Fitspiration: Gert Jan Mattens of First Light on dancing in the dark

Updated on August 24 2017

Waking up at 6am is no easy feat for anyone, whether you’re committed to slugging it out at the gym or have a packed day of work and errands ahead. But would you consider it for a confidence-boosting hour that promises long-term benefits for your mind and body? For Gert Jan Mattens, founder of Hong Kong’s first morning wellness party First Light, the answer is an emphatic yes.

Held in complete darkness, First Light’s morning and evening dance and wellness sessions take place at various event spaces around the city. The one-hour dance session is set to a themed playlist, followed by a cool-down session led by various experts, which can range from guided meditation to qigong breathing to gong meditation and beyond.

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Participants who look for alternative wellness activities love First Light for the sense of freedom they’re offered in the darkness — and for the unique way to burn calories. And clearly, this isn’t your average hour at the gym, because the people who come out of the session — Gert Jan Mattens included — consistently talk about how confident, energetic and awake they feel for the rest of the day. While pumping iron in the gym gets our bodies moving, dancing in the dark is a way for stressed Hongkongers to truly let go of all the baggage of the day, mentally and physically.

“People would tell me First Light puts them in an environment to let go completely; it’s an escape from daily life in Hong Kong,” says Mattens. “Others tell me they like to dance but they don’t want to be in a club environment where people are drinking and smoking, or they don’t want to get chatted up. Some people feel a bit shy dancing so they like the darkness aspect. They enjoy how energised and confident they feel after.”

For Mattens, who has lived in Hong Kong for four years and was at one time in charge of corporate partnerships at GuavaPass, it was a natural curiosity for trying new things that made him bring the morning party concept (which he heard had emerged in his hometown in Brussels) to Hong Kong. “I would say GuavaPass was my introduction to the world of health and wellness in Hong Kong. With that, there came the opportunities to try out different wellness possibilities,” he says. “I tried different yoga studios, or places like Red Door Studio for gong meditation. For me, it was really mind-opening, and maybe it was even the beginning of my spiritual journey.”

While other morning party concepts were essentially a club dance party at the crack of dawn, Mattens felt Hongkongers needed more encouragement to step out of their comfort zone, especially when no alcohol was involved, which is why he combined it with the dancing in the dark concept. “People in Hong Kong are a bit inhibited, they’re a bit shy, and I wanted to take off all those shells. In the dark, your eyes adjust after one to two minutes; I wouldn’t be able to recognise you, or tell what your features are. That’s the beauty of it, because that’s when people really feel that they can really be who they want to be; they can do moves where otherwise they would feel rigid and self-conscious,” says Mattens.

With seemingly unlimited, infectious energy whether during our meeting or at 6:45am as he’s setting up for First Light, it looks like whatever Mattens is doing is working. He chalks it up to the drive to keep challenging his comfort zone, which in turn, builds confidence, resilience and a healthy mindset. Below, he shares with us how he works it all into a daily, balanced lifestyle.

My wellness philosophy… is that I don’t stick to one thing, but I try different stuff. One time I’ll do a gong bath, next week I’ll do a yoga class. I’ve always been quite health conscious; I think it’s important.

My daily routine starts with… the gym. Yes working out at the gym can get a bit boring but I do it in the morning and I am satisfied with just a 45-minute session of weights and a bit of rowing. Even if I just feel like staying there for 30 minutes, fine, but at least I’ve done it. I then come to Metta, maybe have a meeting or two, work a bit, then I go home and then maybe go to an event after, such as being invited to a store opening or going to a talk about e-commerce at a co-working studio. I like to enrich my life with different experiences.

The key to staying motivated… is to interact with others and try new things. By being more involved in the wellness community, I just have more frequent interactions with people who are really into wellness. I feel like it’s a healthy shift. I used to go out a lot in Hong Kong, where my average time to go home was 3am… now it’s around 1am. Also, the feedback of the people who attend First Light makes it extremely rewarding as more and more people know about it.

The best five minute exercise to get your body going is… I recently learned something about just jumping up and down, and apparently it resets your nervous system. Other than that, I would suggest meditation: focus on your breathing, maybe do some guided meditation.

My favourite exercise… is a practice in Hong Kong that I just recently discovered that I absolutely love, it’s called 5Rhythms, which I usually do once a week. It’s a kind of meditative dance, where you dance through five different rhythms. Each rhythm helps you break through certain blockages you may have, whether it’s fear or anger or something else. They’re different for each person. In First Light, you get to experience complete freedom because of the dark, but with 5Rhythms, I feel like it can offer you that in the light, just because it follows a structure. There are no specific steps and you can dance how you like, but you will get some guidance. It’s very freeing.

I also do yoga every now and then. I go to the gym a couple of times per week. These are the things that are more steady for me: 5Rhythms, First Light, and also the gym, which I do before my day starts. In the evening you get caught up in different plans, you work late, or you feel tired. I’m more of a morning person, so it works for me.

For power food… I eat mostly trail mix and nuts. I used to be a coffee person, I love coffee, but it tends to make me anxious.

I believe in eating… a high-protein diet with a lot of eggs and nuts. I only eat meat a couple of times a week, mainly when I go out or when I cook for friends. The rest of the time I am mostly vegetarian — when I cook for myself I’m usually too lazy to cook meat. I love Asian food but for European food, I like my own home cooked stuff. My place is like a Belgian private kitchen! I always make this smoked chicken with mustard cream sauce, with broccoli or carrot mashed potatoes. It’s really comforting.

For cheat day… I cheat every day. I have a big sweet tooth, so I eat chocolate every day. I’m Belgian so I have to live up to my country’s reputation.

First Light - Dancing in the dark Hong Kong

When I’m not teaching or working out… I do a lot of random stuff! I just love to be part of circumstances or environments where I know I’m not really ‘supposed’ to be part of it. After you try new things, you get such a confidence boost.

I highly recommend a book, “How to Talk to Anyone” by Leil Lowndes, and I think everyone should follow her concept of ‘scrambling your life.’ It tells you, if you have the opportunity to do a diving course, for instance, go for it; if you have the opportunity to work an afternoon at an elderly home, go for it; or even learning a different language. All of these different experiences you amass will help you in the future. That’s why whenever someone asks me to do something that may be slightly outside my comfort zone, or something that I may not take my own initiative to do, I still say yes.

The more you do to crush your comfort zone after doing something new, the bigger a confidence boost you get; it also builds your resilience and afterwards these things don’t seem as scary anymore.

My workout playlist includes… Generally at First Light I just play whatever mix of songs that I like, but I try to 1) appeal to different kinds of people, and 2) incentivise people to move their bodies in different ways — so it’s never a whole session of pop, trance or EDM. What I’ve been doing recently is to choose a theme to give people some guidance, but I also tell people that they’re broad interpretations. Past themes have been ‘Arabic’ and ‘90s.’

Follow First Light on Facebook, and try it out during upcoming sessions on 30 August,  4 September and 12 September.

Photography by Derry Ainsworth (@derryainsworth).