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Amy Pohler said “If you can dance and not be embarrassed, you can rule the world” Abby Damen explains over cups of herbal tea one rainy Saturday morning.
We're sitting down to talk about the actress and entrepreneur’s venture, Shut Up and Dance. Shut Up and Dance is made up of Clair Louise Thomas (Creative Director), Abby Damen and Lesa Whiting (co-founder). It's a holy trinity that puts Destiny’s Child to shame.
Bored by the fact that there were no classes about dancing for fun, to learn moves from Britney to Backstreet Boys and inspire a love of 2000’s and 90’s music, friends Lesa and Abby cooked up a plan to start their own classes on their breaks at work. The problem was: neither of them had experience teaching dance.
I was first approached by Abby to try one of their classes via Instagram. I tried to explain to her that day at cafe Pre-Fab that I REALLY couldn’t dance. “That’s the POINT” enthused Abby. After forcing myself along to one class, I was hooked. But I wanted to know more about how these girls started getting girls like me to ‘Shut Up and Dance’?
Friends from Welly: "We made little sketches at work - they went down a treat!"
Lesa, who works at the Film Commission full-time, grew up in Lower Hutt and attended Hutt Valley High. “I was the one who tried everything: Soccer, rhythmic gymnastics, ballet and event aerobics - my aerobics team won the aerobic championship at our intermediate school actually. We, in fact, had the world champion aerobics woman choreograph our team so we cheated! But still!” Lesa also had a habit of learning Britney Spears music videos with her sister.
When Lesa lived in town, flatting, she would try and get friends to learn structured dance moves to music. “I missed that structure from dancing in childhood. I could never really find it. I didn’t want to do a ‘dance’ dance class because I’d already done lots of that.”
Abby is an actress who has a non-profit called ‘Saving 2050’, is a bit from everywhere in Wellington. She was born in Paraparaumu but counts as technically from Khandallah and went to Chilton St James growing up. “We had the coolest dance teacher who taught us the dance to Lady Marmalade which is in hindsight quite weird because we were ten years old.” Abby then moved to Wellington girls and continued with her passion for acting and performing. “I’ve always followed performing” Abby admits.
“I missed that structure from dancing in childhood. I could never really find it. I didn’t want to do a ‘dance’ dance class because I’d already done lots of that” (Lesa)
Lesa met Abby four years ago while she managed the Light House Cinema Cuba. The pair started talking about dancing and when they would get tired in the afternoons, around 3pm, Abby would start dancing and recording little sketches of themselves dancing “They went down a treat” she laughs. “Abby and Clair help you realise there is no reason not to do something if you want to. Plus Abby shared a passion for the ‘Single Ladies’ dance. We wanted to learn those routines so when we go out dancing we just want to be able to whip them out.” And now we’re THE most annoying people at parties.
A Dance Girl From Essex: "I took a leap of faith"
Clair is from Essex, East London, a world away from New Zealand. She’s danced since she was three - but admits she’s “not the best!”. Growing up she and her three sisters all learnt two instruments “I learnt the violin and the piano because I have really long fingers” she says. Monday to Friday she and her sisters had dancing. Weekends were church and choir. Her father would record Clair and her sisters on his video camera performing made up dances as well. “Bless my parents - they had to watch all of them” Clair reminisces. Her family visited New Zealand several times growing up, where they memorably performed the ‘Everybody dance’ to her surfer cousins in Christchurch. “You could just see them being like ‘What the - and who??’".
After school, Clair went to study dance at the University of Cumbria. When she came home she realised she wanted to “earn money and eat bread” so she shunned the prospect of being a professional dancer. “Many of my friends - the expectation is you have to be ready to be anywhere. I had a relationship at the time so I wanted to build a life. You have to LOVE it. I wasn’t cut out for it in the head because I wanted to earn money so I got into teaching.”
They memorably performed the ‘Everybody dance’ to her surfer cousins in Christchurch. “You could just see them being like ‘What the - and who??’" (Clair)
At the same time, Clair worked at Harrods working at the various beauty counters. “It was insane. I was White Hall and Black Hall accepted. You had to wear 6-inch heels every day. I needed to move my body so I went to a Zumba class. I knew I could do it better so I trained as a Zumba instructor. Then in 2013 I visited New Zealand after the end of my 7-year relationship ‘to find myself’. I learnt how to love myself. Then I met a Kiwi guy and decided to take a leap of faith and move here. I LOVE living in Wellington so much. People are so into the city - it doesn’t just pay the bills.” Clair trained up as a spin instructor and now teaches at Habit Evans Bay, Revive Fitness Lambton Quay, Victoria University’s Gym and at Shut Up and Dance.
Meant to be: “I thought Abby was really cool but really intense [...]” Clair admits “but then I thought, “What have I got to lose?”
Lesa met Clair when they met through Lesa’s husband and Clair’s boyfriend (who own a business together) at a Christmas party. “We started dancing and Clair taught us how to twerk. Then over beer and pizza at Golding’s Free Dive Bar in Leeds Street, I introduced her to Abby and pitched the idea of Shut Up and Dance. Clair ignored us for a while because she thought we were spamming her” Lesa giggles.
“I thought Abby was really cool but really intense with the messaging,” Clair admits “but then I thought, “What have I got to lose?”
Abby interrupts: “It got serious. I was reporting updates. I would tell Lesa “She’s seen it. It’s been two days. We know she’s read it. Let’s send her some inspiration videos. And a Google Drive with the plan for the classes” And before you know it, we have taken her out for dinner.” Lesa butts back in “Abby drew up a business plan, was looking into websites - asking about what shares Clair wanted in the business!” The trio ended up doing three months of Monday night meetings to plan and over hummus and carrot sticks and beer and many many tracks put together the structure for Shut Up and Dance.
"I wanted to learn to moonwalk"
“I know for myself I wanted to learn to moonwalk,” says Abby. “I wanted to feel like I was a great dancer, even if I wasn’t one. But that feeling - your feeling from wanting to feel good at dance, even if you are not - is something we wanted to give people through Shut Up and Dance.”
Lesa agrees “I don’t have a single friend who hasn’t struggled with their body. So when we were doing the first class to the Single Ladies dance and people were enjoying it we realised we were giving people the best moment of their week, and knowing that that’s such a precious gift.”
Lesa admits that many of the women in their classes have high-pressure jobs. She thinks it effects your life in other ways when you exercise and enjoy it. “That’s why we don’t have mirrors in our class. We keep it quite dark and we tell people not to look around. On Monday’s we have 50 people and it’s quite freeing. It’s not about having a tighter butt.”
"...we realised we were giving people the best moment of their week, and knowing that that’s such a precious gift.” (Lesa)
What makes Shut Up and Dance different is because unlike other classes, it’s not structured in a rigid fashion. Classes are just 45 minutes and revlove around a playlist of great tracks from modern (and sometimes not so modern) artists. It’s fun, and inspired and draws on pop culture. Clair, Abby and Lesa believe you can sweat and have fun.
Clair says she notices the difference when there are mirrors in the way people dance and move compared to other places she has taught. “People are so free when they don’t see themselves moving. I think it's amazing we have arms and legs and we CAN move them. Let’s focus on what we CAN do, not on a flatter stomach. I just want people to feel that they can take over the world. Dance is epic. Everyone can do it.”
Where to do Shut Up and Dance
There are now courses available to buy in Wellington CBD, Berhampore, Island Bay and Khandallah. Porirua is sold out and the others are close, so grab your spot! They always make space available for casual attendees at each class, just send them a message to book your spot. $20 casually, $80 for 6 x week course at one location or $120 for a 10 trip which can be used at any location and by anyone.
"I think it's amazing we have arms and legs and we CAN move them. Let’s focus on what we CAN do, not on a flatter stomach." (Clair)
Since starting, the girls have grown from strength to strength. “We’ve written down some scary goals we want to chase,” Lesa says. “We want to go to some other towns and see if other they’re as passionate. Early next year we want to do a huge pop up in Melbourne. We want to help people in stressful jobs cut loose and dance when they’re not drunk.”
Next Step: The World
Clair says she wants to take Shut Up and Dance all around the world, but also to have a Wellington flagship studio. They’re also looking for new instructors who are “energy givers”. “I don’t need the best dancer in the world. This is the place where people need to have fun.” Clair has countless stories of funny antics from class members, from those who turn bonkers poses each class to others who pretend to be animals and lurch into boogies on demand. “We want to share our love and positivity,” says Abby “We have plans for our one year anniversary next year. We’ve been blown away by the support for our classes. Wellington is a really great place to have a business."
“We want to share our love and positivity” (Abby)
I'm starting to learn - thanks to Abby, Clair and Lesa - it's also a really great place to learn to...well...just shut up and dance. After all - based on what Amy Pohler says - and Beyonce sang - who run the world? Girls...