When he was a child growing up in Cuba, Victor Manuel Fleites would always be found running away from his family home to the nearby forest. “Being in nature is a kind of healing,” the 33-year-old tells me. “I always felt a little bit disconnected to the mainstream. I was a rebel in that sense. I was not able to adapt to society. I was not able to work with society.” So, whenever he felt a sense of unease, he’d flee to the woods. There, he’d transform branches of enormous trees into his own personal obstacle course. The animals that called the environment home would become his friends. Essentially, he became Tarzan.
Today, Fleites believes that many humans have lost touch with the natural world. He also believes that apes embody a spiritual connection to nature that we’ve forgotten about in our culture of go-go capitalism and office cubicles – so he created a new, instructive movement that has already convinced hundreds of people to take to the jungle and, er, pretend to be apes. Known as “The Tarzan Movement”, it is a fitness regime and novel approach to life taught internationally through workshops and climbing classes, with Fleites encouraging his followers to mimic the movements of apes and monkeys.
He’s already become a bit of a social media sensation: the Tarzan Movement has nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram, with many of those followers choosing to climb trees and walk on all fours along with him. In one video that appeared on my Instagram Explore page, a loyal Fleites acolyte can be seen not only walking on all fours but also making chimpanzee-like chirps. In another, the same man jumps from tree branch to tree branch. In other videos, Fleites’s followers swing their arms as if they are gorillas. Fleites himself often appears in his videos, teaching viewers how to climb, or how to maintain balance on a tree while using the soles of your feet. He is fiercely committed to the cause – during our WhatsApp communication prior to talking, he signs off with a chimp emoji.
Fleites and his parents – both are doctors – moved from Cuba to Spain when he was a teenager, but he still struggled to feel comfortable in conventional society. He refers to the messages of everyday life as “nonsense conditioning”. It convinced him to keep running off to the woods, eventually bringing his non-monkey friends with him. “We were just jamming,” he remembers. “[There was] music, dance, this…” He searches for the right word. “Connection!” All that hedonism, though, led to a less fantastical conundrum: how was he going to make money? His solution was to start spreading his gospel online and charging for IRL educational classes. In his classes – which take place across the world and cost around €10 per session – participants learn to swing from tree branches and communicate like animals. He has travelled extensively with them, conducting workshops and “intensives” in countries as diverse as Finland, Italy, the UK and the US. It admittedly sounds mad, but seems to be working.
Emma LaBarbera is a 25-year-old preschool teacher based in California, and first discovered the Tarzan Movement on Instagram. Her curiosity piqued, she decided to attend one of Fleites’s workshops. She had previously been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and tells me that the class helped “release the constraints I held surrounding acceptance and judgment from others”. After attending her class with Fleites, she’s also continued to utilise his teachings in her everyday life. “I hike barefoot [and] crawl on narrow surfaces,” she says. “[It’s all about] meeting my fear and being with it, rather than bypassing it or submitting to it.”
Charlie Holt, a parkour instructor from the Lake District, tells me that people are drawn to the Tarzan Movement because it’s an escape from traditional ways of living. “As a society, we’re in a crisis of meaning,” he says. “We’re disconnected from the people around us. I feel in day-to-day, nine-to-five society, we [also] lack mystery because everything can be answered at the click of a button.”
On Instagram, a caption on one of the Tarzan Movement videos shows a group of people embracing one another. The caption reads: “Hugs and social grooming is at the very core of each intensive training. They create a safe space for each person to feel love and connection. As monkeys, it is part of our survival instincts, we take care of each other and create bonds for life.”
When it comes to fitness, the Tarzan Movement seems to be a particularly intense version of an international trend in workouts. Known as “primal movement”, the practice sees gym-goers crawling, bending and rolling, typically on all fours, and using minimal equipment. Monkeying around, in other words. Some of the most high-profile examples are based in the US, and carry names like Animal Flow and MovNat – or “move naturally”. The practice may go back even further. In 2020, a 50-year-old Chinese fitness enthusiast went viral after claiming he had maintained his trim physique by pretending to be a monkey for more than three decades.
Fleites tells me that it’s not realistic to pretend to be an ape for 24 hours a day, but that some “four-leg crawling” can be “convenient exercise” – and that it makes climbing trees a lot easier. In one of his Instagram videos, he sets out his manifesto: “It is important not to forget you are an animal. We come from the ape family. I think it is time to recognise that animal side. Let’s transition from this crazy city lifestyle into something simple. Live like Tarzan.”
After speaking to Fleites, I’m still unsure as to whether the Tarzan Movement will take off at your average gym, but I do have a greater appreciation for embracing the wild side of life – it’s at least more interesting than running on a treadmill.