Socacize: Aerobics, dance and island rhythms

Ayanna Lee-Rivears founder of the dance class Socacize leads a class at the OIP Dance Centre in Toronto on Monday, July 18, 2011. Socacize incorporates high and low impact aerobics including cardio, weight training and toning drills, with a variety of indigenous Caribbean and African dance movements performed to Soca, Calypso, Chutney, Reggae, Zouk and drums. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

TORONTO - Heart-pumping tunes and hip-shaking grooves are central to dance workouts, but a homegrown fitness regimen is delivering its own unique spin by incorporating island-inspired moves and music.

Socacize is a high-energy exercise program blending both high and low-impact aerobics with Caribbean dance styles.

Reggae, calypso, soca, zouk and drums provide the pulsating, rhythmic soundtrack for the workout which includes a variety of Caribbean and African dance movements.

Socacize founder Ayanna Lee-Rivears didn't have to search far for inspiration as she developed her signature program, which officially came to fruition some five to seven years ago.

Lee-Rivears is part of a Caribbean performing arts group and decided she wanted to combine the styles she'd learned into a fitness component. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, the certified fitness instructor, teacher and choreographer has more than a decade of dance experience under her belt.

"A lot of people want to include the dance with the aerobics nowadays, just to make it more interesting," said Lee-Rivears in an interview prior to leading a Socacize class.

"The demand has been very high, it's been very popular, and people are familiar with the music, so that's a big thing."

The full-body workout includes a warm-up and the high-impact Cardio Soca Jam featuring soca, a style of West Indian music blending soul and calypso. The Wine and Tone includes a range of movements concentrating on working the butt, abs and thighs, while the Groovy Stretch is set to Latin tunes designed to soothe participants as they cool down.

Lee-Rivears continues to teach classes at the same downtown Toronto studio where she originally held monthly workshops that helped the program take off.

It's barely midway through an hour-long session, and the foreheads of many class participants are already damp with perspiration despite the brittle chill of the A/C circulating through the room.

It's no surprise why. From the first strains of uptempo beats blaring through the speakers, there's little slowing down.

Feet are in near-constant motion. There are suspended leg lifts and lunges, rapid-fire toe-taps, staccato kicks, jumps and knee bends as participants amble to and fro within the studio space. Hips stay loose with seductive swirl, circle, shimmy and swivel motions, quickening and slowing in tandem with the accelerating and decelerating rhythms.

In true full-body workout style, arms are in sync with the footwork, transitioning from reaching skyward to side sways, hand and wrist circles and shoulder rolls.

There's no letting up as the session nears its conclusion with floor work, putting core and balance skills to the test with plank exercises and sit-ups.

Socacize is also running a special bootcamp designed for masqueraders and revellers complete with DJs and live music leading up to the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto.

Formerly known as Caribana, the event is the largest cultural festival of its kind in North America, drawing countless spectators each year to its colourful marquee parade of costumed masqueraders and musical performers.

Outside of Toronto, classes listed on the Socacize website are also run in Montreal, as well as Burnaby, Delta, New Westminster and Vancouver in B.C.

Socacize has also expanded south of the border to the United States, including D.C., Georgia, Maryland and New York. Lee-Rivears said a Socacize DVD features a slightly modified 45-minute version of the workout accompanied by a booklet breaking down the moves for the home user.

Some people may be seeking out Socacize and other dance-inspired workouts as an alternative to the treadmill and weights routine as a way to get fit.

Lee-Rivears said individuals who are self-conscious about their dance skills or worried they won't have the co-ordination to keep up shouldn't be concerned.

"That's the good thing about Socacize — it's not a dance class," she said. "It's aerobics/dance, so you're able to go at your own pace."

Tara Lewis has been hooked on the program ever since her godsister brought her to a class last year.

She teaches hip-hop dance at a recreation centre and took both hip-hop and jazz for about six years, and likes that the class fuses two of her mutual interests.

"I'm not really about the conventional workout fitness classes — they're boring," Lewis said candidly following the class.

"I used to dance, so doing a workout to music that I listen to all the time, it makes it fun. It doesn't feel like it's a workout."

Lewis credits Socacize with helping her recover from a knee injury sustained around Christmastime last year. Attending classes three times a week is also helping her get "road ready" to take part in the upcoming carnival.

While she enjoys Socacize, she admits it can be a physical challenge.

"When we have to do the lunges or whatever it is, it's hard. And the planks," Lewis said. "But Ayanna pushes us and we're just like, `We'll do it' even though you want to scream."

"We do scream," she added. "But in the end, it's worth it."