Are You Ready To Booiaka?

By Merlene Davis Lexington Herald-Leader.

A co-worker, who used to be my friend, urged me to take an exercise class she had found that was "fun and different."

I've never described exercise as fun. Those two words should not be used in the same sentence as far as I'm concerned, I said.

Booiaka is different, she said.

I went.

What I saw was a room filled with women of various ages and body types who did seem to be having fun. It was more dance than exercise, complete with music that made standing still quite difficult, even for me.

Booiaka, pronounced boo-ya-ka, is a dance fitness program that takes bits of several dance styles and fuses them into something you might find yourself doing when no one is watching. Latin, Brazilian, Jamaican, hip-hop and old-school R&B beats encourage the body to follow carefully choreographed movements that have the same results as a fitness class.

These participants were following the lead of Tara Johnson, owner of Exalted Fitness at Imani Baptist Church, who is a certified master Booiaka instructor.

"Booiaka is basically a dance-fitness class," Johnson said. "It allows people to release themselves. It allows me to be me. I am a free-spirit individual."

She had us twisting, twerking and moving our bodies in ways mine hadn't moved since I used to go to clubs. OK. Maybe I was simply attempting to twerk. Still, it was indeed fun.

Booiaka was created in 2008 by Italian choreographer and dancer Tatiana Tamai after she moved to Los Angeles. It is an intense workout, but the moves are repeated frequently making them easy to remember and follow. Booiaka takes the intimidation factor out of dance. Each class builds on the previous one, with at least one new move added each time. After about a month, new choreography is started.

"I love it," said Dana Branham, who has attended Johnson's classes for about two years. "It is hard to make fitness fun for me. The dance part is really probably what keeps me coming, and I get the benefit of being fit as well. Or trying to be."

Johnson was on track to become a financial adviser when she realized she felt trapped and needed something more, she said.

Johnson had run track for Dunbar High School, anchoring the state champion 4-by-100 relay team in 2006. She attended the University of Kentucky, studying economics while working at a local bank.

The athlete in her wanted more. She began teaching Zumba and loved it, as did the 60 to 70 followers she had.

So she took the "leap of faith," she said, and studied for a year at the Lexington Healing Arts Academy, after graduating from UK, to get her personal training certificate. She opened Exalted Fitness in 2012 and recently received the Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Young Entrepreneur Award.

When she learned of Booiaka, she traveled to California to learn from Tamai and eventually earned a master trainer certificate. Only two people in the United States hold that distinction, and both live in Kentucky.

She helped Tamai present Booiaka to the Idea World Fitness Convention last year in Anaheim, Calif., and she'll travel to other states this year, teaching Booiaka to those who want to be certified instructors.

Tamai will be in Lexington in April and will, with Johnson, teach a master class for Booiaka, which lasts 90 minutes and teaches an entire choreography in that one class.

"She has asked me to start choreographing my own stuff," said Johnson, who is working on doing that.

Janis Reed, a woman close to my age, said she joined Exalted Fitness to have access to the walking track. When she asked what classes were available at night, she was directed to Johnson's Booiaka class.

"I've had a blast," Reed said. "I love to dance. I haven't gotten all the moves down, but I laugh, and the stress has been removed."

Reed has attended only four classes so far, but she likes it. "It has helped me fee less inhibited. This is fun. There is no judgment. You just do the best you can do."

Aleah Mayfield has attend since October when she switched from Zumba. "I like the high energy and the high impact," she said. "I just don't feel like I'm working out.

"My first time, though, I thought I was going to die," Mayfield said. "My socks were even wet."

All Johnson asks is to let loose and enjoy, the way she does. Timid participants may start out on the back row, but they gradually move closer to the front row and the unyielding wall of mirrors as they gain confidence.

"It doesn't feel like work to me," she said. "It's all about changing people's lives for the better."

It was fun and it was an intense workout that I still felt in my hips a couple of days later. Johnson said a new choreography will begin on Tuesday.

I am tempted to try it again. I also might forgive that co-worker.

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