Last week during a self-imposed staycation in the desert, I cleared a space in my hotel room, unrolled my yoga mat, and joined a Zoom call dedicated to twerking. No, it wasn’t pure nostalgia for the club that led me to embrace this unusual use of technology and hip flexors, but rather, the pursuit of fitness and discovering what Simone Sobers and her Boss Chick Dance Workout are all about. Yes, the term “twerkout” can be safely applied to the sweaty, music-powered sixty minutes that ensued, and yes, I woke up sore the next day.
For Simone, dancing is a practice she’s pursued in earnest since the age of six, studying the traditional trifecta of ballet, tap and jazz, and even attending a special school to focus on Russian classical ballet from 13 on. As a pre-teen she was practicing ballet six times a week while keeping up with the rest of her studies, but it wasn’t until later in life that she stumbled into her sweet spot — combining dance and fitness.
“I was a little too shy to audition for a university dance program or Julliard or anything like that,” Sobers remembered of her college years, when we spoke over the phone recently. “I ended up going to Boston College to study Communications and Psychology, but I was still dancing. I really did have a lot of regret about not even trying to go to performing arts college. So I made a promise to myself that I’d try a dance program for grad school.”
Not only did she make it into a grad program to study dance, Sobers ended up pursuing a Masters in the subject at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of Arts. While she was attending school, her dance exercise was on overdrive, between studying in class and training outside of school, but after her grad program finished, she found herself casting about for something affordable and accessible that she could do at home to keep her fitness up.
“It was in New York, actually, where I got into fitness,” she said. “At that point, I was strictly doing dance — that was my form of workout. I was doing it so much that I started looking on Youtube for a different way of working out. But all I could find on there that was mainstream and big in the fitness space were white women or European women. It made me wonder, where are all the women of color in the fitness industry?”
Citing this experience as one of the seeds that eventually led her to start the Boss Chick Dance Workout (or BCDW), another huge influence came in the form of an audition, when she tried out and was accepted to become a trainer at Madonna’s line of gyms, Hard Candy Fitness. Going through the rigorous training that accompanied that program was her introduction to the idea of dance fitness, and even though a move back to Florida and other timing issues meant she never actually worked at Hard Candy, the idea had stuck.
Still bothered by the lack of diversity in the space, Sobers wanted to customize her own program and gear it specifically toward women of color. That came in the form of music and dance styles of course, but also in keeping the platform geared only toward women — including transwomen and individuals who self-identify as a female — so the historical sexualization of movements like twerking could happen in a completely safe space.
Kicking off around 2013 as a high-intensity dance workout that drew from Caribbean music, hip-hop, Afrobeat and dancehall, the twerking element fell into place in 2014, as her class format headed into its second year. Teaching only in Miami with a few classes here and there in New York, Sobers was getting feedback about the need for her style and inclusivity, and the health struggles that women of color disproportionately face was another element that stood out to her.
“I wanted to create something that women of color could connect to,” she said. “Because around that time I was reading an article that said it’s just crazy high numbers for women of color dealing with heart disease and diabetes. So I was thinking, well why aren’t we working out? What’s the disconnect that we’re unhealthy? And what can I do with this platform that I’m about to create to change that?”
Incorporating information about the history of twerking and its connection to African dance, Sobers paired teachings on the history of Black dance with music from her own Caribbean heritage, along with the hip-hop, Afrobeat and dancehall music styles she personally loved, and the format for the Boss Chick Dance Workout began to solidify. Starting off with just Sobers teaching her own classes in Miami, the brand quickly grew and now includes certified BCDW instructors in over fifty cities globally.
Due to the constraints of COVID-19, all classes are currently happening virtually, but when I tuned in for a 60-minute Twerk Cardio session last week, here’s the typical breakdown: 40-minute dance cardio set, 5-minute H.I.I.T (High Intensity Interval Abs and Strength Training), 10-minute choreography learning, and 5-minute cool down. Other class offerings include a style with even more focus on H.I.I.T (Twerk H.I.I.T.), a Twerk 101 class suggested for all newcomers, Twerkography for more choreography-based learning, and the more intensive Twerkshop, a 90-minute class complete with warmup, drills, and more choreo.
Recently reaching the benchmark of thirty years (!) as a dancer, and twenty as a dance teacher, Sobers has actually been able to grow her company even more in the virtual space. In the past, instructors were asked not to teach BCDW virtually, but she chose to open that aspect up immediately with the onset of the pandemic. Now, new members can try out the program with a seven-day free trial, and after that, monthly access for online classes is very affordable at $19.99 a month for unlimited streaming. And as part of the Boss Chick Cares initiative, anyone who has been furloughed or lost their job as a direct result of COVID-19, and all essential workers, can reach out to receive unlimited free classes until the crisis is over.
Making sure I keep my body active during this year’s pandemic has been a challenge to say the least, but finding a way to make it fun — namely, adding hip-hop music and trading in other more traditional forms of cardio for dancing — took the edge off. And even if calling in via Zoom felt strange at first, it was a bit of a relief that I could keep my too-slow moves hidden by keeping my camera off. But even noticing the women on the screens that were being shared during class, it was women of all backgrounds, shapes, and ages.
“I think inherently, just me being a Black woman opens up the space,” Sobers explained. “They can see my body, see the curves, and we make sure that within our team and the way we market our classes that we show all body sizes and all body types. I want to reach women everywhere — just reaching and impacting women in as many places as possible. I’m also hoping to open up the space so other women of color can step into the industry and be successful.”