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Sweat It Out to West African Beats

Afrobeat Fit in Pawtucket is kicking off the next big, fully choreographed craze in fitness

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Forget the national trends like Zumba, barre or whatever animals they’re pairing with yoga this week – the next big fitness class craze might be starting right here in Rhode Island.

“We just wanted to dance to Afrobeat,” says Kemi Omisore, explaining how she and fellow dancer/trainer Carven Bernadeau came to create Afrobeat Fit, which they describe as “one-hour sweat sessions where music and movement derive from the late and great influencers of West Africa and the UK.”

For those who are unfamiliar, Afrobeat is a style of West African popular music that developed throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, when upbeat dance music like Ghanian highlife collided with African-American sounds like funk, jazz and even rock. Its biggest star, Fela Kuti, often referred to as the James Brown of Africa, coined the term “Afrobeat” and pretty much defined the sound, with its insistent grooves, propulsive polyrhythms,and big, brassy horn fanfares. Since then, the music has continued to evolve and spread worldwide, incorporating new influences like hip-hop and dancehall along the way.

Kemi was living in Atlanta and working as a professional dancer in 2013 when the idea for Afrobeat Fit came to her. It took a few years and a return to Rhode Island, plus a connection with Carver, to bring it to fruition, but eventually the two women started hosting informal classes in which proceeds were donated to a local charity. They refined the concept and soon launched Afrobeat Fit chapters in Providence and Boston. The Providence sessions are currently held at Studio 9 Artist Hub in Pawtucket, a coworking/incubator space by day that becomes Afrobeat Fit’s dance studio by night.

Afrobeat Fit is not only a good schvitz – Kemi and Carven refer to themselves as “Sweat Coaches” with good reason – but also a deceptively effective choreography class. They eased us into the swing of things with simple movements like leg kicks, high knees, “walking it out” and “winding” (twisting and rotating one’s core to the music), walked us through several segments that built on one another, and before we knew it we were executing a fully choreographed, multi-part dance routine.

Now, I’m not saying I danced well, but that’s not exactly the point either. The class is brisk and upbeat. The instructors aren’t rigorous about form and the goal isn’t to get it right so much as it is to just keep moving. They encourage participants to perform each move to their level of comfort, often introducing variations for those who need more or less of a challenge. The only rule – repeated loudly and often – is to engage your core at all times, in every move, no matter what.

The hour flies by and in what seemed like minutes we were panting, dripping with sweat, and working out moves like the Shoki from Nigeria and the Azonto from Ghana. Afrobeat Fit aims to make you sweat, but also to show you a few things you can “take home and use on a dance floor,” says Kemi.

She’s already planning to take Afrobeat Fit regional and then national, so remember: a couple years from now when you see some breathless trend piece about how everybody in New York is doing the Shoki, it started here in Rhode Island – by way of West Africa, of course.

Afrobeat Fit
65 Blackstone Avenue, Pawtucket