Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what Bokwa is. You’re not alone.

But if you go to Aurora’s Dalton Elementary on a Friday afternoon, you’ll soon understand the district’s newest after-school fitness activity. Rob Johnson, the energetic P.E. teacher who the kids call “Coach,” will be at the front of the gym with 40 students in scattershot rows behind him.

He’ll play a pop song like “Timber” on his laptop, throw a hand above his head to signal the group, and they’ll launch into a fast-paced Zumba-like dance routine. What’s hard to see is that the students are essentially making the shapes of letters and numbers on the floor with each series of steps, hops and kicks.

Dalton Elementary P.E. teacher Rob Johnson demonstrates Bokwa steps on a recent afternoon.
Dalton Elementary P.E. teacher Rob Johnson demonstrates Bokwa steps on a recent afternoon.

Think of it as cardio dance with a paint-by-numbers sort of ease. In an era where schools are increasingly trying to get students moving—both to prevent obesity and facilitate learning—Bokwa’s accessibility is part of the attraction.

It was  created in the early 2000s by Los Angeles fitness instructor and native South African Paul Mavi. The name combines “bo” from light boxing and  “kwa” from kwaito, a South African musical genre.

“It’s good music and if you’re drawing letters with your feet…they can relate,” said Johnson, who also uses Bokwa in his PE classes. “It’s easy for them to do it. It’s not like six or seven hard dance moves like when we did Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.’” (Yes, Johnson taught his students the Thriller dance.)

Dalton is among five Aurora schools that now offer after-school Bokwa classes, and administrators say they hope to see more schools sign on. All told, two dozen district schools, including Dalton, began offering some kind of after-school exercise programs this year as part of the district’s “Physical Opportunity Programs” or POP, funded with a $200,000 Thriving Schools grant from Kaiser Permanente Colorado.

The goal is to create a culture of daily physical activity at participating schools, said Curtis Robbins, Kaiser’s senior manager of youth health and educational theater programs.

“I think people are getting much more interested in how do we think about physical activity creatively and engage people creatively around it,” he said. “Kids, they’re not really engaged when you say ‘Lets get up and do jumping jacks.’”

Third-grader Aiden Bojang, who’s become a regular at Johnson’s Friday Bokwa sessions, said it’s “because I have a lot of energy and I like to move around a lot.” Without the classes, he said he’d probably be at home playing Minecraft.

Participation in Bokwa classes has increased steadily since Johnson started them last October.

“I keep getting at least five new people every week,” he said, as he caught his breath after a recent session. “Last week I was so excited, I ran into the office and was like, “Best class ever!”

Girl smiling during bokwa

Sasha Gard, a spritely third-grader who volunteered that she takes nine hours of dance lessons each week, said she was sold on Bokwa when she found out it was another form of her favorite activity. The only problem, she said, is that she’s short and can’t always see Johnson demonstrate the steps if she can’t snag a front row spot.

Indeed, the classes are so new that most participants have to watch Johnson carefully so they can follow along. During last Friday’s recent class, Johnson paused frequently to explain the steps for a new letter or number.

“Right, left, right, left, punch, kick with your knees,” he called at one point. A few minutes later, he shouted, “If you get lost, wait till we go to a ‘one.’ I will try to put as many ‘ones’ in there as possible.”

Aurora administrators say the district is the only one in the state currently offering Bokwa in schools. The activity, while growing in popularity at health clubs in the United States and abroad, is still relatively unknown.

Dalton parent David  Lozornio said when his daughter Melissa brought a flier home about the Friday Bokwa classes, he went on the Internet to learn more.

“I never heard of it,” he said. “I did some research [to] see what it was about.”

So far, students aren’t the only ones coming to the classes. Last Friday, about 10 teachers and a few parents filled in spots at the back and along the edges of Dalton’s gym. One of them was third grade teacher Amy Smith.

She’d attended Johnson’s class a few weeks before because it’s one way for staff members to get workout credit through the district’s “Biggest Loser” competition. She liked it so much, she signed up to take the official day-long Bokwa training the district is offering in February. Once she gets the training, she hopes to incorporate the activity into classroom brain breaks.

“It’s very kid-friendly…Once you learn the steps you can put them together in any order,” she said. “And the kids that are here with me from my class, they are so excited. Then on Monday they’re like, ‘I got to dance with Miss Smith.’”