Zambia’s biggest export is copper. But Namaala Liebenthal would like to see the landlocked African nation become known for something even shinier: the faces of people joyfully busting a move.
That’s why Liebenthal, the creator of Zoca — short for Zambia’s Own Caribbean and African dance fever — plans to turn her fitness program into a global sensation. She has a team helping her teach it all over Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. Classes also recently started up in Papua New Guinea.
As of last month, there’s now one other place in the world to take Zoca: Joy of Motion’s Friendship Heights studio.
The location is not as random as it seems. Liebenthal’s Zambian mother and British father raised her in Northern Virginia, and she went on to attend the University of Virginia. Whenever she was home on break, Liebenthal returned to Joy of Motion to develop her dance skills.
She eventually relocated to Lusaka, where she worked in banking and law. But she kept up her ties to the D.C. dance world. And when Liebenthal decided to pursue Zoca full time (“I had more fun doing this than contracts,” she says), she knew she had to bring it to Washington.
Joy of Motion instructor Tanya Nuchols, who was trained by Liebenthal and teaches the two Zoca classes now offered each week, says D.C. has never seen a dance workout like this.
The closest format is Zumba. They’re both focused on ethnically diverse rhythms and they share a similar structure: The soundtrack keeps changing, and each new song has its own choreography. “And there’s bound to be a lot of comparison because they both start with z,” says Nuchols, who also teaches Zumba.
The steps of each are heavily influenced by the musical choices. But instead of Latin tunes, this playlist is what’s popular in Zambia — a mix of African pop and Caribbean soca.
Most Zoca dances feature some variation on a circular hip movement called a “wine.” As Liebenthal explains, “It’s very much the mating dance” of Zambia’s 70 or so tribes. There’s also a lot of jumping, and some fairly complex steps.
“I want people to be able to follow along, but I want them to be challenged,” Liebenthal says.
No worries there. After a recent class, student Robin Allen’s pedometer calculated that she’d taken 7,000 steps. But her calorie burn was even higher, she estimated, based on how much she’d squatted and twisted.
Liebenthal’s working on more exports, including low-impact and kids versions.
In addition to classes Mondays at 6:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. at Joy of Motion in Friendship Heights (5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, $17 for a drop-in), Tanya Nichols will lead a Zocathon Nov. 8 at Georgetown’s Reebok Fithub (1251 Wisconsin Ave. NW). It’s free to participate, but donations for Bright Beginnings are welcome.