Anyone who has been to Trinidad and Tobago for Carnival will probably tell you the same thing: There is nothing like it. The annual pre-Lent festival stretches over two days, with thousands of people donning costumes and “jumping up” to soca, a high-energy blend of calypso and dance-hall music.
All of that dancing — or “wining,” as locals call it — will leave your legs sore, but you’ll have such a good time that it won’t matter. That’s exactly how I felt after Soka Tribe, a Carnival-inspired fitness class that captures all of the energy of playing “mas” — the Trini term for dancing through the streets with a masquerade band.
Held every other Saturday at the Off Road DC studio in the District, Soka Tribe classes manage to cram two days’ worth of Carnival into one hour. Creator Shermica Farquhar, 32, simulates the experience of being “on the road” with choreographed routines fueled by soca music.
“There is a sense of freedom [in Carnival]. You have this explosive experience, you’re on the road, with your friends, with your family . . . and it’s amazing,” said Farquhar, a self-described Brooklyn-born Trini. “I want to capture all of that.”
Farquhar has played mas and studied dance since age 4. She kicked off her first Soka Tribe class in the District last summer and then took the show to New York, Chicago and Atlanta. Touring is a little tiring, but Farquhar said she is building a community. She is even taking a group to Carnival in Miami this October.
“I want to get people really engaged,” she said. “I’ve been telling folks that I can’t take everyone to Trinidad, but let’s all go to Miami together and play mas.”
Carnival is celebrated throughout the Caribbean, but the largest festival in the region takes place in Trinidad on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
The tradition on the island dates to the 18th century, originating with French plantation owners and later adopted by emancipated slaves who infused it with African-derived traditions. Former slaves eventually wore costumes that mocked the old slave masters and celebrated their own folklore.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Farquhar strapped on feathered wrist and leg bands before welcoming 16 men and women to play mas. There were one or two first-timers, but the majority were back for a second, third or 15th class. Most repeat customers had West Indian friends or parents who had immersed them in the culture or who had had the good fortune of participating in Carnival.
Rich Parker, 32, may not have family ties to the Caribbean, but he’s been to Carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Miami and is heading to ones in Barbados and Jamaica. The Brooklyn native joked that he has a serious case of Carnival “tabanca” — love sickness.
“This is a fix for my tabanca,” said Parker, who lives in the District. “I can come here, wine. It’s good therapy. I’m not really the most coordinated, but I just love the energy and the music.”
Before taking the class “on the road,” Farquhar shares a little about herself and her passion for Carnival. To get the crowd going, she gives a few call-and-response cues.
“Now, when I say ‘vibes,’ you say ‘cyah done,’ ” she says, using a phrase that means “never stops.” “Vibes?”
“Cyah done,” the crowd sheepishly responds.
“Okay, louder. Vibes?”
“Yes! Leh we go.”
And it’s time to wine — or, as Farquhar commands, “wok up yu waist!” Her routines draw on contemporary and traditional Caribbean and African dances, with a heavy emphasis on working the thighs and glutes. Each set builds momentum for the pinnacle of the parade: crossing the stage. That’s the point in Carnival when bands of masqueraders wine, jump and stomp their way across a stage to be judged on the creativity of their costumes. All of the pent-up energy is released before a crowd of onlookers as revelers compete to be named band of the year.
Although there was no prize at stake, Farquhar revved up the class for our own crossing. Gathered in a circle, we squatted low, waiting for the crescendo in the song before springing into a tuck jump. After a few rounds, what started as a harmless-enough dance turned into Tabata — high-intensity interval training. Clever trick.
With the stage behind us, the class split up into two lines that snaked around the studio “chipping” (think two-step shuffle). Farquhar gave us her best imitation of jamming on the road with a rhythm section by beating a metal cup with a spoon. Not exactly a steel band, but effective.
“The music, the energy, the culture, the whole package just works,” said Tamica Daniel, 33, who has attended 15 classes. Because her parents are from Grenada, Daniel said she was already familiar with the tradition of Carnival and drawn to the idea of the workout.
Throughout the class, Farquhar shares a bit about the history of Carnival and the significance of the tradition. The culture, she said, is central to the class experience. Farquhar wants to scale up Soka Tribe and is considering whether to license the classes down the road, in similar fashion to Zumba. As she builds out the brand, Farquhar is keen on making sure instructors will also be knowledgeable about Carnival.
“Building the Soka Tribe brand is something that’s core to me from an educational, cultural experience,” she said. “It’s about making sure it’s a very authentic experience, and that’s important.”
Classes (sokatribe.com) are $15 each orfive classes for $60. Bring a friend to your first class, and the two of you will pay $24.