Active steps to a healthier life

Over a million people in the UK have seasonal depression. Could they dance their blues away?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"You have to yelp," say Tamsyn, who has spiky blond hair and is wearing a rug around her waist. "Nyyip," she says sounding like a mating peacock. I suddenly feel far too middle class to yelp, at least in public. "Humm," I say, as a compromise. Then Tamsyn goes galloping cross the floor, flapping her skirt. And yelping. I follow, flapping my skirt and not.

"You have to yelp," say Tamsyn, who has spiky blond hair and is wearing a rug around her waist. "Nyyip," she says sounding like a mating peacock. I suddenly feel far too middle class to yelp, at least in public. "Humm," I say, as a compromise. Then Tamsyn goes galloping cross the floor, flapping her skirt. And yelping. I follow, flapping my skirt and not.

The can-can class is just one of the classes put on by the International Workshop Festival, an organisation based in South London which aims to get people interested in the sorts of dance they might not otherwise have a chance to, especially some of the more esoteric varieties, such as Bollywood dancing, podium dancing and nipple-tassel twirling.

Exercise is one benefit they believe that such classes can bring to people; but there are others which are considered equally beneficial, such as making people feel confident and happier in themselves through doing things that they might not otherwise do.

Alternative forms of exercises have been gathering momentum in recent years. Popularised by Kylie and her "Spinning Around" video, pole dancing has acquired something of a cult and it has been followed up by lap-dancing, and for the men, air-guitar aerobics. Increasingly people seem unwilling to join the hordes of what Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler, calls the "pleasure-hating lunatics who appear to enjoy going to the gym", and are taking a more holistic attitude to exercise in which the mind and the body are equally benefited.

"We put on pole-dancing classes last year," says Kathy Everett, who helps to organise the festival. "It was a huge success - it sold out overnight and we had to lay on more classes." She hopes nipple-tassel twirling will prove an equal hit. "It is not so energetic," she says. "But it is good for confidence - and for self-expression." Men are also welcome to join some of the classes. "You can still get the movement going without - how shall I put it - the leverage," she explains.

Tamsyn, our can-can instructor, used to dance the can-can professionally - "with the feathers and everything". She used to do the splits too - though she says that they won't be necessary for this evening.

In our class there are six of us - five women and one rather willowy man called Andy. "Are you going to do the class too?" she asks him. He looks doubtful. "I don't know - what do you think?" Needless to say she thinks he should.

The can-can is - always has been - extremely energetic. As Guy de Maupassant described it: "The women... appeared to have double-jointed legs and hips. They leapt about in a frou-frou of lifted skirts flashing their knickers and kicking their legs up over their heads with amazing agility." We haven't got the skirts and knickers - we are making do with sarongs, rugs and scarves - but we are certainly leaping about. "The can-can is very physical,"says Kathy. "It can get quite gymnastic."

As such it can also help combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the seasonal slump that experts tell us afflicts one in 50 people in the UK; and affecting half a million of those severely. In its milder forms SAD manifests itself in a variety of ways. "Sufferers can feel of low mood for most of the day," says Fran Gorman of the Mental Health Foundation. "They will sleep more, have cravings for carbohydrates and will tend to put on weight."

In the more severe cases SAD can be extremely debilitating, but in its milder forms a series of lifestyle changes can help: eating more fruit and vegetables is recommended; sugary foods, caffeine, alcohol and chocolate should all be avoided as these can exacerbate fluctuations in mood and tiredness. Light boxes, which zap sufferers with bright light for around half an hour a day, have been shown to be beneficial in around 85 per cent of cases.

I am not sure that many experts would posit a direct correlation between doing the can-can and improvement in the symptoms of SAD, but exercise is certainly one of the methods advised to relieve symptoms. Research conducted in Helsinki showed that exercising twice a week "effectively relieved depressive systems". As Gorman says: "It just sort of gets your whole body going again, which is what it needs."

And it certainly does get your body going. By the end of an hour of leaping and bounding and flapping of skirts I am completely exhausted - but in a good way. One move, called the "gallop", involves bounding around bent almost double, flapping your skirt. It seems, especially with the yelps, rather feral and undignified. But fun.

I also feel marvellously cheered up. As I leave, I ask the girl next to me whether she has enjoyed the class. She has. "It's so nice finding the sort of exercise that makes you smile while you're doing it," she says. I couldn't agree more.

The International Workshop Festival
020-7261 1144

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