“Find a partner! We’re doing the mirror exercise. This is your chance to get someone else to do something weird. Dressed in a leopard-print crop top and a slip-on combo diverted high-cut tights from the 80s, the actor and choreographer Angela Trimbur guides us through its sold-out Sunday dance lessons in midtown Manhattan. As Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love” track kicks off, I’m face-to-face with a pregnant woman named Brooke, cycling through chest thrusts and springy facial grimaces. She mimics picking her nose – appropriately, happily weird– and I join her, the two of us rocking in unison like transplanted doo-wop stars on the set of PEN15.
Called Thirteen, Trimbur’s course in underground sensations is an emotional odyssey delivered through dance, with a nostalgic nod to his mother’s ’90s studio in Pennsylvania. Trimbur rose to internet fame in 2018 for candidly recounting her breast cancer treatments at age 37, an experience that refocused the body — however messy and real — as a means of self-discovery and connection. Now, with her throwback, she’s directing a different kind of transformation. “I kind of go back to that time because it was my freest,” Trimbur says after the class, as cellphone videos of participants of his eccentric choreography start circulating online. Two years into the pandemic, it seems oddly fair to pull on the knee pads and slide on the floor.
Alternative dance classes like these are in overdrive, popping up in converted warehouses and on virtual platforms designed during the COVID lull. It’s a fitness phenomenon as old as Trimbur leotards bought on eBay. At the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, Jazzercise had so transfixed the culture that its creator, Judi Sheppard Missett, ran in the torch relay, with 300 instructors performing in the opening events. But today’s cult classes aren’t obsessed with the ambitious body shaping of yesteryear; instead, they serve communion, psychic release and pleasure.
“Pure joy” is the slogan of Moves, the all-levels class led by longtime friends and dancers Lauren Gerrie and Marisa Competello. When Moves began by word of mouth more than a decade ago, it was in part an East Coast tribute to Los Angeles-based choreographer Ryan Heffington’s exhilarating classes – a movement-induced euphoria that has continued on her busy Instagram Live sessions at the start of the pandemic. This spring, when Heffington filled a burgeoning studio space for the first time since lockdown, he kept the choreography simple, he tells me, “so people can get that spirit out as soon as possible.” You can expect the same all-smile energy, plus Afro-Caribbean hip rolls, nationwide this summer. Socanomic pop-ups, led by an LA trainer Selena Watkins. Gathering followers online for her carnival-inspired workouts has a family-reunion feel: “Nothing can replace that energy,” says Watkins.
Intuitively, we know that the benefits of dance go far beyond metrics. What sets it apart from simpler gym workouts is what Emma Redding describes as “the biopsychosocial element.” A pioneer in the field of dance science and director of the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne in Australia, Redding points to recent findings suggesting that dance is linked to a sense of belonging, identity, autonomy, perceived confidence…all of these really important aspects of well-being,” she adds. It resonates with me, an introvert who grew up in ballet studios and has long used dance as an expressive outlet in good times and bad. I once avoided a breakup by spending solo nights at a nearby club, hoping to get lost in the dark fog. When a dodgy guy slipped in, my rebuff was blunt: “Sorry, I’m here for a private exorcism.”
This moment comes to mind on a Sunday morning in dancing church, where the mood is rather one of public elation – dozens of devotees spread across a downtown Manhattan studio, blocking out Blood Orange and Grimes. The idea for the course was born in Seattle in 2010, with the choreographer Kate Wallich looking for a “place where I wouldn’t have to worry about technique,” she says of a guided structure built around pelvic drops and arm thrusts amid freestyle bursts. The COVID shutdown has triggered a rapid pivot to digital; now, with a recent $4.7 million seed round, a membership model is in place and in-person classes are reopening in featured cities. “The elevator speech was, ‘That’s the dance party you wish you had last night,'” Wallich says. Now you can add: a mind saver, state-of-the-art aerobics, a way to deal with grief. “One of our future goals is to be in the healthcare system,” she continues, envisioning Dance Church as a mix of therapeutic uses. But as I walk jelly-legged out of the room, it already feels like medicine: worries drain from my mind, airways alive, feet firm beneath me.