On a Thursday evening in Newtown, a community hall on Church Street slowly fills with people. The lights are low and loud music blares from speakers.
“Give it a song or two and people are cheering and singing along at the top of their lungs,” says Ash Maher, who runs the Sydney chapter of No Lights No Lycra with her best friend Jodie Fisher. “It's pretty amazing how you’re dancing on your own but feel the power of the group at the same time.”
No Lights No Lycra is a free-form dance class that began in Melbourne in 2009 when two dance students, Alice Glenn and Heidi Barrett, and a handful of their friends gathered in a church hall in Fitzroy on a wintry weekday night. They switched off the lights and spent an hour dancing – as the saying goes – like nobody was watching.
The pair made it a regular event and it soon caught on. Nearly a decade later, there are 70 No Lights No Lycra chapters around the world, from Brisbane to Beijing, including five locations in Sydney alone (including Darlinghurst and Newtown).
“No Lights No Lycra is about being able to dance without the fear of judgement,” says Maher. “There are no lights, no steps to learn. Just dancing for the pure fun of it.”
Maher says there are a few tunes guaranteed to get the room moving: Dog Days by Florence and the Machine and Praise You by Fatboy Slim are always hits, as is “anything by Brandy, TLC, Destiny's Child, Mya, Lil Kim, X-Tina or Janet”.
The secret to convincing a room full of strangers to dance together without inhibition – or alcohol – lies in carefully calibrated lighting. “We are masters of creating appropriate levels of darkness,” says Maher. “You needn't fear getting hit in the face by a rogue arm mid dance move, nor be concerned that your sweet moves will be on display for the whole dance floor to see. We have the light levels perfected.”
One of the benefits of a free-form dance class like No Lights No Lycra is stress relief; it’s a guaranteed hour free from notifications. “In the busy lives we lead, it’s rare for people to truly switch off for an hour with no phones and minimal talking,” says Maher. “It’s a chance for people to let go and shake off their week.”
It’s also a great workout: “You get pretty hot and sweaty after an hour of dancing. It’s a fun and cost-effective way to move your body without mirrors, technique or the pressure to look a certain way.”
Newtown is a beautiful community to run the class in, says Maher. The inner-west suburb “has an electric feeling about it – there are always things happening and the community is inclusive and supportive. Shout out to our neighbours who have been so tolerant of our singing and loud music. For five years the community here has supported us by allowing No Lights No Lycra to happen.”
It’s also a handy post-dance destination. When the lights come on, a group of dancers usually head to the nearby Courthouse Hotel to refuel. “The nachos provide some much-needed post-dance sustenance,” says Maher.