Leg Up

Professional dancer Corey O’Brien on dancing your way to perfect fitness

This post is part of a series of Queerty conversations with models, trainers, dancers, and, well, people who inspire us to stay in shape–or just sit on the couch ogling them instead.

Name: Corey O’Brien, 29

City: Los Angeles. Originally I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania called Custer Springs.

Occupation: Choreographer

Favorite Gym: I’d have to say Gold’s is my favorite. I also enjoy Planet Fitness. I go back and forth with different classes at different gyms.

Do you have a favorite exercise playlist? I’m not ashamed to admit it: Britney Spears has always been my go-to. She’s the reason I started dancing in the first place. Anything pop, upbeat. For a workout, I need to get into the right mindset and that does it for me.

What’s the best food to eat prior to a workout? I do my workouts in the morning, so egg whites or any type of fruit. I also add in almond butter and bananas on rice cakes and yogurt. If I’m not doing egg whites, I do some kind of breakfast sandwich.

What’s the best outfit for working out? I just wear a tank top and Addidas shorts. All black. I need ventilation and not feel constricted, so my tank tops aren’t that tight.

How do you balance staying in shape and having fun? Staying in shape is my fun. Working out has been such a great outlet for me. It’s a great way for me to release tension anger or disappointment. And I feel good after. I always try to get it done in the morning so I have a whole day to look forward to. If I have to base my day around working out, or if I do it at 3 or 4 pm, I’m not going to feel as inspired. I like the full-day open to do other things.

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futuristic Wednesday

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What’s a basic, if useful, work out tip you can offer? The best thing to do is to go into the gym with some idea as to what body part you’re working out that day. I plan it out: arms on Monday, arms on Tuesday, etc. If you go into the gym kind of lost, you’ll lose your motivation to work out, or you’ll just do a few things and not work the right body parts. Plan out your workouts and stick to it. Follow a regimen.

Obviously, dance is a great way to stay prepared. What is it about dance for you that is so satisfying?

For me, dance has always been my first love. When I was a young, gay kid growing up in a really small town where I felt like no one understood me, it was a way for me to release emotions and tell a story without speaking. It was the first time I was ever able to be my authentic self and feel empowered. It was a way to find myself. Once I felt that, I didn’t want to let it go.

We hear about how dancers can eat almost anything and still remain in shape. We also hear that often times dancers become enormously overweight later in life. One of those sounds enormously beneficial. How do you avoid the other if you have to stop dancing?
I stick with eating healthy and being smart with what I put in my body. It’s not just about my body; it’s my mind. Once I started eating better a couple of years ago, I started realizing how much better I feel about myself and my day. [Physically] I can eat fast food and sweets and not gain weight, but I realized mentally I was sluggish. Once I discovered eating better made me feel better, I stick to it, especially if I’m not working out.

In your essay in Out, you talk about starting to use drugs and alcohol in response to homophobic bullying. What kind of escape did they offer?
When I felt that kind of pain, alcohol and drugs took away any sort of feelings at all. It numbed everything, so everything in life seemed a little bit better. It seemed easier to manage. I wasn’t as focused on the negative. When you’re under the influence like that, you lose yourself, but you feel like you find yourself. That was the issue for me: I felt like I found myself because I wasn’t experiencing hardship. Everything was just pushed lower and lower because I was masking it with a substance. All these kids were making fun of me, but I felt like I had to live with it. If I didn’t feel it as much, I could live with it.

It made me feel like I had no feelings. It’s hard to describe, but I would have rather had that than felt any kind of pain.

Related: Trainer Ian Armstrong on why you should take an edible before a workout

You write that you were supposed to stay in rehab for 30 days, but instead stayed a year. What kind of work were you doing in that time?
For the first couple of months, I was just getting used to it. I had this mindset, in the beginning, that I didn’t really need treatment. I thought I could manage my drinking. I didn’t want to admit to anyone—especially myself—that I was an alcoholic. So I learned about self-sabotaging. I learned about why, when things were going good in my life, they would always take a turn because I was self-sabotaging. I learned about loving myself. I realized nobody treated me as badly as I treated myself in those years. Confidence was so foreign to me. Then I found it in rehab. People were treating me so badly over something I couldn’t change, so I’d started treating myself just as bad. Self-love: that’s really what I learned.

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Ice cream run Cc: @backgrid_usa

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One thing that stands out to me in your essay is the way that keeping a journal brought you new insight. How did that change your self-image?
To be honest, I started keeping a journal because I felt like, in the beginning of rehab, I wasn’t being that honest. I thought I had to say what I had to say to get out of rehab. I felt like my journal was the one place I could open up and say “I hate it here. I don’t want to be here.” The first day of rehab, I wrote that I didn’t have a problem. At the end of the entry, I wrote that I really wanted to drink because I was stressed. I look back on it, and how even in the same sentence where I said I didn’t need to be there, I wrote that I needed a substance to feel better. It was eye-opening. I was just putting down all these thoughts and emotions. When I went back and read them, I was all over the place. I had no idea who I was. I was so fearful. I had no idea alcohol and drugs were the reason I was there, that my life was so unmanageable.

How does keeping sober better prepare you for day-to-day life?
The cool thing about sobriety for me is that every decision I make now is done with a sober, straight mind. I don’t regret things that I do now. My mind wasn’t altered by a substance when I did it. I lead with knowing who I am now. I’m confident in who I am. My activities every single day are something I’m proud of now.

And how do you prepare to keep sober? What do you do when you crave?
At first, because I wanted to get back into dance, it was tough. I just threw myself back into all I knew, and all I knew was the dance industry while I was drinking. So I had to reframe it all. I went straight from rehab into filming a TV show. I just told myself that my dreams were coming true, and I would not have that without sobriety. For me now, it’s who I am. Being sober is part of me. I couldn’t live without it. So staying sober is staying connected to where I came from, and also giving back to the community. Giving back to the communities that helped me get sober is what keeps me connected to my own sobriety.

How does being sober prepare you for love?
It’s funny. I feel like I’ve experienced amazing highs in my love life in my sobriety, and also some incredible lows because now I’m feeling these damn emotions. I’ve been through breakups and also found love in sobriety. The most incredible thing for me—this always comes back to me—I know who I am, and the love and respect I deserve. But I also know the love and respect I can give. I can be attentive. I can be there for someone else. I can be reliable. It’s opened up my mind to knowing more about myself.

You also write about how human contact, not isolation, will keep you from using. What is it about being social?
For me, when I was in rehab, being around people 24/7 was tough at times. But we were all going through the same thing. For a lot of addicts, isolation is a negative thing. When we sit alone with our own thoughts, [addiction] takes on a life of its own. It really feeds you in unhealthy ways. So just being able to go out and be around others just like you, that is something super important in getting and staying sober. That really helps me: the community. I want to bring some sort of community to the internet during lockdown just so we know we’re not alone.

What do you keep on your nightstand?
My phone, a water bottle and a candle. It’s a scented candle called “Sunlit Mandarin Berry.” It’s super fruity. Expect nothing less.

Bonus Pics: 

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Super busy day

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Pull-ups or just hanging? #workout

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Shooting for @mrturk #mrturk

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@lasvegascher @cher #divaslasvegas

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