If you happened to wander into the basement of Dovercourt House on a Monday night, you’d be faced with a strange spectacle: the shadowy outlines of twenty people dancing in the dark.

Every Monday night, from 7:20pm to 8:30 p.m., Dovercourt House’s 805 Studio hosts No Lights No Lycra, an Australian organization whose singular aim is to free people from their inhibitions—by providing a space to dance, in the near-pitch black, for an hour with a group of strangers.

No Lights No Lycra started in Melbourne, in 2009, as a project by dance students Alice Glenn and Heidi Barrett. As stated on the official website, there is “no light, no lycra” (an Australian term for work-out gear), “no teacher, no steps to learn, no technique, just free movement.” Today, there are more than 75 dance communities around the world, including one in Toronto, which Australian Ceda Verbakel started back in 2014. When Verbakel moved to the States a few months ago, friends Elisabeth Lang, Eric Allin, and Ken Ferguson took over as organizers.

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Above: Elisabeth Lang (left) and Eric Allin (right) stand outside Dovercourt House.

I first discovered No Lights No Lycra when I was living in Melbourne—over there, meet-ups attract hundreds of people. In Toronto, however, the community is still quite small: there were around a dozen people, not including myself and the organisers, at this Monday’s session. However, according to Eric and Elisabeth, this turnout is below average—normally, around thirty people show up every week. The recent smaller numbers may have something to do with the season: winter is generally busier than summer, because of seasonal affective disorder.

But how can dancing in the dark for an hour with a bunch of strangers mitigate depression? I was curious to find out. At 7:20 p.m. sharp, after Eric and Elisabeth had covered the windows with pieces of cardboard spray-painted with “NLNL,” the lights began to dim, until all I could see were the shadowy outlines of my fellow dancers. The room was lined with little electric candles, so it wasn’t entirely pitch black (the lighting is necessary, Elisabeth told me afterwards, to avoid enthusiastic-dancer collisions). From somewhere near the front of the room (I had chosen a cozy nook near the back to groove in) came the seductive whisperings of Michael Jackson, and the iconic bass intro of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. I swayed around shyly, trying to glean the energy of the other dancers: was I moving around too much? Was I not gyrating hard enough? But then I realized that everyone was entirely in their own world, and I was entirely missing the point. People were hopping around and shaking their arms in the air, not at all caring what others thought of them. And this is the beauty of No Lights No Lycra. In Elisabeth’s words: “It’s totally unselfconscious. You feel free to move however you want to, no matter how silly you look. There’s no feeling of being looked at. As a woman, you often think ‘If I grind to this song, someone is going to come up and try to grind behind me.’ But here, you can grind to it. Because no one cares what you’re doing. It feels really safe.” For Eric, who hadn’t danced fully sober with other people before No Lights No Lycra (“and that is a true statement,” he insisted), being in the dark liberates him from the anxiety that he would normally use alcohol to deal with.

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Above: Before the start of the event.

Sure enough, after my first-song timidity, I completely let loose. When “APESHIT” by the Carters came on, I busted out all the moves I had always been too scared to do in the club, for fear of being judged or grabbed. By the last song (Green Light, by Lorde), I was lip-syncing wildly, jumping off the floor, and spinning around with my arms outstretched. I felt like a different person, but I also felt entirely like myself—it was a strange feeling. Something Eric said to me afterwards explains this sensation: “In the dark, you’re kind of an abstract being. When you dance in the light, with other people around, it’s a very visual form. But in the dark, it becomes a sensory experience.” It was true—without my sense of sight, everything else was heightened. The music was like a physical presence, and I could almost feel each nerve and muscle twitching in my body. When the hour was up, I felt beautifully empty—like I was so light, I could soar. Elisabeth describes this feeling as a dance-induced catharsis: “You get to come and experience all the feelings in a totally safe place. You can cry, you can laugh, you can rage. You can do whatever you want. You can have all those feelings in the course of one night. It’s such a catharsis—it’s very liberating.”

In fast-paced Toronto, it’s certainly easy to build up a backlog of negative emotions and stress. Sometimes we forget that we’re just a body living in a world, and sometimes, it takes moving that body to Beyoncé—in a safe, candle-lit space—to remind ourselves of that simple fact. No Lights No Lycra meets every Monday in the basement of Dovercourt House, from 7:20 – 8:30 p.m. It’s a mere five dollars per session, or, as Elisabeth puts it: “The cheapest therapy in the city.”

Story & Photos by Molly Henderson · Published July 13 2018