Slave to the rhythm: Scared to boogie in public? Wish you were John Travolta? Lose your inhibitions with Mike Gabriel, dance guru. Harriet Green did

Mike Gabriel has a mission: to coax 'closet bedroom dancers' on to the dance floor and help them to let themselves go. In the last three years, his dancing workshops have turned countless reluctant shufflers into boogie experts.

A typical three-hour group session is a terrifying experience. White-haired Gabriel, 52, zings around the floor in black T-shirt and leggings, with a vibrant scarlet and green scarf - an odd mix of Old Testament prophet and pixie.

The group is mixed: Graham, a senior economist in his late 30s; Louise, a pretty hippy- chick; and hesitant thirtysomething Eve, who only came along because a friend encouraged her.

Finding freedom through dance is not a painless experience, as Gabriel is the first to admit. This one-time overweight yoghurt-importer watched Saturday Night Fever and longed to move like John Travolta but thought he never would. The scales fell from his eyes in 1989, at a class in North London. He ran away initially, but forced himself to return and has never looked back.

The class begins with 15 minutes' relaxation. Then, back on their bare feet, the self-conscious pupils learn to move their heads to the music, then the shoulders, the chest, the hips and finally the feet. Soon the room is full of bodies wildly jerking to Queen's 'I Want to Break Free'.

Dancing with Gabriel is, in fact, deceptively tricky. Without the certainty of established dance styles, the hands are out on a limb, the head can go rigid and feet stick to the floor. The aim is to get the body flush with rhythm so that, as Gabriel explains, 'the body takes over from the head'.

After a little while, dancers are told to team up as couples, to do 'head dances'. Up until this point keeping one's eyes shut has limited the embarrassment. But Gabriel is wise to this trick. Out of the blue, he instructs partners to stare long and hard into each others sparklers. Some, clearly not mature enough for such intense therapy, barely control their giggles.

But that's OK. 'I give permission to break the rules,' says the guru. Many westerners, he believes, are stilted by convention. 'The body is like a river: it only flows freely when the blocks are removed. These start in the mind and are transmitted to the body as stiff and self-conscious movements.'

Gabriel says that dance is erotic only when the dancers remember to 'be themselves and really go for it'. As if to prove the point, Gabriel requests a solo performance from the sublimely elegant Louise. Her three minutes of leaping and running show what dance really is.

For the hooked, Gabriel runs Woody's - an alcohol-free, smoke-free and strobe-free disco - where addicts of dance can strut on Saturday nights, celebrating their liberation from the lonely bedroom boogie.

In Gabriel's classes, inhibitions quickly disappear. By now the room has become a refuge, a haven where nobody will mock you. Somewhere between the head dance and the subsequent pelvic thrusts, embarrassment ceases to be an issue.

East-West Dance Centre, 188 Old Street, London EC1V 9BP (081-292 0218)

(Photograph omitted)

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