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Johnian magazine issue 48, spring 2022

Playlist: feel good favourites

Written by Claire Griffiths (1985)

5 min read

Whilst studying Classics at St John’s, Claire Griffiths (1985) started the College’s first ever aerobics class. Here she tells us about her career in finance and how music and dance have continued to help her relax and rejuvenate in her busy life.

The transition from Classicist to fund manager might not seem obvious, but for me the common theme was my love of European languages and cultures. I grew up in Germany and attended an international school, where we would spend break times teaching each other to count in different languages and swapping stories about our home countries. Reading Classics at St John’s was a huge pleasure as it gave me the chance to explore two civilisations in depth through language, literature, history, art and philosophy.

When I started my career in finance as a European fund manager, I soon discovered that it was useful to be able to make a sensible guess at translating company results as soon they appeared in the original French, German and Italian. This was in the days before the internet and Google Translate, so we relied on a fax machine and a dictionary.

Claire at her desk

Identifying a business with good potential and seeing both the company and its share price grow over the years were the aspects of investment I found most satisfying. Above all, I relished being in a global industry where having an interest in people is as important as an ability to understand the numbers. There were some lighter moments too; Forbes interviewed me together with a colleague and wanted to add a bit of colour by writing about our hobbies. Thankfully we had the good sense to turn down their request to feature us in a beekeeping outfit and a leotard!

Getting up and moving to music proved a wonderful counterpart to a more sedentary and cerebral main occupation.

Dance in all its forms has been an inspiration to me throughout my life, whether participating
in a class or watching a performance on stage. The 1980s saw the start of the fitness boom and I was a big fan. As there were no aerobics classes in College, I decided to establish one. We started in the squash courts but were taking up precious court time so we relocated to the School of Pythagoras. We made new friends, had a lot of laughs and returned to our essay crises with renewed energy. That teaching experience inspired me to take one of the first Exercise to Music qualifications available in the UK, the summer I graduated. Twenty years later I picked up that interest again and qualified as a Zumba teacher, after learning the Latin moves in Arizona. Once again, getting up and moving to music proved a wonderful counterpart to a more sedentary and cerebral main occupation.

Acosta Danza 2017
Acosta Danza 2017. Photography: Manuel Vason

As a supporter of Sadler’s Wells I have been lucky enough to see some outstanding dancers
from around the world. I don’t gravitate towards a particular dance style, but among my favourite
companies are the Cuban company Acosta Danza for their incredible fusion of classical and contemporary styles set to Cuban musical rhythms, Balletboyz for their power and playfulness, and Alvin Ailey for their exuberance.

Claire’s playlist choices

Blondie, Sunday Girl (1979)

This was the first record I ever bought. I loved Debbie Harry’s voice and the backbeat, and the group was part of the new wave/punk movement taking over from the disco sound which had dominated the 1970s. I was at boarding school at the time and listening to music was one of our favourite sources of entertainment. Top of the Pops on television and The Top 40 on the radio were rituals we never missed, and we were allowed a record player in our study from the third year, so we pooled our record collection. Blondie remained one of my favourite groups and when I first moved to London to start work, one of the ticket collectors at my local station used to call me ‘Blondie’, which made me smile and think of the band.

Amii Stewart, Knock On Wood (1979)

Knock on Wood was one of the songs I played in my aerobics classes in the School of Pythagoras in the high intensity part of the workout. Choosing music for us to dance to was great fun, and creating a playlist on a cassette was quite an art form – the songs had to be recorded consecutively and timed carefully so there weren’t long crackly gaps between songs. Today’s click and drag is so much faster! Knock on Wood is a song I have danced to in classes ever since College, most recently in a Zumba class last year, and it still lifts me and gives me a bit of energy.

Righteous Brothers, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (Top Gun, 1986)

This song features in the movie Top Gun and whenever I hear it I remember one of the College ‘bops’ in the School of Pythagoras in the first year. A group of guys dropped to their knees in front of a friend of mine and acted out the lyrics with great gusto. A couple of years ago I saw the film for the first time and had an ‘aha’ moment when I realised that they had based their performance on a famous scene.

Khaled, C’est La Vie (2012)

This song is top of my list for a kitchen disco as it captures the sheer joy of dancing. It has fantastic rhythms for salsa and Zumba and a slower, Spanish cover version, Vivir Mi Vida, by Marc Anthony, won a Latin Grammy in 2013. I first came across the album of the same name when I was studying Middle Eastern music at SOAS a few years ago. Khaled, known as ‘The King of Rai’, is one of the most famous Algerian singers. Rai is a musical style which originated in Algeria in the 1920s and 30s and reached its peak in the 1970s. It is characterised by a distinctive vocal style (ululation) and lyrics which express disaffection and oppression. Khaled took Rai onto the world stage and you may have come across Aicha which is a lament typical of the genre. C’est la Vie is one of his later and more upbeat songs and mixes many musical styles.

Ed Sheeran, Shape of You (2017)

Hearing this piece of music transports me to a weekend of wedding celebrations in Puglia. An Italian friend of mine was getting married and I had offered to organise a flash mob for her. We danced as the sun was setting on a gorgeous May day, and all ages and nationalities joined in – Spanish aunties, five and six year olds, a suave fashion designer doing his own hip hop version, even someone pregnant with twins. Best of all, the bride loved it and immediately joined in, holding up her dress and strutting her stuff in six-inch Manolos. I chose this song as it was well known and has a regular structure, making it easy to follow. Of course it did help that a core group of us, including the bride, all went to the same dance class at the gym!

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Claire read Classics at St John’s and more recently attended a Masters course in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS. After graduating she worked as a European Smaller Companies fund manager for more than 25 years, ultimately as a partner at a large investment management firm and subsequently at a boutique hedge fund. She discovered rowing with the LMBC, winning her oar in the Lent Bumps. She also launched the College’s first aerobics class in the School of Pythagoras and would like to thank all those who attended for inspiring her to qualify as an Exercise to Music and Zumba instructor. The latter turned out to be a fantastic foil for finance. Her interests include dance, music and art. She is also a Patron of Sadler’s Wells.

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