Monday 22 January 2018

The Gleek's guide to keeping fit

Who needs aerobics when you can tone your body with high-energy dance routines from 'Glee'? Holly Williams plasters on a stage smile and gets on down

Gyms across London are about to start running Glee dance fitness classes
Gyms across London are about to start running Glee dance fitness classes
A third season of Glee has been commissioned
Chris Colfer's Glee character will find a boyfriend

Holly Williams

The scene is a football field. The cast are in American football gear – helmets and massive shoulder pads. We're in the tense final moments of the match. But what's this coming over the loudspeaker? "Single Ladies", Beyoncé's sexy, camp, mega hit, and suddenly the football field is a dance studio, the team a bunch of pop starlets shaking their thang. It so befuddles their opponents that they sneak the ball past and win.

This is one of the most famous scenes from the first series of Glee, the American high-school show about a club of all-singing, all-dancing starry-eyed teenagers, which has captured the imagination not just of youngsters in the US, but of much of the British viewing public, too. Fans are known as "Gleeks", and now there's a new way to really gleek out, while getting fit, too: Glee class.

OK, so in its most famous Glee outing, the "Single Ladies" dance may be used to distract from a lack of sporting prowess rather than prove fitness, but it turns out the moves themselves are a pretty good way to tone up. Soho Gyms across London are about to start running Glee dance fitness classes, which involve learning routines featured in the show that function as a workout in their own right. The instructor, Alessia Bonacci – who has danced for the likes of Kanye West and Kylie Minogue – tells me they'll also be tackling the "Safety Dance" and Madonna's "Vogue".

I go along to try it out for myself, albeit with a slight sense of dread. I love dancing, but my style is more flailing about in a field or twirling around to some Belle & Sebastian; anything that involves gyrating or grinding, step sequences or being snappy is quite beyond me. The last time I attempted co-coordinated dance movements I was told to stand at the back and "just pretend". Not only this, but as Bonacci enthuses before we begin, we absolutely must find our own feeling for it: "Be sexy, be fun, smile smile smile!"

While the class is pretty loosely associated with Glee (it could be renamed Beyoncé class, really), the encouragement to smile is certainly in keeping with the show, and when I'm not frowning with concentration, I do my best to slap a 100-watt stage smile worthy of Lea Michele, aka Glee's Rachel, on my face. The attitude throughout is high-energy and upbeat: "You can do it! you can do anything!" While this is obviously not true – I can't even remember whether I'm going left or right, and it looks more like I'm pulling up turnips that pulling in da club – the can-do atmosphere does make the whole thing less intimidating than I'd expected.

Which is, of course, one of the big advantages of dancing as a form of exercise. A lot of us dislike the dutiful monotony of the gym, and lack the self-motivation for running or training at home, but are scared of the competitive atmosphere of fitness classes. But dancing, especially if you take a gaggle of mates or a partner, can feel more like a social occasion.

The physical benefits of dance are well documented – it can help you tone and strengthen your muscles, improve your posture, flexibility and balance, increase your lung capacity, raise your heart rate and burn calories, according to the Department of Health. A moderate dance workout burns around seven calories a minute – that's about 400 calories an hour, and I'm prepared to bet that if you're thrusting properly, Glee class might even sneak into the "vigorous" exercise category. Dancing is even thought to help ward off heart disease and osteoporosis.

But a proper boogie can also boost your mood and improve confidence. This is particularly the case amongst teens – a study in 2007 found that a 10-week dance programme, for pupils aged between 11 and 14, not only improved flexibility and lung and aerobic capacities, but also increased motivation and self-esteem, particularly in girls. Glee classes could be a perfect way to encourage PE-averse young women – and cunning male football players, perhaps – to get physical (although the saucy routines might not be quite suitable for an 11-year-old).

Certainly, the class raises my heart rate and I can feel the burn in my legs as I type this. But I think you perhaps need more of natural affinity with booty-shaking (or just have some booty to shake) to see any self-esteem benefits – I doubt, even if I could remember the moves, that I'd ever get them out in public again. It's not a class for shrinking violets. Bonacci, an elastic band of a woman whose tiny, taut, bouncy little body shakes and snaps most impressively, teaches us the following hot steps: flick kicks, hip thrusts, ring flings – that'd be the bit where you gesture wildly, with both your hands and hips, in the direction of you naked ring finger – chicken walks and bum slaps.

While the health benefits of wiggling your bum and patting your hair are, of course, impossible to overstate, it should be pointed out that this is mentally taxing as well. Maybe not for everyone, but I certainly found remembering that chicken walk came after bum slaps which came after the hip-shaking half-circle – and remembering to be sexy and to have fun and to smile – burned up not just breakfast's croissant calories but most of my brain power too. It might sound like I'm being glib; I'm not. It was difficult. And maybe it's not just me: a 2007 Arts Council report on the benefits of dancing insists that it "improves mental functioning".

Whether it's getting our brains, hearts or bums going, television that inspires us to get up off the latter can only be a good thing. It's not just American exports like Glee, High School Musical or Step Up 3D – British schedule-cloggers such as Strictly Come Dancing have also been credited with getting the public back on their toes. Last year the Arts Council reported an 83 per cent increase in the number of people taking dance lessons.

The Glee dance classes look set to continue the trend. Bonacci tells me she's had a great response so far, with the idea of Glee classes really capturing the imagination of everyone she speaks to. I can back her up on that – to my slight surprise, the general response when I tell people my working day will involve emulating a bunch of wide-eyed teens doing a raunchy dance routine is: "Ooh, can I come?" And it's that attitude which probably sums up the Glee class: this is put-your-hands-up, don't-stop-believin', good-time exercise.

'Glee: Road to Regionals' is available on DVD from 13 September from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

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