How Soulful, Joyful Dance Workouts Became the New Wellness Trend

June 27, 2021

“Stir up that recipe for greatness,” Casie “Tynee” Goshow says as she moves her arms in circles while teaching alone from a neon-lit platform at FORWARD__Space’s virtual hub. Goshow prompts the people watching her on-demand class to close their eyes as they continue the simple, repetitive combination: brushing hands in front of the face, then spreading arms wide.

“Think about all the amazing, powerful things you’re going to do now with the rest of your day, your week and your month—because you are ah-may-zing,” she says to the camera.

This isn’t your mother’s exercise class. It’s FORWARD__Space, one of many pandemic-friendly virtual workouts that emphasize the joyful, spiritual and social aspects of dance. From Ryan Heffington’s free Sweatfest classes on Instagram Live to the thousands of people who join Dance Church’s jubilant dance parties, online dance workouts have become an outlet for coping with grief, isolation and anxiety brought on by the pandemic. These classes are not about mastering complex combinations; there’s no teacher barking counts or reminding you to “pull up” and point your toes. Instead, instructors encourage you to connect to your body, move freely and, most importantly, let go.

A woman jumps with one knee in parallel passu00e9, with mirrors behind her
A FORWARD__Space instructor teaches virtually

Lauren Volo, Courtesy FORWARD__Space

Despite all of the setbacks that dance companies and studios have endured during the past year or so, this type of class was perfectly poised for going virtual amid the pandemic. Unlike fitness classes that require equipment, or dance styles that necessitate special flooring, these classes could seamlessly transition to online, allowing studios to increase their reach.

Dance Church, for example, went from holding 150-person classes in six cities to streaming to tens of thousands of people across the country from its new digital platform, Dance Church Go, offering both live and on-demand classes. FORWARD__Space’s virtual hub, which launched in April 2020, now has users in 98 countries. And the morning dance party, Daybreaker, grew from 28 events mostly in U.S. cities to more than 85 countries around the world, and recently had more than 30,000 people log on to a virtual party.

It makes sense: People have been using dance as a medium to connect, celebrate and mourn for centuries. And when brick-and-mortar fitness options closed, nondancers strapped to their computers all day began seeking new ways to get in touch with their physicality and experience an emotional release. “In the darkest of times, which COVID has been, it says something that the whole world turned to dance,” Kate Wallich, founder of Dance Church, says.

Stress Relief

Plenty of research has shown that dance has a powerful effect on our emotional, physical and social well-being. From a physiological perspective, exercise regulates the body’s stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, and triggers feel-good chemicals like endorphins.

Many people have been coping with higher levels of chronic stress and anxiety than they ever have before, so they’ve gravitated toward uplifting types of exercise like dance, says Radha Agrawal, CEO and co-founder of Daybreaker. “I don’t think people want to be spiking their bodies with cortisol right now,” she says. “Dance is such a celebratory form of movement, and so you’re sweating and ‘working out,’ but in a way that feels good.”

The idea of fitness classes that give off an esoteric vibe isn’t entirely new: SoulCycle, a beat-based indoor cycling class done in a candlelit studio, has been around since 2006 and has nearly 90 studios across the country. At The Class by Taryn Toomey, which bills itself as “a cathartic workout experience that guides you to strengthen the body and notice the mind to restore balance,” people have been known to openly cry.

On a pink background, Karine Plantadit leans toward the camera, arms out, surrounded by small screens of others dancing
Karine Plantadit leading a Daybreaker session

Courtesy Daybreaker

Dance is unique because it provides immediate pleasure as you do it, says Rachael Osborne, who teaches Gaga, the movement language created by Batsheva Dance Company’s house choreographer and former artistic director Ohad Naharin. “Many other forms of exercise tend to encourage people to take themselves rather seriously,” she says.

Kristin Sudeikis, founder of FORWARD__Space, ends each of her classes with a “moving meditation” that involves doing a repetitive movement—not a combo set to counts—for the duration of an emotional song. “It’s a way to sort of feel the energy and the physical and energetic practice,” she says.

Dancing Like No One’s Watching

All of these classes had in-person headquarters and followings before the pandemic. Shifting classes to a digital space stripped away some of the most intimidating hurdles of going to a traditional dance studio (massive mirrors, judgy teachers and strict dress codes, to name a few) and allowed teachers to create an inviting atmosphere for dance-curious people to dip a toe in the water. Some who might have otherwise felt daunted are allowing themselves to move from the comfort of their own homes, Sudeikis says.

“With COVID, there was almost this sense of being like, ‘Okay, I’m alone. No one’s watching,’ ” Wallich says.

Ebele Onyema, a director at a relationship-health nonprofit in Brooklyn, says that taking FORWARD__Space classes has been “the one thing that shuts my brain off” during the pandemic. “I live exclusively in my head,” Onyema says. “Being able to move my body, and then watching people who are professional or semiprofessional dancers in class with me, makes me think like, ‘Oh, I have permission to move that way.’ ”

Close-up of a socked foot stepping forward, with other blurry legs behind it
Ascaf Avraham, Courtesy Gaga

Debbie Attias, creator of Dancorcism, a donation-based class that combines therapeutic energy work and movement, says nondancers who would avoid dancing at a wedding have found their place in her class. “Dancorcism is about radical self-acceptance,” Attias says. “It’s not about choreography, it’s about having fun.”

This mentality is a far cry from the traditional elitism of conservatory dance. “I definitely think as people get more free with themselves, they become more comfortable in their bodies,” Attias says.

Even in Gaga, which is a “very philosophic” practice, the teachers encourage you to “be silly and light,” says Saar Harari, artistic director of Gaga’s organizing body. “In Gaga, it’s almost impossible to fail from our point of view, so it’s very inviting to people,” Harari says. The company is exploring other ways to make Gaga more accessible and has added a seated class for people who find it challenging to exercise while standing.

Creating Connections

Wallich says that the biggest joy that’s come out of moving Dance Church online is connecting with thousands of attendees after class on social media. Dance Church often reposts the videos students publish on Instagram Stories of themselves bouncing around in their living rooms.

“Dance Church was already this ritual,” says Wallich. “It’s actually been really special and amazing to be able to share that post-class virtual feeling via social.”

Cassie Wang, a freelance dancer and recent graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, California, says that having dance classes like Gaga online gives her days structure and meaning. Throughout the pandemic, Wang has connected with other far-flung dancers taking Gaga, and published interviews about their shared experience on her website, Gaga Stories. “Having these dance classes helped me and other people really not waste around all day,” she says.

Cassie Wang dances in socks in a living room, looking at a laptop screen
Cassie Wang taking a Gaga class

Omari Matthews, Courtesy Wang

Osborne remembers teaching two online Gaga workshops with Naharin when more than 900 people joined. The extra energy and excitement was palpable as she scrolled through pages of Zoom boxes right before class and read messages in the chat from people in many different countries and time zones, she says.

“The reason so many people are flocking to these dance classes is because of the isolation,” Sudeikis says. “It’s that much more potent to experience the infinite healing magic and nature of dance.”

“Shifting How We Interact With Dance”

The question remains, will the momentum and popularity of these classes spill over into audiences as dance returns to the stage?

Interacting with teachers, many who maintain professional dance careers, is one way to funnel people into concert dance, Wallich says. “The pandemic is shifting how we interact with dance and how we see dance,” she says.

Onyema, the FORWARD__Space regular, says that taking class “helps me appreciate the talent, the artistry and just how beautiful dance is—and how hard it is.” She’s gone down rabbit holes on YouTube looking up videos of dance. “I can’t wait to go to shows,” she says.