WORKOUT-SIDE THE BOX: Dance Like No One Is Watching

the dance complexPhoto by Charles Daniels Photography

This winter, the perfect antidote to cabin fever could just be mixing up your workout—whether that means putting on your dancing shoes, practicing your swordsmanship or braving frigid temps on your bike.

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Looking to bring more physical activity into your life but can’t stand the treadmill or freezing temperatures? Try trading in those running shoes for castanets.

The Dance Complex (536 Mass. Ave.) is a vibrant, bustling Central Square staple—don’t be fooled by its discrete maroon awning and understated logo. Since opening in 1991, it’s offered a diverse mix of dance classes—both in style and difficulty—giving its students a means to express their creativity, connect with the community and get a serious workout all at once.

“We find that people are attracted to coming here because it is dance with all that comes with it,” executive director Peter DiMuro explains. “What does it mean to dance versus exercise? [That students’] minds are engaged with an art form.”

Perhaps best of all, the studio is a nonprofit space that’s almost entirely run by volunteers.

“We have an absolutely massive army of volunteers who work in exchange for rehearsal space and free classes,” explains Dance Complex board chair Mary McCarthy, who’s been a volunteer herself for more than 13 years. “It’s this really robust group of people who run the desk and clean the building and partner closely with the staff to make the Dance Complex run.”

It’s a lot of work, as the building is huge and always humming with activity. Its seven studios host almost 90 classes a week in 38 different styles. And it’s growing. The nonprofit recently expanded into a space downstairs—Studio #7, a multidisciplinary room for exhibitions, performances and community gatherings with three massive windows that look out on Mass. Ave. It’s an accessible space for those who have mobility challenges. Last year, the Dance Complex also launched an accessible dance initiative in partnership with Mass. General Hospital for people with Parkinson’s disease and their care providers. They hope to expand the program in 2017.

Because the studio works by allowing its teachers to “rent” space for a small monthly fee or in exchange for volunteer hours, instructors are able to teach in their own style at whatever price they decide to charge. It makes classes more financially accessible for both students and teachers—most cost between $9 and $18, which is generally paid directly to the instructor. DiMuro sees this as one of the keys in keeping the studio an institution for all of Central Square, newcomers and longtime residents alike.

The sheer volume and diversity of dance classes also supports their mission to offer dance for everyone. “We are probably the only dance studio in the world that offers six kinds of African dance from six different African nations,” DiMuro says. The studio regularly offers classes in hip hop and funk, improv, modern, ballet and even flamenco. It also hosts fusion classes that bring together everything from yoga to Afro-Caribbean to modern.

“We are one of the best examples of why not to gentrify to the point of blandness,” DiMuro explains. “Why would we only want to have one type of dance? Why have cookie cutter homes?”

“It’s not so often that you find a dance or art environment that transcends boundaries,” McCarthy adds. “It’s an unusual nexus of culture and artistry. For me, cleaning the building every Saturday morning for an hour and a half before it opens is this meditation in gratitude.”

This story originally appeared in the January/February issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription. If you’re looking for more outside-the-box workouts, you can read about Olympia Fencing Center here and get a rundown on winter cycling here.

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