As Madonna's lead dancer, Loic Mabanza, tells me about the scripts he’s working on, as well as his nightly journaling habit, he almost passes for another chic Brooklyn creative. He’s sitting in a coffee shop in Fort Greene, sporting a ribbed short-sleeved turtleneck and a silver chain necklace—think the Rock but couture-ified—along with sleek black pants, suede Chelsea boots, and a healthy collection of chunky silver rings. He looks so at home that I briefly forget he spends most of his waking hours with one of the most famous and beloved pop musicians ever.
Across the street from the coffee shop is BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, where Mabanza has been dancing at the fore of Madonna’s Madame X show for the past month. The tour, an intimate no-phones affair set to hit 11 cities over the next six months, is a sort of musical revue/performance art hybrid, more “no-holds-barred fever dream of Madonna’s most outlandish impulses” than “concert.” It’s a chaotic, occasionally self-indulgent, damn good time, and it’s the third world tour Mabanza has been on with Madonna—a rarity for her dancers.
Mabanza can’t recall exactly when he actually started practicing his chosen profession, but by age 13, his nights were spent dancing with friends in the underground hip-hop scene of his Paris-adjacent hometown, Persan (population: 10,000). He’s never been formally trained, but anyone who’s watched him lean his entire body into a 45-degree angle to the floor can tell you he most certainly knows how to move. Nine years ago, he was dancing in international competitions when he was introduced to Madonna at an after-party in a London club. Once she saw him dance, she asked him to join her for performances here and there, and soon enough, he found himself on her 2012 MDNA tour. He followed that one up with the Rebel Heart tour in 2015, then accompanied Madonna on her charity trips to Malawi supporting her non-profit organization, and now he's here, in New York for Madame X.
But Madonna connections aside, there is something about Mabanza that draws looks from the anonymous laptop-bound masses next to us, and it’s not just because of his flawless, radiant skin, which makes me want to bolt home and apply every unused face mask in my bathroom cabinet. Mabanza, it will not surprise you to learn, is unmistakably graceful, even in the way he moves through a cramped coffee shop space. For someone who’s technically backup, he knows how to steal a scene.
Scene-stealing isn't easy to pull off. Nor is a highly intense performance: Madonna herself had to cancel a show this week due to a knee injury. Mabanza too can attest to the sheer physical toll of dance. He stays fit year-round, he gets a full eight hours of sleep every night, and he constantly listens to his body. During our chat, he tells me about juggling a modeling and acting career with international arena tours—all while keeping his mental health and Madonna-lifting muscles in stellar condition.
GQ: When did you start dancing?
Loic Mabanza: It's the most common question I get, but also the hardest question for me. I don't really know when I started dancing. I grew up in a dance environment—my mom was always dancing, my big brother was always dancing, so it was a natural thing to do in the family, but it wasn't a job. I grew up near Paris, and I was an underground dancer. And this is the stereotype of hip-hop: like, I literally started on the concrete with some cardboard that I put together. I did everything on my own or with my friends. We danced in the street, we danced on the train, we danced anywhere we could. I’ve never taken any classes in my entire life. Once I fell in love with dancing, it became a passion, an obsession, and then after that it became my job.
What was your first dancing job?
It was a music video in France. I was probably 16, and a friend of mine came up to me saying that the director was looking for some dancers for a music video. I was curious so I did the audition, I booked the job, and when the producer gave me a contract that said “300 Euros, professional dancer,” I realized I could actually make this my job. I said, “You know what? F everything, that's what I'm gonna do.”
I know you used to play soccer when you were younger. Did that influence the way you think about dancing at all?
It doesn't really influence the way I dance, but it’s how I learned discipline early in my life. I use that discipline in dancing. I treat dancing as a sport. It's more considered an art, because it is art, but I apply that discipline to my regimen now.
Did you listen to Madonna growing up?
I didn’t, but I knew a lot about her. I was really into hip-hop music, African music, Caribbean, R&B. But now that I know her, I freaking love the music. I actually took the time to listen to it, and I see the genius. I can hear it. I love the beats. It’s a blessing to dance to it every single night.
What were your first impressions of Madonna when you met her in 2010?
I was amazed by the fact that she appreciated what I brought to the table. She saw me dancing, and it wasn’t about her. She really made me feel like I was worth something. I come from a world of competition where people... it's all about them, them, them. And then a global superstar comes and shows you to some other people and says, "Hey, look at this guy, this is Loic." I have a lot of respect for her because of that. And she's still the same badass, dedicated, loving, caring, perfectionist, just an extremely talented and genius woman.
Can you take me through your morning routine?
Well, it starts the night before, because my goal is to always wake up with energy and with a smile on my face. So before I go to bed, I revise the day, trying to find great stuff that happened and just write it down by journaling a little bit. I also set goals for the next day. I get into a state of gratitude and happiness, and I feel good when I fall asleep, so that when I wake up I feel even better, because I have a direction.
When I wake up, I start to move automatically. I put some music on—music that will make me smile—and I dance. Usually it will be the music that I love, like, some African music, or hip-hop, but something that’s not dark. Then I stretch a little bit, but it's not like a static stretch, it's more just moving. Just to feel my body. And then I meditate for 20 minutes, I have breakfast while reviewing my goals of the day, and after that, I go to the gym.
How do you like to work out?
My workout is always changing because I love variety. Sometimes it will be a bodyweight, calisthenic, freestyle type of workout. Sometimes it will be heavy weights. Sometimes it will be martial arts. It really depends. I allow myself to have, like, one or two days off a week, because I listen to my body, and we do a lot of shows. If I feel too tired, I will take a break. It's important to listen to your body.
How long do you usually exercise for?
If I don't have a show, an hour-and-a-half. If I have a show, I would say 45 minutes, but a high-intensity workout. Also, on a show day, I might work out a little bit, like, a 20-minute workout before the show. It’s more body weights because the show is a cardio workout. And I do a lot of plyometrics to work on speed and power, so that I can still feel my body. I don't want to feel like my movements are restricted because I did some heavy weights.
Do you do anything for injury prevention?
A lot. I stretch, for one, though I'm actually not very flexible, at least for a dancer. Growing up, I never really took the time to stretch, but because of my workouts, I've become more tense and I've lost some mobility, so I stretch more now. I also do a lot of massages, probably once a week. And I eat well, I drink a lot of water, and I take care of my mental health. That's very important, because it's connected to your body. Sometimes an injury can come from mental stress.
What kind of foods do you need to fuel your regimen?
I try my best to eat five meals a day. If I can't because of work, I will at least have maybe two protein shakes to try and compensate.
Do you cook?
Yes, but I don't cook fancy. I cook to feed myself and to eat properly. When I cook at home, I'm very basic and boring. The typical brown rice, broccoli, chicken. Anything that is good for me, but with protein, carbs, and vegetables. I’ll take salmon, sweet potatoes, asparagus. And crepes. When it's a cheat day, I'll put some dark chocolate or peanut butter on the crepes.
Did your eating habits change when you moved to the U.S.?
A lot. My entire life, I was allergic to gluten and I never knew about it. So every single day of my life I had migraines, fatigue, digestion problems. But after a while it became normal, so I thought it was okay. When I moved to America, I had a roommate with a personal trainer, Joshua Holland, who’s also a nutritionist. He saw me having all these symptoms, and he said, "You might be allergic to gluten." I was, like, "Yeah, but I'm French, so if you tell me not to eat bread and pasta, it's not gonna work." And he said, "Listen, do you care more about yourself or eating gluten?" So I gave it a try, and I felt like I've never felt before. No more migraines. No more fatigue after eating. No more feeling bloated. So from that I was, like, Okay, now I know. And now I'm gluten-free for seven years. It's been the best change I've ever made in my entire life.
I also cut out sugar, which is very hard, because I love sugar. But being gluten-free really helped me with the discipline. But I did it, so I was, like, You know what? Sugar is the same. And I really felt the difference. Even with fruit. I eat berries, watermelon, and apples, but the rest is a little bit too much sugar, because I feel the effect that it has on my body.
Madonna’s been going on at 10 or 11, and I’ve heard even midnight on weekends, which means the show can run until 3 a.m. How do you manage to get enough sleep when you're ending so late? Do you shift back your whole sleeping schedule?
This is the hardest part, but it's become easier. It was actually worse during rehearsals, because the time we finished would change a lot, but now it's a little bit more consistent, so I try to keep at least eight hours of sleep a day. I do a lot of activities, I love moving, I love doing a lot of stuff at once. I'm doing a lot of extra things outside of this tour. I utilize the time that I'm not working to have other meetings, close some deals, and the like. So I really need my eight hours. But if I'm not on tour, sometimes with six hours I'm fine.
I work just as hard when I'm not on tour. I'm also a filmmaker and an actor. I can spend, like, 10 hours a day working on a script. I'm always creating.
Do you do anything else to keep your energy levels up throughout the night for this tour?
No, we're already so pumped. I do what I love! I'm onstage with some creative geniuses around me and an amazing crowd, and we're doing an amazing show. That's enough to give me a bunch of energy. I'm actually overflowing. I'm so pumped all the time, every number.
Are you naturally a night owl?
When I first started dancing, I would dance all night every night, and then I would sleep at school. So I find a lot of inspiration at night, but now I know why: it's because nobody's awake, so it feels like the world is yours. I realized that if I wake up very early in the morning, it's the same thing. Because nobody's awake, you have the time for yourself, you have nobody putting you in their agenda to do whatever. It’s your own time. So now when I write, I work very early in the morning.
When you get home from such an energy-packed night, what’s the first thing you do to get yourself ready for sleep?
I like to unwind. First I order food from whatever’s open, and then I take a shower. Most days, I read a book, but sometimes I’ll see some friends. I like to socialize, and I think it’s very important for me to keep a great social life.
What are you reading right now?
I always read three books at the same time. I just finished reading a book called Finished, which basically explains why people don't really finish stuff. They always start something, whether it's a project, a diet, a relationship or whatever, but they never finish. I believe in the theory that perfection is the enemy of execution, because people have the mentality of all or nothing, and if it's not all, they just stop. So sometimes you just have to finish it, even if it's not perfect, even if it's not good. And then you can even come back to it, or it can be just good enough.
Do you ever trade health or lifestyle habits with Madonna?
We never really discuss that stuff, because we just see how the other lives. And she lives well. We're both fitness-savvy. What I can say is that she is a beast. She works out like an athlete. That's all I can say. She's a beast.
When you're traveling for a tour, how do you keep your workout routine going?
I adapt to my surroundings. Wherever I go, I'll work out every day. If I don't have a gym, I know a lot about body weights and calisthenics, so I can work out outside, I can work out in my room, I can use chairs, tables, a bed. I can use anything to work out.
And I also have discipline, which is very, very important to me: for life, for my own success, for my own well being and my mental strength. It's easy to use anything as an excuse not to do something that you know you should do.
It's like, I have arms, I have legs, I can move, I'm healthy. So let's move.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Real-Life Diet is a series in which GQ talks to athletes, celebrities, and everyone in-between about their diets and exercise routines: what's worked, what hasn't, and where they're still improving. Keep in mind, what works for them might not necessarily be healthy for you.
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Originally Appeared on GQ