Bokwa is a cardio-licious blend of hip-hop and step aerobics that taps into South African-style dance. Confused? Don’t be — the dance steps are actually based on letters and numbers, not choreography. The movements are in the shape of English-language letters, for example L, J, and C. Once dancers have the steps down, they can jazz it up with extra shimmies, hip bumps, or other freestylin’ moves. The program’s beauty is its simplicity. Because each move is pretty basic, dancers can get as fancy (or high-energy) as they want or keep it basic (and low-impact).
Bokwa was born when L.A.-based fitness instructor Paul Mavi teamed up with T.V. and fitness entrepreneur Johann Verheem in 2012. The dynamic duo initially launched their new dance concept in the United Kingdom (where it’s all the rage) and then the U.S. Currently, there are over 4,000 certified Bokwa instructors in the U.K. and classes available in 30 states throughout the U.S. The company expects to expand to all 50 states by the end of 2013.
And what about that name? Bokwa doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, probably because it’s a portmanteau of boxing (“bo”) and kwaito (“kwa”), an Africaans word for a style of South African music and dance. It’s a bit of a misnomer, since the class doesn’t contain actually feature any boxing moves, and Mavi has since removed the kwaito elements because they’re too complicated for dancers to pick up quickly.
Party atmosphere (with plenty of top 40 hit music, whoops, and yahoo-ing)? Check. Possibly hyperbolic claims that you’ll burn hundreds of calories in an hour? Check. With flashy neon graphics, branded clothing, and specially certified instructors, Bokwa clearly borrows many elements from its successful predecessor, Zumba. All 20 students in the class were female (although one of the three instructors was a man) and many were middle-aged or older.
Stepping into the studio at a New York Sports Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I was a bit skeptical. But the hour-long class turned out to be both more exciting and much more of a workout than I anticipated. Bokwa is billed as an alternative to Zumba or other similar fitness classes — basically, a dance workout for non-dancers. In traditional dance cardio sessions, the instructor simply performs the moves and class participants follow along behind. During the Bokwa class, the lead instructor, Kathryn Blaze, explained each movement (in detail) before we started working out. After the initial chalk talk, Kathryn and her two assistant instructors began adding embellishments and speeding up the pace, leaving it up to each dancer to remember the shapes, letters, and numbers of each move. I found myself using my brain much more than I do during a typical fitness class.
Although there was less handholding in Bokwa than in other similar classes, I appreciated the program’s emphasis on adaptability. While I’m not suggesting that Zumba is run like a totalitarian dictatorship, it’s also not exactly a forum for freestyling. All in all, my experience at Bokwa was positive and unexpectedly challenging. The “letters and numbers” approach to choreography is a fresh new way to teach dance that makes the class truly adaptable for participants with various levels of fitness or dance ability.