.”
If possible, I think that people need to really communicate with their bosses or their managers and say, “Hey, I’m stopping at 6:30. This is my family time. This is it.” So, people can’t get mad at your honesty. Or, they can, but they are going to have to deal with it.
PM: I understand what you mean and even I have been more intentional about boundaries. It’s an everyday practice. So, it seems like you’ve done everything. What’s next for you?
ST: Oh, man. That is a really great question. What is next for me? Oh, lord. I’ve been asked recently to do an acting gig. I have always said, “I am not going to be an actor.” I’m like, “Oh my God, I’ll be horrible at it.” But it just still seems to keep coming across my little desk. So, I’m going to try it. But outside of that, I don’t know what’s next. I’m just really enjoying fatherhood. That’s kind of what I love the best right now.
If we’ve learned anything this past year, it is to center Black joy whenever possible. In a world that allows white supremacist ideology to go unscathed, Black joy is a radical, revolutionary act. One that we should attempt to hold onto with all our might.