Photo:Courtesy of Ryan Heffington
"PAINT! Pretend like you're Bob Ross and PAINT THOSE BUSHES!" yells an exultant voice through the computer screen. There I am in my bedroom, on the receiving end, having spent the better part of the last hour thrusting my hips back and forth and flailing my arms around—sans an actual paintbrush—but with as much gusto as any artist with a purpose. From a backlit living space turned dance studio, Grammy-nominated choreographer Ryan Heffington, whose prolific work spans from Sia's "Chandelier" to the Five Movements routine in The OA, is cheering me on and motioning enthusiastically to one of his signature moves called The Dirty Diaper or The Happy Hippie.
This practice has become an almost-daily self-care ritual for me while in quarantine, and I'm not alone. Heffington teaches a cardio dance class, or Sweatfest as he calls it, five times a week on his Instagram Live, where almost 8000 people from around the world are tuning in and cathartically dancing along to every class. Heffington's Instagram Lives have grown tremendously in popularity over the last few weeks, largely due to his infectious personality and accessible choreography. Celebs such as Reese Witherspoon (fun fact: Heffington was a backup dancer in the "Bend and Snap" scene in Legally Blonde), P!nk, and even the "hot priest" himself, Andrew Scott, have taken a liking to his classes. For Heffington, however, the most meaningful part of all of this is getting everybody from your kids to your grandmother involved.
While social-distancing from his home in the desert, Heffington opened up to us about why his dance classes have been resonating with so many people, what his post-quarantine plans are, and yes, being part of that iconic "Bend and Snap" scene.
How would you describe your classes to someone who's never taken one?
It's a fun, campy, cardio follow-along dance workout.
Why did you start doing these dance classes, and what were you expecting to come from them?
I felt like I was away from my community and not knowing how long I would be. I like to dance and exercise, and I thought, why not start a class? I just wanted to create something where people could escape, have fun, take their mind off of anything and everything because for me it has always been therapy and therapeutic. I feel like my dance classes are like moving meditation, where nothing else matters. If other people can feel that in a time like this, then let's do that, which means let's make it accessible and do a lot of dance partying within it. It's not like other workouts. It's kind of like you're out dancing at a club. You can work out and then have these emotional moments where we just sit with ourselves and be true.
Do you think that's why these classes have been resonating with people so much? The accessibility of it?
Absolutely, the accessibility and that it's fun. It's a great distraction, and you're in the privacy of your own homes so you don't feel as intimidated as stepping into a dance class.
I know it's pretty common for people to cry at the end of your classes and have this emotional release. Why do you think that is?
I mean, I was that person when I was taking dance classes when I moved to Los Angeles. There are certain ways you can make people be responsible for the goodness that they're feeling. I lay down floor plans for this, but really it's the individual and the dancer that is responsible for doing it and pushing themselves and having a great time, and there are moments where I give you time and space to realize you are the one creating this positivity, and I think it's a lot for people to handle sometimes. It's very important for me to sit and allow that to happen, and I think that's when a lot of emotions can come up. And most of the time, they are happy, joyous tears, but we tend to bury these things and feel like it's not valid in moments like this, and I hear that all the time. But we're allowing this to happen in a really positive way.
Many people do your dance classes as their self-care ritual. What do you do for self-care?
Maybe it's a little selfish, but I like dancing and teaching, and I like having a great time. That's the thing that's most therapeutic for me, so why wouldn't I do it now when things are gray? I'm lucky I quarantined myself out in the desert in my house, so I'm out in nature. I go on hikes. I think what's really important to me as well is connectivity, so I'm on the phone. I try to reach out to four or five people a day on FaceTime to connect. It's a really great reminder that we're connected, and I think that's the same for the dance class. It literally feels like we're connected. I feel like we're dancing with 4000 people. I never feel like I'm alone in my room when I do this.
Do you have any plans of continuing this digital dance party once quarantine is over?
Absolutely. I'm really aware when paths open up in my life, and even when I'm not expecting them, I can see when the demand starts to happen. There are around 8000 people (over the course of a 24-hour IG Live) that take my class a day, and that's absolutely insane. I'm so fortunate now that I get to raise money for my community and for my own personal small business, Sweat Spot, where the doors are shut and I have access to reach so many people and ask to donate. I feel like it's a win-win-win for everyone. I've dreamt of this, but I've never really actualized so many people taking my dance classes, and it feels great, and why wouldn't I continue it far beyond quarantine? I feel like people need this more than they know.
How did you start incorporating everyday actions (using a stapler, typing, painting, etc.) into your dance moves?
I feel like I've always incorporated these basic human gestures into my work. Since I was young, I've always studied people on the street and on their cell phones and when people get into arguments; you can see it on their faces. Taking gestures from reality is something I've always enjoyed doing, and it's a way to reach everyone—everyone knows how to speak, put a nail in the wall to hang a painting, everyone knows what a hot pepper feels like, and it just touches on this humor and this playfulness that I think is very important for adults to tap into because it's something we don't do enough. It's a way to include everyone. I'm not doing pirouettes. I'm not talking about pirouettes. I'm not speaking in French for ballet terminology. I don't have interest in that. I don't want to exclude people, but I want to bring people into a common space and be free. I really, really want to include everyone, and so I think with these gestures, that's happening.
In a recent IG Live, Reese Witherspoon mentioned that you were a dancer in the iconic "Bend and Snap" scene of Legally Blonde. What was that experience like?
That's actually a funny story. I was in my late 20s and casting said to come in a character—any character—and at the time, I was doing a lot of club shows and cabaret and performances in drag, so I showed up in a black wig, hair to my waist, and a leopard leotard with six-inch thigh-high boots. They really liked my effort but wanted something more toned down, so I came as a "stereotypical" hairdresser with a beret instead. It was a really fun experience and to be a part of such a funny, campy, and goofy scene was amazing.
What's been the most meaningful part of all of this for you?
Many, many years ago, I had a dream of getting the world to dance, and it brings me so much joy. It feels daunting at the time, but this experience that we're going through has allowed me to do that. There's a purity to moving and feeling good, and I think that's why it's resonating. How many times, as an adult, do we get to really feel good and fun when we do things? Not as much as we should. This is a great access point to having fun, being childlike, getting a workout, being spiritually connected. I think there are numerous points of happiness in all of this.
Sweatfest takes place every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 10 a.m. PT and every Saturday and Sunday at 12 p.m. PT on Heffington's Instagram Live.