It’s a damp Wednesday night in March and Northern Soul is in a blacked-out hall in South Manchester holding a pair of glow sticks and dancing with strangers to Don’t Talk to Me About Love by Altered Images.
For goodness’ sake, why?
Basically, it’s all down to enterprising club night promoters Sean Connors and Sue Handley. Over the past couple of years, they’ve had great success with their suburban club nights Temptation (80s/90s indie heaven) and Pretty in Pink (alternative-leaning 80s pop). Then, last year, Handley went to stay with a friend in Sydney’s Bondai who took her to a popular exercise class/club night hybrid called No Lights No Lycra.
Handley explains: “It’s huge out there. My best mate from Manchester lives over in Australia and she dragged me along because she’d been wanting to go for ages but had nobody to go with. Everybody was in Lycra though, so I don’t really get why they call it that.”
Handley found it quite an eye-opener. “It was really, really busy. There must have been 100 plus people there and it was mental. I just happened to have a conversation with Sean about it and he said, ‘Ooh, what’s that? Tell me more about it! Go again!’. The gist of the idea – dancing for exercise, in pitch darkness – grabbed Connors’ imagination. He says: “When Sue told me about it, I was like, ‘That sounds amazing’. Obviously, I wasn’t going to go to Australia any time soon to sample it, so…”
The result is Dancing in the Dark, a British spin on the same concept. After trial runs late last year, one-hour sessions are now being held every Wednesday evening at Chorlton Irish Club. One early regular is Maria Drozdowska, who says: “Because of the darkness, because there isn’t much distraction, you can really get into the mood and lose yourself, more than when you go to a normal dance night. I suppose it’s like an exercise class in a way, but without an instructor.”
That’s a big part of the appeal here – there’s no regime, no-one in cycling shorts bellowing ‘come on!‘ at the punters every two minutes. “That would really put me off,” Drozdowska laughs. “I’m not that kind of person, really. I’d end up falling over because I’d lost my step or something. But here, you can just do free-form dancing.”
Northern Soul would usually come out in hives at the very thought of a gym membership but, having had a bash at it, we can testify that Dancing in the Dark is a genuinely powerful experience. It’s a sharp contrast to your usual club night. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve made the leap, it’s hard to resist. Without the glow-sticks, and the oddly fitting bright green gleam from the emergency lighting, you’d be at risk of bumping into your fellow revellers, but the visibility levels are just enough and no more. There’s only you and the music, and it’s striking – in a good way – to be dancing in public while sober.
“It’s quite liberating, isn’t it?”, Connors smiles. “Normally, you’ve had six pints, you’re chatting, you’re smoking, you’re having a kebab on the way home, you’ve got to get back and you’re clock-watching – it’s just a different mindset. So, while this is like a club, it’s a different thing altogether. And in a club, if you do go and dance, you know there’s 50 pairs of eyes watching you doing it and laughing away at you. This loses all of that. That’s the thing, it’s whatever you want it to be. There’s no dress code or anything, it’s just whatever you want to wear.”
Handley adds: “The great thing about it is, it’s an enjoyable way of going and exercising without actually feeling like you’re exercising. I mean, when people say they go to the gym, I reckon 50 per cent of them are lying, because it is grim. It’s quite dull and you don’t enjoy it. Whereas you can come and do an hour’s worth of exercise here once a week and it’s ideal.”
A major plus factor here is the playlist. It’s a mile away from the high-energy pounding of a Zumba class. As with the Pretty in Pink and Temptation nights, it’s the classy, discerning end of pop.
“In my mind, obviously, the music’s got to be good,” Connors says. “It’s got to be danceable, but you wouldn’t just come for the music, it’s the combination of the two. With the playlist, I try to be quite eclectic.”
He’s not kidding. In the space of a one-hour session, the music takes in 80s chart favourites (A-ha, Duran Duran), a bit of a Northern Soul section (Tainted Love, Seven Days Too Long), Hacienda-era classics (Dreamer, Where Love Lives), plus a smidge of Sister Sledge, the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim…
It’s all up-tempo, exercise-friendly stuff, but – and here’s the twist – it’s not actually awful. There’s nothing here you’d feel ashamed about dancing to. Unsurprisingly, then, many punters from the Pretty in Pink and Temptation nights have been tempted to come and give it a go. Connors says: “If there’s a spectrum and there’s a nightclub at one end and an exercise class at the other, this is definitely towards the exercise class end. It’s just that it’s not that horrible music that you hear at exercise classes. If you want that, that’s there, isn’t it? But this is an alternative to that.”
It’s a simple enough idea but, so far, it’s not really made the transition over from Australia – although there are reports that it has reached fashionable Shoreditch in London. The experience is a bit like bopping around in your kitchen, except with all the lights off while surrounded by people you don’t know. OK, come to think of it, that’s not an everyday scenario in most people’s kitchens, though we’re not here to judge.
Trust us, Dancing in the Dark is a very pleasant surprise. Northern Soul left Chorlton Irish Club that night feeling righteous, got home with most of the evening to spare, and didn’t so much as contemplate getting a kebab on the way back.