We’ve all heard about the importance of hydration so many times that it seems like a cliché. But when New Orleans musician Robin Barnes drank nothing but alcohol, energy drinks and caffeinated beverages while touring Greece, she learned firsthand that not drinking water can decimate the kidneys. The long, painful recovery from kidney damage involved a forced hiatus from performing, terrifying doctor visits, and eight medications. “I was 23 and walking with a cane,” Robin says, shaking her head as she tells me about it during my recent visit to New Orleans.
But like so many dire scenarios, her physical trauma inspired something wonderful. Something almost miraculous: The creation of a New Orleans-centric fitness regimen that’s changing the lives of hundreds of New Orleanians.
Not the likeliest fitness teacher
Robin came from a family of musicians. “I’m the baby of seven,” she says. “Six were boys.” Like many singers, her musical career started as a child in church.
In high school, she played golf and volleyball. She never loved doing cardio exercise. But after her kidney crisis, a doctor advised her to make cardio part of her routine. She considered joining a running club, but felt existing clubs were too elite. So she wrote a post explaining her kidney issue to her Facebook friends, many of whom were fans of her music. “I said I want to learn to run,” she remembers. “If I’m held accountable, I’ll do it.” She invited interested folks to meet up at City Park.
That first Monday, ten strangers showed up and they walked and ran together. Over the last year and a half, that number has climbed to between 30 and 50 every Monday, with a total of 500 occasional participants.
“It manifested into something bigger,” she says. Just like at her performances, she tells the runners, “You come as a stranger. You leave as family.”
Pretty soon, the running group had a name: Move Ya Brass.
More Brass Classes
The running group had been underway for about a year when Robin got a call from administrators at Crescent Park, a newish public park on the Mississippi River. “They called and said, ‘Do you have any programming?’”
Robin led the running club with a few volunteer captains. That was it. While her captains shook their heads in horror, Robin made up three classes on the spot: Bounce Your Brass, kind of like Zumba but set to bounce music; a yoga spinoff called Stretch Your Brass; and a cardio class called Hip Hop Your Brass. She figured if she didn’t find a teacher she’d have to do it herself, even if it meant twerking for an hour.
“They call me the yes person,” she says.
Miraculously, the day the new programming was to debut in Crescent Park, one of her principals found Shanda Domango. Shanda is a dancer, fitness teacher, personal trainer and New Orleans native who had just moved back from Los Angeles. It was a perfect match.
I took the Tuesday evening Bounce Ya Brass class in Crescent Park. Shanda’s teaching style is extremely encouraging. Choreography is very simple and repetitive so everybody can get it, making it accessible for new exercisers. When the squats get deeper and muscles tire, she says, “Love you” to make people feel better. The killer view of the New Orleans skyline also makes the squats more bearable.
I talked to Shanda after class. After finishing a master’s degree in art management at Claremont College, she realized her immediate calling was fitness. “But I started to think, ‘I should go home and get my city healthy.’” But she wanted to do it New Orleans style. Her class playlist includes bounce music and upbeat horn-driven tracks from the Rebirth Brass Band. “We can still be New Orleanians and live a healthy, active lifestyle.”
Community response has been terrific at Crescent Park, she says. “It started as a six-week class, but they keep repeating it,” she said. Sometimes she has 50 people out bouncing their brasses.
A community feeling
The original Move Ya Brass running club is free to all members of the community. Robin was determined to offer the new classes for free as well. “So many people are scared off as soon as they see a price tag,” Robin says.
The park pays Move Ya Brass. Participants show up and take free classes.
Move Ya Brass also teaches classes at private events to fund the community programming. And several businesses, including activewear giant Lululemon, partner with them.
Robin loves to see positive changes in her Brass friends. One runner has lost 100 pounds since he joined the running group. He felt accepted by the group from the start, which motivated him to persevere.
The running club and classes attract people of various ages, colors and sizes. High schoolers jog alongside seniors, and everyone in between.
“I grew up in a world of New Orleans where there was a lot of diversity,” Robin says, “but also a lot of divide. I refuse to participate in the divide.”