Leah Oatway joins a group of women who have found the ideal way to lose weight and tap into the rhythm of African music.
There is something about African music that makes even the most unco-ordinated and lethargic of people want to move their feet. Liris Mosquera, Exhale women's gym's dance instructor, who is African Columbian, believes it is the rhythm of the music and the image it evokes of an "exotic" landscape and culture, which makes her African dance class so popular. One regular dancer at the gym, Donya Ghani, 41, has lost inches from her waist and hips, spurred on by the enthusiasm and talent of the instructor. She says the class is addictive and an unbeatable fat burner.
Whatever the reason, every Monday evening in a small dance studio at a women-only gym in Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Residence, at least 15 people of varying ages, shapes and sizes return for more of Mosquera's high-energy contemporary African dance class. Originally from Iran, Ghani, says the workout "just melts the fat". She has been attending the class with her friend Alessandra Cardoso, 44, from Brazil, for two months.
"I have lost four inches from my legs and hips," said Cardoso. "I am more flexible too." The class is an hour of high-energy African dance moves that require little in terof co-ordination. African dance, Mosquera explains, is "all about happiness". "Africans dance for their land, for the sky, they dance for the moon, for the sun," she says. "There are various different meanings but the most important thing is that the dances are joyous.
"You can let yourself go, move the way you feel, put all those feelings out from the body. "When people see Africans dance, the first thing they notice is how happy they are, their smile, and I believe they want to feel the same." While the class puts paid to any myth that women do not sweat - Mosquera refuses to use the air conditioning outside the hottest summer months because she says it can cause muscle cramp and interfere with flexibility - there are certainly plenty of happy faces.
As Cardoso puts it: "You are in pain but you are actually enjoying it". A combination of dance moves from various different African tribes, to a mixture of music from drums, to what Mosquera calls "Latin African" music and even reggae, provide an all-encompassing workout that uses everything from the legs up to the arand abdominals. "You can imitate the movement of an eagle or a horse and at the same time work out and release the body. How good a workout you have is dependent on what you put into it," she says.
The class begins with a series of simple dance moves that warm up the arms, legs and torso muscles, particularly the core. The focus is on technique and Mosquera, a professional dancer who leads from the front of the class, wanders around to check that everyone is moving correctly. "The core is the most important area," she explained. "For ladies this is the area they really should focus on because this is the muscle area that can control the body and posture.
"After the abs, of course, we work the whole of the legs and butt and the hips, because when we isolate the abs we contract the hips and we also use our arms." The dance incorporates moves that Shakira and Beyoncé would be proud of - including a great deal of hip and abdominal movement along with strong arm movements and the ab ility to isolate chest movement so as not to use the shoulders. For the less inhibited and more flexible there is plenty of hair-shaking, head-swaying and attitude to be injected into most moves.
Self-awareness or any qualabout the movement of wobbly bits should be left at the door. First-timers generally position themselves toward the back of the class and giggle as they make their way through the first session. "People always feel awkward initially," said Mosquera. "But by the second or third class that feeling is usually gone. It just takes time. The more flexible the student the quicker they pick it up but women are generally co-ordinated so it takes them a maximum of two lessons to get it."
It is not an academic class, she points out, but she does gently press her students to assume the correct arm or hip position as the music plays to ensure they get the best workout possible and learn properly. "I always wanted to focus on technique," she says, referring to her own study of dance. "It is the only way to learn properly and practise to get it right. You get a stronger muscle workout that way."
While the physical results of the class are important, with the correct technique and energy, she says it is possible to burn between 500 and 1,000 calories in an hour. There is also a mental benefit to the experience. "I have a student in the Latin dance class I teach, for example, who used to come in the afternoon," Mosquera says. "She was the shy person, really shy. That same girl is unbelievable now.
"I like to have fun, to jump or dance or do crazy stuff in the class, and I tell them, 'Girls we are only women here, so don't worry who is looking. It is meant to be fun. Be happy, get confidence in yourself because if you don't have that, then no one else will bring you it. Everyone likes to dance."