As the face of BODYCOMBAT and CXWORX, Dan Cohen is known for his lightning fast punches and ability to hold a hover for over five minutes. But what else is going on beneath the surface? We caught up with Dan to discuss martial arts, faith, and what advice he would give his 18-year-old self.
Let’s start with the basics! How did you get into teaching?
I had three options when I was 18: I could become a firefighter, an aerobics instructor, or I could work on the oil rigs.
I was leaning towards working on the oil rigs - because I’d heard the pay was incredible - but the timing was wrong: they did six weeks on and 10 days off, and the six week cycle had just started again. So I decided to do the course to teach aerobics. And to be honest, I felt a bit silly at the start. But from there I started working as a personal trainer and took further courses in strength and conditioning, and I just fell in love with it.
At one stage I was teaching 35 classes a week! I taught at 10 different clubs and I would cycle my pushbike from one club to another - in the misery of the English weather – as I didn’t have a car back then. I’d often do multiple classes back to back, a double, triple. I taught an array of classes such as circuit, aqua, dance aerobics... yes, back then, I believed I could dance! How wrong I was!
I personally couldn’t teach 35 classes a week now but back then it certainly gave me a good foundation as an Instructor.
So how did you end up becoming a Program Director?
The previous Program Directors for BODYCOMBAT – or Product Managers as they were known back then – had resigned, so word on the street was that Les Mills was looking for new people.
At the time I was an International Trainer for the UK team and I was travelling to places like Japan, Portugal and Germany to do modules. I got a call from Emma Barry who asked me to go to Amsterdam for a weekend and said, Lisa Osborne is going to be there and there’s something she wants to tell you. So I went to Amsterdam and Lisa told me I should apply for the role, and they were thinking about me. So after a conversation I had with Rach [Newsham] we applied as a duo. We had to put a video together and we had all the normal issues that go down with that with cameras not working and laptops freezing, and we were up against the shortest of deadlines… we were so grateful to have the help of Shaun Egan ‘cause he was a bit of whiz with IT and the creative stuff.
What was it like moving to New Zealand?
The original contract actually didn’t have us based in New Zealand, we were going to be based out of the UK and just travel over every round. But Phillip Mills told us, if you want to really nail this job, you need to be in New Zealand. So the contract got changed.
I wasn’t scared of moving to New Zealand, even though I had never been there before. I was excited. Ever since I’d been a young boy, I’d always known that I wouldn’t live in the UK forever. I’d always been fascinated by New Zealand, by the Maoris and the exotic-ness of it being this little island a million miles away.
To this day I absolutely believe in Phillip and Jackie’s vision. My own values are absolutely aligned with theirs. Now, I’m exactly where I want to be, and that’s not by chance or by fluke, but by determination and hard work. I was absolutely destined to be in this job.
Faith plays a big part in your life. Can you tell me a little more about that?
When I was growing up, I was always confused about religion. If anyone talked about Jesus Christ to me back then, my immature reaction would have been to call them a “Bible basher”.
I didn’t have a bad upbringing but I left home at a really young age, and then I was a teenager living on my own. I was brought up in Judaism, however nearly eight years ago I found God. My wife, Taimane, comes from a large Samoan Christian family and we attend a non-denominational church called ‘LIFE’. After having an incredible conversation with a rabbi in New York and a Christian minister in New Zealand, I was made aware of a movement called the Jewish Christian. This really resonated with me and I now consider myself to be a Jewish Christian.
Going to church teaches me so much about listening to other people and how to positively influence others. I know that my role as a Program Director provides me with a platform from which to speak, and I try to use my social media to share messages that will physically, mentally and spiritually help people achieve their goals - whether they be large or small.
What people see on screen is this guy punching and kicking, or a guy doing some woodchops. But that’s really just one part of my life. And through the church I have learned how to anchor myself so I can best support my community, friends and colleagues.
So what are your anchors?
There are three different types of anchor that come to mind. Number one, the anchor that holds firm to the rock and will not move, no matter how big the storm. Number two, the anchor that can be bent, that has some flexibility and will move as the waves start to crash down. And number three is the anchor that slows the boat down but it never comes to a complete stop.
Personally, the big anchors in my life are God, my wife and my children. Being a father grounds me and teaches me to deploy the right anchor to weather the many exciting storms of parenthood.
Professionally, my role within the business as a Program Director for Les Mills keeps me grounded creatively, as well as enabling me to explore many facets of the fitness industry.
And as a coach, deploying the correct anchor means that I can truly bring out the potential in others.
Do you have any specific role models?
I guess when I was younger, the likes of Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, RoboCop, The Terminator, Darth Vader... all made me feel like I, too, could be superhuman!
As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that I don’t want to be anybody else. However, I do look at what others do to positively influence the people around them.
I look to great sporting stars and what they’ve achieved in terms of their careers.
Closer to home, Jackie [Mills] is a role model as a mother, grandmother, friend, colleague, and as my boss.
I look at what Phillip is doing. There’s a lot to be said about the managing director of a company who is still working 16 hour days and travelling around world. That’s somebody who really cares, because it’s not just about him or his family – there are thousands and thousands of Instructors who are addicted to what Les Mills does for them and that’s a huge responsibility.
And what role do martial arts play in your life?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from martial arts is how to exercise discipline. It’s just like when we practise a Kata – you do it over and over again until it becomes second nature, like brushing your teeth.
This discipline has extended to all areas of my life. You will never, ever hear me say, I can’t be bothered. If the grass needs cutting or the house needs cleaning, or the kids want to go out again, or my wife needs help… and for BODYCOMBAT and CXWORX, no matter how many challenges I may face, I will always get the job done.
The other thing I’ve learned is the importance of having a good trainer, good sparring partners, good pad holders and good technical coaches. Even now when I go to the gym, I hate training on my own. I always have a training partner, and I’m a training partner for a bunch of other people too.
So can you tell me, when you have challenging situations in your life, how do you cope?
I ask the right questions. I never assume. And anger doesn’t play any part in my life, I manage my frustrations very well. I’m careful to choose questions that won’t antagonise or take the conversation in a negative direction. When I was younger I didn’t know what the right questions were to ask. But now I’m older and wiser, and I know how to handle situations better.
What would be a challenging situation for you?
As we get older, it’s harder to form new friendships, so I have to really work at those things. I’ve got some really great people in my life and in order to stay close to them, I will communicate often, even if it’s just a text to say, “Thinking of you, I love you bro”.
That’s a real challenge, and you can’t always wait for people to come to you. Certainly New Zealanders are super casual about that type of stuff and they just go with the flow. I work at that and I think it’s worth working at. Good relationships are worth working for.
What’s the best feedback you’ve been given?
“Make it a habit”. It was feedback I got during a prep week for filming. For me, that means that when I teach my regular classes, I don’t fall too far from how I teach in filming Masterclass. I set a high standard for filming and I try to make it a habit, so that I’m regularly teaching at that level.
In Advanced Training, Instructors explore their “why”. Can you tell me what yours is?
You know my grandfather and two great uncles both died with diabetes. For years even my own mother has really struggled with weight issues. But not any more. Along with my dad, she regularly does BODYPUMP and BODYCOMBAT, plus they walk all the time, it’s great! I’m really proud of them.
I love fitness, and I love what fitness does for me and my family. I’ve done other jobs in the past, I’ve been a DJ, I’ve worked on the door, I’ve been a cocktail bartender… by trade I’m a diamond setter. Half of my family come from the jewellery industry and the other half owned black taxi cabs and ran boxing schools.
I wanted to be in an industry that meant I could help my family. I don’t want to be doing anything else. I love what we stand for as an organisation and I’ll be doing this for as long as I can.
What advice would you give to new Instructors?
Be patient. Teaching is really addictive, you know you get the endorphins and the positive vibes from teaching and being in the moment with people who just love it, singing along and moving together. It’s really easy to say you want more and more and before you know it you’re teaching 35 classes a week, riding your pushbike between gyms and it’s really, really intense.
So I’d say, be patient. Don’t try and do 10 or 12 things at once, just do a few things really well. If I could go back 20 years and tell my younger self one thing it would be [whispers] patience.
What drove you to become a fitness leader on the world stage?
I just woke up. It took me a long time to realise what I needed to do. For a long time I thought that I had to do what everyone else was doing, and that I should just do what was expected of me.
If you want to truly love what you do, then don’t be afraid to drop anchor and say, hang on, I’m going to take my time here. I’m going to do this really well and I don’t care if people think that I’m not doing enough or I’m doing too much or I’m standing still, or I’m not moving fast enough. I’m going to do this because I know it’s the right thing for me.
Own the decisions that you make. If there’s something in your gut that says, this is the industry I want to be in, this is the decision I want to make, then stand by it. Make decisions that you can stand by and be really proud of, that you can look back and say, I am incredibly proud of that decision. That I did that. Don’t let anybody push you around or tell you otherwise. Wake up to what you want, from your life.
Tuesday 4:40pm CXWORX
Wednesday 5:10pm BODYCOMBAT
Friday 10:10am BODYCOMBAT
Before the girls were born I always trained twice a day, but now things are different, and my training is very much about fitting in with my life as a daddy.
I usually lift weights on the same days that I teach, so at a minimum I’ll do three weightlifting sessions a week, and when I’m at home I’ll use the Releases App and LES MILLS On Demand, which is life changing. It’s good ‘cause it’s got that Chromecast feature so I can put it on my TV. I’ll pretty much do all of our programs such as LES MILLS SPRINT, RPM, BODYSTEP, LES MILLS GRIT, BODYPUMP… I’ve even given LES MILLS BARREa go several times! I really believe in our classes and they just keep on getting better.
I’m a real outdoors bunny so in the summer months you’ll find me doing adventurous things such as trail runs and off road biking. I’m actually quite a good off road runner and I’ve done a whole bunch of comps over the last few years. I did a 15K not too long ago and I won it! I was just hoping to come in the top 10 so I was pretty stoked with that.
In the colder months I’ll be indoors more, and I enjoy doing things like indoor climbing. If I add anything into my schedule I’ll always swap it out for something out, so I’m not overloading myself.
I’ll always train once a day and I always have a full rest day – usually for me that’s on Sunday.
Some mornings, I don’t eat breakfast. Not cause I’m into intermittent fasting or anything, but just cause that’s the way it works out.
The kids are up at 6am on the dot and if I do eat breakfast it will probably be scrambled eggs with spinach. The one thing I have religiously is my coffee. I have a Nespresso machine and I have an Arpeggio pod, topped up with some hot water. I like to have it in a glass because for some reason it looks nicer! Plus I think it stays hotter for longer.
Lunch will be something like tuna sashimi or a kebab with salad and a green juice. I love raw juices. I’m not really into smoothies but fresh juices are amazing.
Dinner is often something in the slow cooker, like a stew or casserole with lots of meat, vegetables and potatoes. We always have mince and spinach in our house, they’re our staples. We support our local businesses so everything we buy is grown locally.
Before the girls were born I used to eat five to seven meals a day. I used to prep my meals on a Sunday for the week and I’d be really onto it, but all of that has gone out of the window since I had kids! Sometimes I think, come on Dan, sort this out, and I’ll prep a whole bunch of meals.
I don’t really have a sweet tooth but I do like a drink. I’ve become a bit of a beer snob so I like a good IPA and I also enjoy Spanish beers. And of course, living in New Zealand, you have to enjoy wine.
DAN’S SCRAMBLED EGGS AND SPINACH
6 whole eggs
3 tbsp. skim milk
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 cup spinach leaves (chopped or torn)
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and coat it well with cooking spray.
Crack eggs into a medium-sized dish. Using a wire whisk, beat the eggs and break up yolks completely.
Add the milk to the egg mixture, followed by the salt and ground black pepper. Whisk the mixture together well.
Pour the egg mixture into the heated pan, using a fork to stir the egg mixture continuously as it cooks. (If you are using a non-stick skillet, stir the eggs with a wooden spoon or silicon tool since a fork can scratch the pan's surface.)
Add the spinach to the pan when the eggs begin to take form.
Continue cooking the eggs and spinach until the spinach wilts and eggs are no longer runny.
Remove eggs from the pan and serve immediately.