Irish men are shedding their inhibitions and hitting the dance floor, thanks to the success of TV shows like Dancing with the Stars, says Jonathan deBurca Butler
WEDDING season is upon us and with it the promise of lads in smart suits and ladies in skimpy skirts strutting their stuff on the dance floor.
Of course, not a step can be tapped or twirl rotated until the newlywed couple takes to the floor for that all important first dance.
Back in the day, this ritual entailed a reluctant, and often red-faced groom shuffling his feet around like a toddler while his new wife held onto him like a scarecrow and beckoned her friends to join them. Thankfully things are changing.
Perhaps helped by the fact that YouTube is awash with wedding ho-downs that are akin to West End productions, it appears that grooms are taking that first dance a little more seriously.
“There’s a funny thing I find with couples getting married,” says Rona Coulter of Viva Dance School in Cork.
“It’s the man that rings and makes the appointment, tells me what song it is and what kind of dance.”
But while men might be eager to please on their wedding day when it comes to group classes, she says, it’s generally women who call to book.
Simply put, Irish men are reluctant dancers and there are probably several reasons for that.
“There just was never that culture of men dancing here,” says Coulter.
“Women, when they were in school were more inclined to go to dance classes. They’d do tap or Irish dancing whereas men leant more towards GAA or football.”
Kate Buckley, who runs several dance schools for children across Dublin, says that compared to England and mainland Europe, Ireland just isn’t in step.
She estimates that only about 2% of her pupils are boys and most of them attend hip hop classes. Ballet is still very much the preserve of little girls.
“That’s quite different from the UK and other parts of the world,” she says.
“We don’t have a huge surplus in numbers here. In the UK there are enough people who want their boys to do dance that they have A-levels in it. It’s not even on our curriculum so there’s a problem with access. You have to go private.
“Then there’s a culture of it over there,” she continues.
“There’s the Royal Ballet School for example, and in that, there’s a fairly even split between boys and girls.”
She also points to the world famous West End — its long-running shows and musicals pull in millions of punters every year and though competition for roles is fierce among dancers “there are opportunities”.
For Coulter, dancing’s lack of visibility feeds into Irish men’s lack of interest in the art and ultimately does make men more difficult to train.
“Because they’ve had little or no training in it as youngsters, they mightn’t always have the same idea of the rhythm or timing,” she explains.
“Now you will get some men who are quite quick at picking it up and maybe the wives aren’t as good but in terms of percentage, women are definitely easier to train.”
Dancing With the Stars contestant, Hughie Maughan, would probably agree.
Though he exited early in the series in January, training for the show had begun in November 2016. It was tough going.
“I found the training very difficult,” says the 22-year-old.
“Very tiring, very physical and very frustrating. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
The hit RTÉ show attracted an audience average of 587,000 in the consolidated ratings over its seven-week run.
On the night of the final in late March, more than 650,000 viewers witnessed former Kerry footballer, Aidan O’Mahony win the first series.
This was the garda’s first experience dancing and though it was something he says he very much enjoyed, there were major differences in the training regimes.
“There were similarities in both fields,” says the 36-year-old.
“But I had to work on different parts of the body. For the show, I had to work on my hips and my shoulders. From years of playing GAA and doing gym work and a few broken bones, the movement in both was not what they should have been for dancing so I spent a lot of time at rehearsals working on those two areas.
"I’ve lost over a stone in weight but also a bit of muscle went because the gym had to take a back seat.”
On top of that was the novelty of working within a much smaller team.
O’Mahony who had spent years working out with a high-achieving Kerry football squad before retiring earlier this year says that adapting to such focussed training with one other person took a little time to get used to.
“Coming from a team sport it was unusual to go into a setup where you have to follow another person’s every movement,” he says.
“It was an amazing experience to learn how professional dancers teach a person who is starting from scratch. You see how they never give up on you and push you to your limits. It was tough going though.
“For the first few months I would go home every Sunday night and was back up Wednesday night or Thursday morning and I would try to get eight or 10 hours training in a day. But I had to as I wasn’t able to pick up the dancing as quick as others.”
The popularity of Dancing with the Stars and the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing has, says Coulter, had a noticeable effect on demand for dance lessons, even among men.
“I think Strictly started it off,” she says.
“There were a lot of celebrities dancing and top sports athletes doing it so it became acceptable. Also, Irish people have got more broad-minded in lots of areas of life and they’re willing to try more.
"They’re not as pigeon-holed as they used to be. I’ve been teaching 40 years and when I started it was nearly impossible to get men through the door. That’s changed.”
Coulter, who is something of a godmother of ballroom dancing in Cork (my words not hers) is in regular contact with dance teachers across the city, many of whom she trained herself.
“I meet my colleagues every now and then and they all found that there was an influx of people coming to them as a result of Dancing with the Stars,” she says.
“More so I’d say than with Strictly and I think it was probably because people saw Irish people doing it, it felt more real to them.”
For Kate Buckley getting men to lose their inhibitions and to dance starts with getting young boys on the floor. She believes that a change in focus might help.
“Dance teachers are looking at boys quite differently from day one,” she says.
“Even in the early years, the focus will be slightly different. You’re looking [into the future] at the 18-year-old version of them. So you’re looking at how physically strong they are and how athletic they are, it’s more of a gentle quality you’re looking for with girls.
"Of course, you want that with boys too and they have to have the footwork but in ballet, for example, they also have to be able to lift, so it’s quite different.”
It’s that physicality, says Buckley, that many people seem to miss when they think of dance. Were it promoted as something that strong athletic men do it [could attract] more of them.
After winning Strictly Come Dancing last year, BBC presenter Ore Oduba, who was already in good shape before starring in the show, showed off his ripped torso in a revealing selfie.
Obviously happy with the results of his dance workouts, he captioned the Instagram shot with the line: ‘Open shirt on Strictly with this bod’.
The health benefits of dance are huge. Apart from being good for your cardiovascular system and your muscle tone, dancing is also good for the brain.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 examining physical activities and their role in preventing dementia found that while playing golf or swimming had little effect, dancing regularly gave you 76% chance of preventing the disease.
That probably comes as little surprise to Rona Coulter who also sees the social benefits of dance.
“It’s great for couples,” she says.
“He might have his GAA and she might have her tennis or whatever but they come and do this together and then meet other couples and maybe go for a drink after. So there’s a social side to it. It might be the only time you get out to do something with each other.”
And recent research suggests that learning a few ‘go to’ moves might actually help the male of our species attract a partner, or at least have a greater chance.
A study conducted by Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK, and published in Biology Letters, found that women rated male dancers higher when they performed large, variable movements of their head, neck, and torso.
Male dancers were also considered “good” dancers if they displayed fast bending and twisting of the right knee. Just like Elvis.
The report pointed out that dance was “an important aspect of sexuality and courtship attraction” and suggested that “dancing ability, may serve as a signal of male mate quality in terms of physical strength, prenatal androgenisation and symmetry, and thus affect women’s perceptions of men’s attractiveness”.
Something to think about if you’re a single man going to a wedding anytime soon.
Dancing increases spatial awareness.
Ballet and ballroom dancing are good for coordination.
It keeps the cardiovascular system ticking over nicely.
Gives you a double dose of endorphins from the physical and emotional buzz you get out of it.
Helps bones and reduces risks of osteoporosis.
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