Men Who Dance
Get on your dancing shoes for full-body fitness
Give it to mama!” booms Beyoncé over the heads of a still sleepy Sunday-morning Shoreditch.
It’s just gone 9.30am, yet in one corner of East London’s party district things have taken on a distinctly hi-NRG vibe, as the Freemasons remix of ‘Green Light’ thumps through the walls of an undisclosed location. Out on the empty streets, a lone dustcart is doing its best to sweep away the piles of silver laughinggas canisters left behind by the nocturnal revellers of a few hours ago, and the odd passer-by stops to peer down an alleyway in search of the source of the music. Is it an after-party? An illegal rave? And where’s the entrance?
Welcome to Frame, a dance studio hidden under the railway tracks that curve through the neighbourhood – where the party has only just begun. ere are no strobes, no bouncers and no alcohol (though it’s fair to say a few of the participants may be struggling with the after-e ects of the night before) – just a commitment to moving in time to the tune in a class that promotes fun in pursuit of tness.
Inside the studio, a male instructor stands in front of a wall of mirrors with a classful of women behind him. ey are following the rst in a set of choreographed routines that will see them literally perform 45 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) by dancing to some of the biggest, brashest and bassiest dance/pop bangers in recent memory. Apart from the instructor, there is only one other man in the room: me.
According to Charles Ames, a 23-year-old professional dancer from London, there is a de nite stigma against men who dance.
“ere is the old stereotype of what it is to be ‘masculine’ and dancing doesn’t
t into that type,” he says. But things are changing: the so-called ‘Strictly e ect’ (11.3m of us watched last year’s nal) and, more recently, the success of TV shows like e Greatest Dancer in the UK and So You ink You Can Dance in the US have done much to popularise dance-based activity among younger generations, and shown men that the standard of athleticism it requires is more than a match for anyone on a football or rugby pitch.
“Dance is an incredible form of exercise,” continues Ames. “Not only does it improve aerobic tness, but also muscular strength and endurance.” At the professional level, core strength is paramount and many of the moves in a genre like ballet, for example, would simply be impossible without it. Any guy who thinks a session at the barre is just making shapes will be sorely mistaken – from the hamstrings to the hip abductors, very sorely mistaken indeed.
Dance is not only a good form of strength training either. As Ames says, “Aside from the physical bene ts, dance can reduce stress, improve coordination and long-term memory, and increase the levels of serotonin [the feel-good hormone] in your body.”
I can attest to that: when a dance class goes well, and you’re full of energy and in the zone, it can leave you feeling positively high.
For me, it all started with pilates. As a longtime runner, I was feeling cranky, creaky and in need of being stretched out. I needed to (a) destress my body and (b) change things up. at’s how I became strapped into a Reformer machine in the pike position underneath that railway arch in Shoreditch, and that’s when it struck me: there must be another way.
e truth is, I was bored – and my body and mind were crying out for a new challenge. Just like that passer-by, I was intrigued by the early-morning music coming from a di erent part of the building.
At rst, being a man in an all-female environment can be an unnerving
“Dance is an incredible form of exercise. Not only does it improve aerobic tness, but also muscular strength and endurance”
experience – as can being a man (or a woman) in your rst-ever dance class. Like learning to drive, there’s a lot to think about and it all needs to happen at the same time if you want to get anywhere. Chances are, you may leave that rst session with dented pride. But it’s worth it, because when it all comes together – when you learn to connect the two di erent sides of your brain, and allow mind and body to work as one – you can go wherever you like.
For Andres Carvajal, a 39-year-old Colombian who lives in London, dancing was a life-changer. A committed weightlifter, he used to spend hours in the gym, until a near-fatal car crash in 2010 left him with a lumbar fracture, a dislocated right arm, two slipped discs and three broken ribs. Physical exercise was over as he knew it, and the cocktail of painkillers he was prescribed weren’t doing much for his long-term health.
“I was taking so much medicine, including tramadol, co-codamol and naproxen tablets,” he recalls, “and it was killing my liver.” Doctors told him it was possible he could end up paralysed, and that the only way he was going to leave the hospital bed was with eight hours of surgery and months of excruciating physio.
Remarkably, neither the surgery nor the physio came to pass. Instead, dance replaced both. “I used to go to the gym ve times a week before my accident, and tried to do the same after – but that was just making my back worse,” he says. “I could train one day, but two days later I wasn’t able to walk.”
e way Carvajal puts it, the decision to dance was almost a no-brainer: “I was born in Colombia and lived there until I was 14,” he says, “so I grew up dancing: salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton, bachata and more. And then I thought: if I love dancing, why can’t I use it as a way of keeping t?”
It was also the only form of exercise he found that didn’t a ect his back. ese days, he’s tter than ever and enjoys a newfound freedom that comes with feeling at one with your physical (and mental) self: “I can dance here, there and everywhere,” he says, adding simply: “I feel like my body has become much better.”
“I’ve never had a membership for a regular gym – it’s just never appealed to me,” says Jim Bowes, a 40-year-old company owner and new dad from Bristol. Like Carvajal, dance was a means of recovery after sustaining a sports injury. Breaking his toe playing ve-a-side with his work team was perhaps less invasive but still debilitating, painful, and time-consuming.
“e recovery was really slow and I put on quite a bit of weight while my mobility was reduced,” he says. “I decided to get a personal trainer, and did a lot of strength and mobility exercises. While all that was massively important for my recovery, I found it quite boring and knew something was missing from my exercise life.”
Like me, Bowes stumbled upon dance, as the gym his PT worked at also o ered dance-based tness classes. Not one to do things by halves, he went all in from the start: “Men were de nitely in the minority, but they had an open atmosphere and so one weekend I booked into a Britney Spears dance workshop, and never looked back.”
He says it was never about making his body look a certain way: his motivation was centred around losing weight – and himself in the process. “I want to be immersed in the moment rather than feeling that I’m ‘doing’ exercise,” he explains. “With a good soundtrack and some simple choreography, you’re transported to another place.”
As the wellbeing industry sells us the concept of mindfulness – that is, the ability to feel present in the current moment – it’s instructive to remember that dance has been helping humans to achieve this state of being since we rst started swaying to sound. “Sometimes when doing other forms of exercise I’d still nd my mind drifting in to work, but you can’t do that in a dance class,” Bowes adds. “It’s awesome for completely lifting you out of whatever else is going on in your mind.”
ere’s no getting away from the fact that dance is a performative act – something that’s meant to be watched – and that many of us have traditionally felt uncomfortable in that role (in a YouGov poll from 2017, over a third of men said they’d be too embarrassed to dance in public).
“I did receive resistance before I went into full-time training,” says Ames, who discovered dance as an extracurricular activity in primary school. “Some people had this preconceived Billy Elliot idea that I was wearing a tutu, but my close friendship group were extremely supportive of my passion.” ere’s also no getting away from the fact that society is changing, and boundaries are beginning to blur between the sexes as we question what it really means to be masculine and feminine. “More and more people are progressively breaking these opinions and stereotypes, which makes me happy beyond belief,” says Ames.
For my part, I’ve never felt tter or looked forward to exercise more. And doing dance-based HIIT ve times a week has enabled my endurance to increase almost without noticing (or without the slog I associated with running, at any rate).
“I know I’m a happier person when I dance,” Bowes adds.
It’s a sentiment I share: in the last three years, I’ve gone from wary and uncoordinated to committed and, well, expressive – in an environment that encouraged, supported and welcomed that evolution.