Bokwa fitness, easy as A-B-C, 1-2-3

Instructor Melanie Montana leads a high-energy Bokwa cardio workout at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. Bokwa is the brainchild of South African fitness guru Paul Mavi.
Instructor Melanie Montana leads a high-energy Bokwa cardio workout at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. Bokwa is the brainchild of South African fitness guru Paul Mavi. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 20, 2013

Every once in a while, a new fitness craze enters the scene that participants swear by. It was step aerobics in the '80s, kickboxing and spinning in the '90s, Zumba at the dawn of the new millennium, and now Bokwa.

If you haven't heard of Bokwa yet, just wait - it's coming to a gym near you. Urging participants to "sweat the alphabet, dance the digits," the routine that is based on tracing letters, numbers, and shapes with your feet has devotees that span the decades - senior citizens, even 4-year-olds. (Search for "Bokwa babies episode" on YouTube and watch in awe.)

"It's different from anything else because the steps are very easy to pick up," said Jayne Miller-Morgan, associate fitness director at Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. When the JCC introduced four classes in April, it started with five or six people and quickly grew to 15, without any marketing. The JCC plans to add kids' classes in the fall.

"It's like line dancing; once you know the moves, you're always going to know it."

The program boasts that anyone can do it. Kids are a natural, said Stephanie McWilliams, a Hamilton, Mercer County, resident who has led group fitness classes for 15 years and Bokwa for the last year and a half.

She teaches 2½- to 6-year-old kids at the Montessori School of Hamilton, where, besides the obvious advantage of offering exercise, Bokwa reinforces the things they already are learning: numbers, letters, and shapes.

"This is just a different way for them to grasp these concepts," McWilliams said. "Kinesthetically, they are learning to make these shapes with their foot patterns and cognitively they make the connection, 'This is an L. I see that I'm moving in the shape of an L.' "

Like the popular classes that have come before it, Bokwa offers the ability to be high-intensity - including flourishes like the swivel of a hip, arms waving in the air, even some hooting and hollering - or low.

"You don't need to think too hard about it, which is what people are looking for, and you get such a good sweat without realizing it," McWilliams said. "By the time class is over, you've burned 1,000-plus calories and had so much fun doing it."

The phenomenon is the brainchild of fitness guru Paul Mavi, who melded his native South African dance into an easy-to-learn format. Inspired by a student who lacked natural rhythm, Mavi's goal was to come up with steps that anyone could master. "Since she couldn't dance, I felt that my job was to make her feel magical by creating the most simple steps that she found to be easy," he said.

The name Bokwa stemmed from an earlier concept of the program when Mavi was combining boxing (bo) with kwaito (kwa), a South African dance genre. He has since removed the kwaito style because the rhythms are too difficult for many people to master.

Two years ago, Mavi and business partner Johann Verheem, also from South Africa with a finance and marketing background, introduced Bokwa in the United Kingdom. They started with 34 certified instructors and now have more than 4,000 in that country alone. "Because of social media, it spread to all the other countries in Europe," said Mavi said.

They branched out into the United States in early 2013 and now operate in about 30 states, with plans to be in all 50 by the end of the year.

To many, the program has become a family affair. Huda Sleiman began taking classes from Mavi's brother at Cornerstone Clubs in Doylestown more than five years ago, and is now a teacher. She said, "My mom takes it with me and my sister also. My mom is 52 and she can move as much as I do at 32."

Kyle Anderson, 13, enjoys the class with his mother, Kristi Boehringer, 42. "My mom forced me to go, but then I liked it," admitted the student at Tamanend Middle School in Warrington, who plays football and soccer. "All the people watch me and see how good I am."

Boehringer's heart rate climbs into the 140s during class.

"I'd been wanting to get back into physical activity and this is one of the best things I've ever done because it's very easy to catch on, and the music is current and upbeat."

Marlène Collins, 70, appreciates the mental aspect of Bokwa. "You use your brain to remember the various moves," said the Cherry Hill resident. "Now I'm trying to learn the foot moves and then I'll add the arms and develop my own style."

Instructors are trained by corporate "education specialists" and must pass a 10-hour, $249 training session before being allowed to teach Level 1. After 90 days, instructors can ascend to higher levels - there currently are six, with more planned.

The Bokwa company also earns revenue from $29-per-month membership fees, which give teachers access to licensed music, new moves, marketing materials, and continuing education classes called smashdowns. Bokwa also sells apparel.

As part of the company's philanthropic arm, Bokwa Bounce Foundation, instructors pledge one hour of instruction per week to schools in their neighborhood. Teachers have started on a small scale in the United States, but the program is entrenched abroad. "In the U.K., our objective is to get to donating 1,000 hours a week. . . . I think in the U.S. it's going to be five to 10 times bigger," said Verheem.

Though its founders aren't willing to reveal financial data, Verheem said its goal is to become one of the top three group fitness companies in the country in terms of market share and revenue, while also being known as a high-quality program for instructors. (Zumba is currently No. 1.) He thinks Bokwa is well on its way.

"You can have a 7-year-old, a 75-year-old, a world-class dancer, and a whole bunch of people in between, and they are all fully expressing themselves in the moment," Verheem said. "That's what Bokwa is about. It's a language of movement, and once you know the language, you can speak it."

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