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Working up a sweat

Paul Philipson.
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I’m in unfamiliar territory. It’s 6.30 on a Monday night and I’m in a dark, dusty room awkwardly dancing to a Beach Boys song with forty strangers, all apparently completely sober.

Herein lies the premise of No Lights No Lycra, an alternative fitness craze started in Melbourne in 2009 by dance students Alice Glenn and Heidi Barrett. The NLNL website promises a “daggy, non-pretentious place to completely be yourself.” However, when I arrive at the venue for my rhythmic awakening – trendy Melbourne café 1000 Pound Bend – I am dubious to say the least.

Once inside, I pay the $7 entry fee and timidly ask the young woman at the door where I should leave my handbag.

“Wherever you want,” she says, “But I won’t be keeping an eye on it.”

I baulk, considering the possibility that my “no lights” experience could quickly become a case of “no wallet” and surreptitiously shove my handbag in a corner.  The room slowly begins to fill up and, by the time I’ve worked up the courage to step onto the dance floor, there are about 40 people around me.

My automatic response it to begin judging the outfits and dance moves of those around me. I reconsider my choice of workout clothing when I see an effortlessly hip girl twirl past in a floor-length skirt. I catch myself giggling when I notice an elderly lady shuffling around doing jazz hands.

I may be hell-bent on appraising my fellow dancers, but it appears that they couldn’t care less about me. Most have their eyes closed and are completely absorbed in their movements, exuding a kind of cool that can only arise from not giving a damn. I begin a stilted pseudo-boogie and avoid eye contact.

The crowd consists mainly of women in their twenties – I count five men – but there are also middle-aged mums and trendy grannies. The playlist is perfectly unpredictable and the room comes alive when Amy Winehouse’s upbeat hit “Valerie” comes over the speakers. Slowly, the complete freedom of being invisible awakens something deep within me and as the music shifts from futuristic trance to old-school Whitney Houston movement becomes more natural.

About 10 songs in, sweat starts to form on my brow. Twenty songs in and I am exhausted but totally in the groove. By the time the final song comes on, Grease’s “You’re the One That I Want”, I’m enthusiastically pretending to be Sandy, Danny and any other character I can think of. No Lights No Lycra has a new devotee.

Founder Alice Glenn isn’t surprised when I tell her of my gleeful Grease moment.

“The last track every night is often so joyous that it’s hard to bear,” she laughs. “You just want to explode.”

Glenn and friend Heidi Barrett started No Lights No Lycra with a Facebook event page. The first session they held, only five people turned up. Now there are 40 franchises all over the world. An offshoot in Brooklyn, New York, was the first to open, founded by a friend of the pair who fell in love with the concept during her stay in Australia.

“Somehow we got an article in The New York Times and from there it went ballistic,” Glenn explains.

The next step is launching a “baby boomers event” for over-40’s who want to cut loose, and someone is bringing No Lights No Lycra to the fast-paced citizens of Beijing. This latest franchise will join a host of locations that range from tiny rural towns to cities like Berlin, Paris and Montreal. Anyone can get involved simply by contacting Glenn and Barrett through the website and becoming a No Lights No Lycra ambassador.

Despite the success of their program, the founders are keen to stay true to the core premise, enforcing a strict no-talking rule to ensure it stays an empowering individual experience.  “It’s been four years of beautiful conversations with people,” Barrett explains. “People say they’ve always enjoyed dancing but it made them feel terrified. No Lights has given them confidence to dance in public. That’s completely fulfilled our intentions.”

Visit No Lights No Lycra online. 

Adelaide, SA: Mondays 7.30pm @ CitySoul, 13 Hutt Street

Brisbane, QLD: Every second Monday 8pm @ Upstairs at 199, 199A Boundary Street, West End

Canberra, ACT: Tuesdays 7.45pm @ Corrobboree Park Function Room, Paterson Street, Ainslie

Melbourne, VIC: Mondays 6.30pm @ 1000 Pound Bend, 361 Little Lonsdale Street

Tuesdays 7.30pm @ 250 George Street, Fitzroy

Wednesdays 7pm @ 49 Nicholson St, Brunswick East

Perth, WA: Thursdays 8.15pm @ The Chapel Space, Cnr Angove St and Scarborough Beach Rd, North Perth

Sydney, NSW: First Wednesday of every month 8pm @ Boxcar, 12 Dawson Street, Surrey Hills

Ulverstone, TAS: Coming soon

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