For ethnic Hausa, the traditional form of boxing known as dambe is more than a sport – it is part of their identity.
Abuja, Nigeria – “Move your body … swing your arms,” the instructor bellows to a class full of women sweating profusely in the torrid heat. “Stretch your legs.”
In the background, a band of musicians enthusiastically beats African drums and other instruments, producing a slew of fast-paced, upbeat rhythmic sounds.
The dance steps start with relatively simple movements of the body and then escalate into more complicated patterns and variations. At their peak, the beats cause a frenzy, leaving the dancers panting.
This is the Afrobics aerobics class, where fitness enthusiasts gyrate to live African music.
Located in the Wuse 2 district of Abuja, Nigeria, Afrobics is exploring the idea of preserving African traditional music through fitness and exercise.
Membership costs approximately $50 a month for three classes a week.
The founder of Afrobics, Chukwukadibia Echefu Fortune, who simply goes by Cef, is a lawyer by training. But he abandoned that profession for his first love – music.
“I have always been interested in culture and heritage. This is a conscious effort to preserve it. Not everybody wants to be part of it. But some have been consistent. They came and liked it,” he says with a smile.
As for his preference for live music, Cef says, “As a musician I know the impact of playing live. People dance with their soul and the experience and feeling is definitely not the same compared to listening to recorded music.”
Classes are performed barefoot. The instructor and drummers don traditional clothing as they lead the dancers through an intense one-hour class.
The instructor, Stanley Shemeji, has 20 years of experience with a degree in theatre arts and a specialisation in dance. He also received further training at the Ebony Theatre in Benue – a school for actors, dancers and drummers. He went on to travel across Nigeria, performing with different troupes.
Shemeji moved to Abuja in 2008 to audition for the job of dance artist and ended up staying.
“I wanted to do this so that our culture will be preserved for the younger generation,” he says.
“Music is my life. Music inspires me. Music has a healing effect. Music is powerful,” he adds.
Together, Cef and Shemeji designed the programme, assembling some of the best drummers in town and offering a free one-month trial, which proved successful.
There are a variety of dance steps, all taken from traditional African dances. He explains a few of these moves and discusses their positive impact on the body:
The Fulani dance from the northern part of Nigeria could be quite tedious, but the movements render it a quick fat burner, he explains. It focuses on the thighs, waistline, shoulders and neck.
From the Middle Belt is the Swangi, which is slow and graceful and involves twisting like a snake in slow motion, toning arms, building flexibility and working out the upper and lower abdomen in the process.
The Ishen dance, also from the Belt, is a high-intensity workout that ferociously burns fat and increases stamina. It also helps to stretch the muscles.
Shemeji seems confident about the health benefits of a consistent dance routine.
“Apart from burning fat, it relieves stress, helps flexibility, stretches the muscles and builds energy and stamina,” the instructor explains. “It is great for overall wellbeing.”
Regular clients at Afrobics swear by it. Gloria, a young woman at the centre, says: “It is definitely something I would encourage others to try. This is something new to add to my exercise regime and I am sure others will appreciate it. We need to spread the news.”