A group of 20-somethings arrive for the dance class held in the basement of the Premium Sofa Club in Hong Kong. Their glamorous attire is more appropriate for the late-night parties the venue usually hosts; contrasting heavily with the loose-fitting joggers worn by other attendees. “Newcomers,” my guide for the night whispers. It is still early and we are resting against the wall waiting for the last guests to be greeted with a breakdown of the rules. No photos, no substances, no onlookers and all inhibitions are to be left outside.
The dancing in the dark craze – known to regulars as simply 'NLNL' – started in Melbourne seven years ago by students. It has since spread to New Zealand, Paris, Germany and is slowly gravitating towards the UK. The free-form class promotes positivity and identifies itself as "a daggy, non-pretentious place to completely be yourself". It is also geared towards philanthropic giving, supporting several causes internationally. The Hong Kong edition is run by volunteers who donate the profits to Tiny Toones, a charity in Cambodia for street children.
My guide had heard about these classes through her friends. “First time I went I felt ridiculous,” she recalls. “The second time I felt like I might actually be an amazing dancer and just never realized it. That could have been the endorphins from twirling around so much though.”
Deciding I would grab an alcoholic drink to calm my stage fright of dancing in public, I appeal to the unattended bar. Apparently there is yet another rule, no drinking before or during the dance class. Instead I take a gulp from the water bottle that I had been warned to bring. “Are you nervous?” the girl next to me enquires, seeing my dissatisfaction with this substitution.
To ease my tension, the girl demonstrates her favorite dance move: the 'hand pistol', which is essentially pretending to shoot at the sky while animating her body like a western, cartoon cowboy. "I have upgraded version called the 'shotgun', but I don't have the guts to do that while the lights are still on."
Thanks to social media and the NLNL Dance Break app (dancebreak.com.au), the basement is filled with dancers. The improvised routines emerging from this event will not join any classical canon, but they will fuel the modern shift away from the rigid formality of choreographed dance classes. Unlike many new crazes – where an embarrassing YouTube dance video can transform into a viral meme – it is easy to see these nights are held completely without irony. Attendees are an eclectic mix, comprised of aspiring dancers, calorie-counting women looking for a workout and teenaged girls enjoying time with their friends.
The lights go down, the music climaxes and the atmosphere quickly hits fever pitch, despite a few resistant boyfriends who have been dragged to the event begrudgingly. There is the smell of sweat and the room vibrates. Respecting the No Lights No Lycra rule that participation is mandatory, I awkwardly begin by waving my arms. The silhouette of my new friend, recognizable only through the motion of gun-shaped hand gestures, grabs me enthusiastically. To appease her, I tap my feet and sway until she disappears back into the darkness.
Three songs in and I forget my fear of hitting a neighboring dancer with my frying limps. Almost involuntarily, after hearing the opening rift of a popular track, my own signature move takes hold – out-of-time, manic jumping. By the chorus, my inner exhibitionist has been released.