Meet Jon Hester, the Guy Who Teaches Berlin's Club Rats How to Dance
In New York, Dan Smith will teach you guitar. In Berlin, Jon Hester will teach you how to dance to house music.
Photo by Valerie Haase
Every city has it's own class of local music "celebrities." Often, they're just regular guys, music instructors whose advertisements are so ubiquitous that they somehow become a part of city life and transcend to a near-mythic status. In New York City, Dan Smith will teach you guitar.
In Berlin, Jon Hester will teach you house dancing.
There are few other places in the world where you could imagine courses in house dancing being a profitable business endeavor, or even existing. But in the German capital, where the culture of dance music has seeped into the mainstream culture of the city itself, it figures.
Still, it's hard to imagine what "house dance classes" might entail. Dancing to house and techno is supposed to be innate. That's one of the most frequently cited reasons for the genre's popularity; It provides a beat so steady that even the most rhythmless people on Earth can figure out how to move to it with little instruction.
"Stepping back and forth is not dancing," Hester explains to me over fresh-pressed juices at a café on Warschauer Strasse in Friedreichshain. One of his flyers is posted on a telephone pole right out front. "Well, it's not that it's not dancing—it's the foundation. Those are the baby steps—moving your body over and over again for hours on end—but most people aren't lifting their arm out to the side, leaning back, or starting to open up physically. They're still very conservative in their movements."
Clearly, Jon Hester's idea of dancing is distinct from the pedestrian concept of grooving that's de rigeur in most nightclubs, or even the sort of torso-twisting and leg-bobbing moves that have been scientifically proven to define a "good" dancer. When Jon Hester dances, his limbs turn to mercury. His feet glide. His arms wind around his body and freeze in contorted hieroglyphs above his head. His legs swivel and occasionally jut out from his frame, but their rhythmic relationship to a 4/4 beat is less predictable and repetitive than any two-stepping clubber could manage—without a bit of schooling, that is.
For an example of this phenomenon, watch the first 30 seconds of Nina Kraviz's "Ghetto Kraviz" video, which features a couple shots of Hester cutting shapes at the Warschauer Strasse M10 tram station:
Hester has provided house dance coaching since late 2011, when a few coworkers asked him for a crash course. These days, he offers one Tuesday night session per week for beginners and intermediate steppers.
Hester's teaching philosophy is based on how he learned how to dance—by going out and dancing. As a teenager growing up in Chicago, he'd sneak into clubs and observe, then mimic. "I'd go to raves and clubs, and I'd learn from watching people do footwork, breakdancing, liquid dancing, pop-lock, or house steps," he says. "I'd just do what came naturally as I felt it."
His classes aren't about typical instruction and choreography—they're about "social dance," and learning "in the environment where music is being played." He teaches a set of simple steps as a foundation—you'll need these to be broken down in slow motion if you want to remember them—and then encourages his students to improvise on them.
If you do manage to internalize Hester's moves, and if you do bust them out at a club, you'll probably be a rare sight on the dance floor. "What's strange is that I don't see dancers out at nightclubs," Hester tells me. "It just seems funny to me that what I'm doing is seen as a novelty, almost. People say things like, 'Wow, you're dancing—that's crazy!"
In defense of those incredulous clubbers, seeing Hester in action is undeniably impressive, because he's really good at it. But any body movements that deviate from a rather conservative palette of stepping and bobbing motions would draw attention on most floors, whether the dancer is trained like Hester, or an anonymous girl cutting shapes on a podium at Berghain.
Enthusiastic dancers are important part of a nightclub's ecosystem. They have an energizing effect, as their intensity encourages others to dance harder, and their presence cuts to the core of what's attractive about rave culture: it's participatory. The energy at a dance music show is dispersed throughout the crowd, and the responsibility for making it a particularly salient experience falls both on the DJ and the crowd—no matter how good a set is, if the crowd sucks, chances are the party is going to suck too.
"It concerns me a little bit when people are just there to consume, to look at the DJ and stand there and listen to what's being played, but not add to what's happening," said Hester, who DJs himself. "It's not that they don't have the right to enjoy listening to the music, but it's important that people are participants in this experience. They're not just consumers."
And for every head bob that evolves into a pop-and-lock, Hester can take credit for encouraging a culture of participation.