In Motion

Add a Spicy Rhythm to Your Workout

Jenny Polutan, above center, and Lucinda Laree, right, take Christine Davis's AFRI-CArdio class at City Fitness in Cleveland Park. The class combines aerobics with West African dance and live drumming.
Jenny Polutan, above center, and Lucinda Laree, right, take Christine Davis's AFRI-CArdio class at City Fitness in Cleveland Park. The class combines aerobics with West African dance and live drumming. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Sheila Walsh
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 10, 2006

"Move your boomsey! Mooove it!" bellowed Kukuwa Nuamah, whose high-energy aerobics classes blend Latin, African and Caribbean music and dance. Her classes are among many available at Washington area gyms that spice up aerobic workouts with dance movements and music from Africa and Latin America.

The classes challenge participants as they move their bodies in new ways, but the focus is on fun. In Nuamah's self-named "Kukuwa Latino-Africano-Caribbeano dance workout," myriad body parts move simultaneously in various directions and speeds. The head might go one way and the shoulders another, while arms sweep wide and feet step side to side.

Then there's the "boomsey," otherwise known as the buttocks. For every step of the foot or movement of the arms, Nuamah's six-pack abdomen gyrated quadruple-time or faster at a recent class at Lifetime Fitness in Fairfax. The advanced students, including several who had been trained as Kukuwa instructors, could move everything at once. Rivulets of sweat streamed down their bodies. The rest of us mere mortals kept up as best we could, still getting a workout, though those whose bodies could multitask seemed to be working up more of a sweat. Throughout the class, smiling students shouted out in enthusiastic response to Nuamah's constant banter of "heys" and "hoo-wahs."

"The challenge is to do everything at the same time," Nuamah said. People who attend the class regularly, she said, are able to gradually increase their range and speed of motion.

The festive music, most of it produced specifically for Kukuwa classes and videos, blends merengue and salsa, African soukous (whose name comes from secouer , "to shake" in French) and soca rhythms from the Caribbean. As Nuamah proudly advertises on her Web site, the workout received a blurb in an article on fitness in the January 2005 issue of Oprah Winfrey's O magazine.

Nuamah, 47, a choreographer for the Gye Nyame African Cultural Dance Company and an adjunct professor of African dance at George Mason University, developed the workout 20 years ago. She said she sees her class as an alternative to typical aerobics classes, which she said are "too stiff." The head movements, which include looking up while moving backward, are helpful for the neck and spine, she said. The pelvic gyration helps students tone their abdomens, she said. In parts of Africa, she said, midwives encourage new mothers to tone their midsections by doing this type of pelvic motion for 15 minutes a day.

Mike Thunman of Fairfax, who has been going to the class at Lifetime Fitness for a year, said he found that the class toned muscles in his lower back that other forms of exercise don't reach. "There's nothing like this that gives me this kind of workout," he said. He also said he enjoys the class's warm and friendly atmosphere. Can he move his boomsey as fast as his teacher? "Not yet," he said, laughing. "But I'm working on it."

Other aerobics classes driven by music and dance from Latin America and Africa are available at gyms throughout the area. Washington Sports Club, for example, offers "Latin Groove" and "Brazilian Groove" aerobics classes at multiple locations, including downtown Washington and Bethesda. Gold's Gym near the Van Ness Metro station holds a Latin aerobics class on Monday nights. Fitness First offers Latin cardio at its Germantown, Rockville and downtown Washington locations.

Christine Davis's AFRI-CArdio class, offered every other Saturday at City Fitness in Cleveland Park, combines an aerobics workout with West African dance and live drumming. "In traditional aerobics classes, the movements frequently emphasize the music's upbeat. In AFRI-CArdio, we let our center of gravity be lower -- in the pelvis -- and we emphasize the downbeat," she said. African music is polyrhythmic, she explained, so there are multiple rhythms to follow. "But I don't want to get too complicated -- that would turn it into a dance class. I try to keep it simple."

Students keep moving throughout the class, maintaining an elevated heart rate for aerobic benefit. Unlike a dance class, Davis's class focuses more on the "feel" of the dance rather than on perfecting specific steps or movement.

"I encourage everyone to let themselves go and to feel free to make movements of their own rather than being a carbon copy of me," said Davis, who studied dance in Guinea last year. "It's about cutting loose."

KUKUWA LATINO-AFRICANO-CARIBBEANO DANCE WORKOUT At gyms throughout the Washington area, including L.A. Sports Club in the District, Fairfax County, Bethesda and Mount Rainier. The classes are taught by either Kukuwa or one of 14 instructors she has trained in the Washington area. For a list of regularly offered classes and special workshops, visit For nonmembers of gyms where the classes are taught, prices are $10 to $20 for a drop-in class.

Other gyms offering similar African or Latin dance-based classes include:

CITY FITNESS 3525 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-537-0539. Afri-CArdio classes every other Saturday. $15 for nonmembers.

FITNESS FIRST 301-963-1500. Latin cardio classes weekly in Germantown, Rockville and the District. Rates vary by club.

GOLD'S GYM VAN NESS 4310 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-4653. Latin aerobics class, Mondays 6-7. $15 nonmembers.

WASHINGTON SPORTS CLUB "Latin Groove" and "Brazilian Groove" aerobics classes at multiple locations. Rates vary by club.

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