The Bartender’s Dance

Bartender Zander Aklilu stays grounded thanks to dance. / Courtesy Zander Aklilu

The hospitality industry is full of multifaceted, talented, adaptable individuals. We’ve certainly proven that over the last ten months and with the challenges this year has brought, the importance of creative pursuits that sustain us outside of our day-to-day work is more crucial than ever. In this series, we highlight people who stand out not only for their contributions to our industry, but also for the passion projects that fuel them creatively.

Zander Aklilu bartends and serves at the busy Bar Dough in Highlands. Eight months ago, the restaurant’s eight-seat bar was usually packed. Now, it’s the tables and booths that have stayed full as the impressive pizza oven cranks out beautiful pies and Zander mixes cocktails behind the rail.

Watching a bartender seamlessly shake, stir, and move is one of the most impressive dances a guest has the pleasure of watching, especially when it is executed with care and attention. Now, bartending is more of a dance than ever, as every bartender has to also take tables to generate sales or contribute to the team’s tip pool. It’s a fitting profession for Aklilu; it gives him space to pursue dance outside of Bar Dough, as well.

Aklilu, who was born in a refugee camp in Djibouti, began to dance at almost the same time he learned to walk. Growing up poor, he was always drawn to dancing because it placed so little financial strain on his parents, and as an adult, the practice serves as a powerful force for self-regulation. It helps him be present with his child and his partner, as well as manage the many moving pieces of his job.

Aklilu’s dance outside of Bar Dough is a mix of urban styles—hip-hop, jazz, and modern—but the main characteristic of his approach is that he can perform or dance it out just about anywhere. These days, he mostly does that in the comfort of his own home, moving across the hardwood floors of his living room in sneakers, sweatpants, and a t-shirt. His movements comprise sharp accents and soft, flowing turns. The discipline is a great way to start a day, a release after a busy shift, a way to focus before winding down for the night when the rest of the family is asleep. As he’s dancing, you can sense his focus is inward. While his movements (ones he’s done countless times) may be deliberate and practiced, he is intent on being present and mindful with his body. For him, dance is a contemplative process. 

“Dance and cocktails are both great expressions of a craft. They can both also be an art,” Aklilu says, perfectly encapsulating this intersection of his industry work and his dance pursuit. “[With cocktails]…just like with dance, you need a backbone in technique and knowledge to be able to execute properly.”

Working as a hospitality professional is consuming. “We take care of other people for a living, so taking care of ourselves and our family can at times be an afterthought,” says Aklilu. “I’m not sure if dance helps me get a better balance of work and life, but I know dance…never requires more from me than I can give it.”

ED: Aklilu has been a permanent resident of this country since he was five years old. However, he’s currently facing complications with his citizenship application. We’ve included a link to his GoFundMe campaign if you choose to make a donation to assist with his legal expenses.

Jen Mattioni started working in bars and restaurants as a Philadelphia high school student and never left the industry. She moved to Denver in 2008 and has had the opportunity to manage, bartend, and serve at great spots including Q House, Leña, Prohibition, The Walnut Room, and Central Bistro; she is also the cocktail creator for Colorado FIVE 2019 and 2020. Currently, she’s completing her MFA degree and spends her free time eating as many breakfast sandwiches as humanly possible, creating oddball cocktails with ingredients she’s never used, fiending for dumplings, and reading too many books simultaneously.


  1. I enjoy your articles. You have a way of bringing your subjects to life. Thanks. Keep up the good work


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