At 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, one could hear Amie Sowe’s voice carrying through the gym at Touchmark Health & Fitness Club.
“If you can, get that leg up! One-two, up. One-two, up,” she yelled, voice reverberating beyond the walls of the small dance room. “Yeah! Good!”
But the compliments she’s yelling following a move don’t feel artificial or robotic; Sowe turns around to face the group with what looks to be a genuine smile of encouragement. Her necklace, a golden cutout of the African continent, glistens on her chest.
Although Sowe, 25 — birth name Yaamie — has lived in the United States since she was 5, she channels the love of her home country of The Gambia into the twice-a-week class.
“I love African music, from all of Africa, the whole continent,” she said. “So let me try and showcase it in a way that will make people aware; just dance in your house for 30 minutes and feel good. Here are some moves to help your back, or your balance. That’s how I molded it. Just to showcase me and who I am. This is me.”
Runs in the family
The fitness club is attached to Touchmark Fairway Village, a senior living facility, and while open to the public, it mainly caters to those age 50 and older, as well as Touchmark employees.
Sowe started working at the facility in 2016. Her mother was a caregiver there and helped Sowe get a job at the front desk.
She wasn’t locked into the desk job for long. Athleticism runs in the family, Sowe said. Her father, Saidou Sowe, was a professional volleyball player. He started The Gambia Volleyball Federation and officiated at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and for a time was involved with FIFA, soccer’s governing body, Sowe said.
“It was a pretty big deal at the time,” she said. But the family of six needed to relocate. In 1994, a bloodless coup by Yahya Jammeh was causing political violence, Sowe said. Jammeh was exiled in 2016 and the country still grapples with the effects of his brutal reign; he’s accused of assaulting women and ordering the murder of journalists.
Sowe gravitated to volleyball while a student at Heritage High School, she said, and later found community in CrossFit, a popular fitness regimen. Following an attempt at the nursing profession, which she said wasn’t a good fit, she started doing training at Touchmark.
‘I feel good’
Back in the small dance room, a variety of people lifted their hands and legs to the beat of a curated Spotify playlist by Sowe. It includes songs of all types, but mainly songs with their hearts in Africa, and of course, extremely danceable, with deep, bouncing percussion sounds.
Will Kalmbach was trying his best to keep up with Sowe’s movements — cracking jokes about his age and Sowe’s agility, making everyone laugh.
“I think I got my heart rate up to my age — it was 111,” said Kalmbach, who is actually 92. It was his first time in Sowe’s class, though he regularly works out at the facility.
“I take (a class) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. A few of those (dance moves) we do, but not the way Amie does it. I feel good,” Kalmbach said, adding that he works out five days a week. “Basically I want to keep from falling, so I need to have coordination, strength and balance. That’s it.”
In addition to the dance class, Sowe helps people work their muscles in a class for people with Parkinson’s disease.
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Sowe has a lot of plans for herself and her career in fitness. She sees a lot of problems with accessibility to people who look like her.
“I think it’s historically not available. I think not having it in your area is a big deal. And not having it be affordable. Those happen to be where people of color are. It’s systematically how things are,” Sowe said. “With representation, most of the time I’m the only black person or person of color in my yoga room. That doesn’t seem OK to me. Why isn’t this for everyone?”
Diversity in wellness, and especially yoga, has been criticized in recent years. In 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yoga practice was up, but still mainly among white women.
Sowe also sees a deep connection between mental well-being and fitness. She wants to pursue an education that somehow ties the two together.
“I’m counseling a lot of people while working out. It’s interesting. But it’s fun for me too, because I enjoy it. So I’m trying to find the right fit to see where that might be,” she said. “Honestly, I’m going to dream big. In the Portland metro area, I want to showcase this dance, to showcase Gambian culture, West African culture.
“We’re here, we’re around, why not do it? It’s fun for people to learn about it. But also mostly my goal is to have a safe space for women, particularly women of color, to have an affordable place to work out.”