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Keeping It Cultural: Fitness Finds A Beat With Ethiopia’s Dance Heritage | The Reporter

The music blasts loudly, energizing attendees. Lively rhythms fill the room as enthusiastic participants in athletic wear move to the beat. The pulsating beat of traditional Ethiopian tunes has locals dancing up a sweat at Ethio Eskista Fitness centers across Addis Ababa. Traditional tunes in various Ethiopian languages play continuously, changing rhythmically.

‘Eskista fitness’ – the name coined for this innovative exercise trend in Addis Ababa.

As the beats shift, so do the moves—it’s neither customary dance nor modern workout, but a fusion of both. The budding trend has combined traditional dancing moves with sport techniques, incorporating moves from all ethnic groups in Ethiopia within this context.

Founder Efrem Mekonnen discovered a winning formula: blending classic cultural dances with modern exercise routines to music everyone loves.

“When traditional Ethiopian dance is blended with scientific physical exercise, it greatly helps to alleviate mental stress. When people listen to music they know well and do physical exercise at the same time, they become highly energized to do so passionately,” says Efrem Mekonnen, founder of Ethio Eskista Fitness.

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This hybrid “Eskista fitness” trend is even attracting pre-wedding crowds looking to stay in shape for the big day. Beyond packages for brides and grooms, the centers also offer children’s programs and dietary guidance.

After working as a dancer and choreographer for 14 years, Efrem established the center initially in Adama town five years ago. But two years ago, he expanded to Addis Ababa, having witnessed high demand.

Currently, Ethio Eskista fitness center has three branches in Addis Ababa around Piassa, Bole, and CMC area. Over 500 men and women are enrolled in Eskista sport.

The CMC branch charges 3,500 birr per month, while the Adama branch is 1,000 birr per month. The price is higher for the Addis Ababa branches mainly because of greater house rental costs. Instructors are paid 12,000 birr monthly.

“I do not wish to make it a sport gym. Enough sport gym centers exist in Addis Ababa with sufficient gym equipment. However, most Addis Ababa residents suffering from mental and physical stress lack a place to alleviate this,” added Efrem, who also instructs at the centers.

Another player making waves in the Eskista fitness scene is Ethio Dance Fitness, run by Tomas Hailu. A veteran of over 40 music videos as a dancer and choreographer, Tomas founded Ethio Dance five years ago with his own unique blend.

“We combine Ethiopian and African traditional tunes with classic moves and modern exercise,” says Tomas. “This recipe is very interesting for people who need physical exercise but hate doing sport. People who want to get rid of stress, lose weight, and want to have a healthy, flexible and strong physique are usually our clients.”

Studies show increasing disease from sedentary lifestyles and poor diets.

“This is because people usually spend time at home, and have poor diet. We created Eskista dance allows people to stay active and do physical exercise at the same time,” Tomas said.

Now with 850 members, clientele has skyrocketed from just two at launch five years ago.

Ethio Dance recently unveiled a massive new Bole complex housing 1,000 practitioners, plus gym and spa amenities.it currently has around 850 active clients, up from the two it started with five years ago. Membership costs 3,500 birr monthly.

Tomas pays 480,000 birr in rent alone each month to maintain the large facility, excluding salary, water and power bills.

New recruits praise the unique formula. Compared to traditional exercise centers, practitioners praise the inclusion of music and dance into the workout regimen.

Rather than relying solely on machines and routines, the music plays a key role in relaxing both the mind and body. Dancers lose themselves in the rhythms, allowing stress and tension to melt away. Meanwhile, the accompanying dance routines provide low-impact exercise to relax the physical form.

“Even people who usually do not enjoy exercise tend to like it when blended with Eskista dance,” says Daniel Walelign, a sports instructor.

Thomas has also devised a strategy to deepen acceptance of Eskista as a sport in Ethiopia and abroad. He widely promotes Eskista fitness concerts, which have created wide recognition, he says.

For the past five years, Ethio Dance Fitness has organized annual Eskista sport concerts in coordination with different organizations. For the current year, it expects over 10,000 participants in its Eskista fitness concert.

Thomas has published his own manual on dance fitness. The manual is scientifically developed based on calorie burn from certain dance moves.

“Not all dance is sport—sport requires science. We invented dance fitness based on tested methodologies,” Thomas says.

“Ethio dance fitness has its own doctors and consultants. Our clients only participate in the dance fitness specifically recommended for them. We do not conduct large group training,” Tomas explained.

The manual diagnoses body fat levels and prescribes the right dance fitness routine and timeframe for burning it.

Thomas’ success has gym owners taking notice. “I’m proud to see gyms shifting to dance fitness. When I started, no one thought it would succeed. But they’re now copying me, which is good if they also develop original programs,” he added.

Despite growing demand for recreational sports and expanding dance fitness centers, the industry faces bottlenecks. Due to an absence of regulatory laws, some dance fitness centers in Addis Ababa could not obtain licenses.

“The government has no dance fitness legislation, so many centers operate arbitrarily,” says Efrem. “This also hinders preparation of standards and regulations.”

The Addis Ababa Tourism Bureau says it is drafting a directive allowing dance fitness center licensing and issuance of Certificates of Competency.

Efrem hopes to open a dance Fitness College once the new legislation and standards take effect.

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