I haven’t been able to read a book in three weeks. Watching a two-hour movie is an exercise in extreme willpower: Can I watch three scenes in a row before checking my phone for news? Maybe two and a half? During conversations, I find myself trailing off mid-thought, imagining, in great detail, the circumstances of my own demise. Focusing on anything outside of The Virus these days is like herding cats, with my thoughts being the cats and my other, less powerful thoughts being the herder. Needless to say, the cats escape every time, running maniacally into the streets and putting on an elaborate ball. But there’s one thing that I’ve been able to focus on nearly every single day for an hour straight, with zero self-interference: Ryan Heffington’s Instagram Live dance class.
Five days a week (at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and 12 p.m. PT/3 p.m. ET on weekends), choreographer Ryan Heffington starts a sort of revolution from his living room. Clad in saucy short shorts and a loose tank top, he props his cell phone on the floor of his living room, turns on his playlist, and goes live for an audience upward of 6,000 people. Heffington, who’s best known for his work on The OA and for artists like Sia and Christine and the Queens, then spends an hour freeing an audience of international strangers from the muck of their brains and bodies. The dancing isn’t difficult, which is part of the draw — I’ve never been able to follow choreography, but Heffington’s class is made up of both stripped-down basics (he adores a grapevine) and idiosyncratic moves like “the Pretty Pony” (swaying hips, loose wrists, trotting) or “the Hot Pepper” (hand flailing about in front of your mouth) or “the Trump Punch” (self-explanatory). A combo of yoga, Pilates, and modern dance, the whole thing is delightfully goofy and low-key, often punctuated by brief interludes spent doing “Stevie Nicks Spins” in a caftan or a “Booty Break,” wherein Ryan simply instructs his students to place their hands on a piece of furniture and twerk insanely.
It sounds gently bonkers to say it out loud, but Heffington has become something of a spontaneous spiritual guru in the age of the coronavirus. His class is incredibly cathartic, providing both release and community in a time when both feel especially hard to find. Heffington’s soundtrack is eclectic but recognizable, and always joyful: Sia, Florence and the Machine, Cher, Robyn, Abba. It’s surprising, too, in its variability and evocativeness — a recent class had me swanning about my apartment to David Gray’s “This Year’s Love.” Heffington, who charges nothing but takes voluntary donations for the classes to raise money for the currently out-of-work dancers at his L.A. studio, the Sweat Spot ($50,000 and counting), ends each session with a meditation, where he asks everyone to be easy on themselves about “not getting out of bed today,” and to repeat the phrase, “We’ll get through this.” It’s a little woo-woo, but it works like a charm in these surreal times — I’ve burst into tears on more than one occasion.
The whole thing has a way of knocking you out of your own head and, at least temporarily, reminding you that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and also, that you are capable of twerking. And though he’s only been doing the class for two weeks, it’s already drawn devotees from around the world, including Pink, Emma Stone, Lulu Wang, and Barry Jenkins. On a Monday, which is Heffington’s self-appointed day off, I reached out to him at his house in the California desert to get the story behind the genesis of the class, learn how he prepares for the daily mass performance, and how the entire experience has changed his life forever.
Tell me a little bit about how you came up with the idea for the class.
I was quarantined, and I made a choice to come out to the desert by myself. We have such a strong community in L.A. at the Sweat Spot, and I’d never done online classes before. So I was like, Well, I want to dance with my friends. I need to exercise, and to have a little bit of a schedule just helps me. What I teach in L.A. is a little bit more advanced, so I thought of this concept where it would be a little bit easier — still fun and campy and ***y and tongue-in-cheek, but something that could be accessible to everyone.
I did wonder, as a horrible dancer, whether this class was designed for people who suck at dancing.
Well, I think everyone has different abilities. A lot of people can freestyle really well or they dance better when they have a cocktail. I think that’s the thing about dance: It can be super-intimidating, and I strive to make it less so for people, because it’s so fun. It’s freeing. It’s therapy. To get as many people to engage as possible, you just have to kind of rethink how to approach it. I just really wanted this to help us get out of our heads, out of this gray that we’re experiencing right now, and just have fun with your friends, whether it’s on Zoom or whoever you’re quarantined with. Just to let go and forget for a moment.
That’s definitely what it does for me. How many people were on the first live versus now?
The first one was two weeks ago. Last Tuesday, there were 500. And now it’s 6,000. It’s pretty surreal. All I did was make flyers and tagged friends, and Pink made a shout-out early, and Sia was kind enough to make a post about it. I didn’t really give much time or effort to my public account [before this]. I have a private one, as well, which is where I normally post. But I had 5,000 followers and now I have 112,000.
I just read a New York Times piece about you choreographing the new Christine and the Queens short film. They described you as someone who “manages to strip away artifice in everything he touches.” Do you think about doing that consciously when you’re creating these routines?
Absolutely. It’s not about aesthetics, so much. It’s about storytelling and feeling. We’re doing little stories. We’re doing a pretty pony. We’re doing the hot-pepper move. We’re doing “bash Trump in the face” punches. These are all little vignettes of stories that we’re telling. It’s not about the way it looks. Unless you’re on the runway and you have to fucking look hot, besides that, it’s mostly just play and it’s about feeling better, and to be free for an hour and not be weighted down. We’re just jumping around and doing grapevines for 45 minutes. So it’s not rocket science, you know?
You post a lot of photos and videos of people taking the class and so many of them talk about it as cathartic. Why do you think that is?
I’ve been teaching for many, many, many years, and I consider myself a DJ as well. The arc of the whole class is very, very … articulated? I think about every detail, like what song goes where and when. I feel like it’s just natural to be emotional and wanting to cry, right next to jumping around and being silly. A lot of people are crying in class, but it’s because they need to release and it’s a happy release. We don’t do that often enough.
Why did you decide to do the meditation at the end?
We’re breaking open — why not get a little bit more heartfelt and have a slow song and feel something else? It’s about bringing all the energy back and letting you be responsible for it, and having to hold all of that goodness. I think it’s really powerful for people. That’s where a lot of tears come. We don’t really engage like that a lot in our lives. In my Sweat Spot class, I didn’t do that. It used to be just running off, being like, “Ooh, that was so fun.” But there’s so much that the person has created themselves, that it’s important to recognize that. To be responsible for feeling good.
Now that you have 6,000 people watching you, do you ever get stage fright or get a little nervous?
It’s funny. I do get nervous a little bit. I love it. I think it’s because I’m just so responsible for a lot of people, and I want to do my best. At night I spend hours finding music, and at this point I have 40 different pieces of paper taped to my mirror in front of me when I’m dancing. I’ve created 40 routines in two weeks. I take it seriously. It looks really simple and fun, and it is. But I also want these moves to mean something or have a particular gestural phrase that people can relate to. I’m really focused before and I pace around a little bit. I still have a little butterflies when I teach, even though I’ve been doing it for 20 years.
Can you walk me through a day in your life right now? Talk to me about that prep that you’re doing, how much time you’re spending on this.
I usually wake up and I do my vitamins and my hot vitamin C tonic to stay healthy. Then I make sure the camera’s working and the speakers work and the Bluetooth works, and I clean my room. So everyone thinks that I’m superclean. [Laughs.] Then I push play on the livestream, and then I have a pregame playlist of really, really fun music, so if people want to log on 15 minutes early, there’s always music playing. Then I teach and then I usually spend an hour or two just responding to comments or posting people’s videos, sending smiley faces with heart eyes. Just so people feel seen.
For me, it’s about people and their experience. So I occasionally post a video of me doing it, but it’s mostly about people in their environments, so everyone can see that it’s real people. It’s children, it’s parents, it’s people Zooming with people all over the world. I usually sit in my hot tub for an hour and watch the bunnies and the birds.
Then I try to FaceTime three or four people a day from all over the world. I make dinner and make a fire and then I sit down and spend two or three hours finding music and creating routines. Then I type it all on my computer, edit it, listen to it again, and make sure it fits right. Then I handwrite the routine on sheets of paper and I tape it to my mirror and then I go to bed. Or watch Tiger King.
How do you pick the songs you’re going to use? They’re all so different but somehow they feel of a piece.
I lead a lot of my life through my heart. If I hear that a certain song has a certain vibration — it can be slow or fast, but it has to give off some sort of authentic energy, whether it’s a house song or a Tracy Chapman song or a Florence and the Machine song or Sia song. There are just certain songs that really allow people to feel. I know there’s a science behind it. I haven’t researched it, but there are certain chords and vibrations that really connect to certain chakras. People suggest songs all the time, but they don’t always have that vibration that I’ve curated. It’s so important to the process.
You have a tendency to scream to punctuate your movements, but my boyfriend and I can’t agree if you’re saying “ah” or “pop.”
Ah! Ah! Big ah! [Laughs.]
Okay, that was what I thought!
It’s just these chants that you develop when you can teach. I don’t know what the hell I’m saying. But yeah, whatever comes out, comes out. I also try not to cuss too much because I know there’s kids. But I don’t know, sometimes you just have to when you’re punching people in the face because they’re being selfish politicians.
That’s my favorite move.
I think that’s the fun of it, too. We can really take our frustrations and our feelings of what’s going on right now and be just slightly political about it. It’s never heavy-handed, but I have feelings, too, and I have frustrations. If I can let it go through a dance and laugh about it and talk about it, we’re winning.
I also really like the household chores segment, where we mimic sweeping and hanging art.
Yeah, so you don’t have to do them in real life.
This is a question from my brother, who’s doing your routines from Berlin. He says, “What is your phone resting on for the livestream”?
Great question. Pays attention to details. Love it. It’s on a carpet that I bought at a flea market here in the desert. It’s by this Mexican artist. It’s signed in the back. It’s super-beautiful and it kind of grounds my phone from slipping and sliding around.
Tell me about your outfits. The shorts are so good.
It’s funny. I came out here and I didn’t really pack, not thinking I would do this. You’ll see I wear the same shorts over and over and over, because I have nothing else to wear. I’m having a friend come up, so she’s going to bring a lot more stuff. But I throw parties out here. I’ve had birthday parties out here, so I have capes and a caftan, what every 46-year-old man should have in his closet.
I love The OA a lot, and I think it’s really interesting how you choreographed these movements that were meant to help people escape from captivity. Have you thought about that connection in regards to what you’re doing right now?
Definitely. I feel like through these movements, we’re changing reality. We can call it magic, alchemy, but it’s exactly what we’re doing. Like they revived that character on The OA by doing the movements, I think we’re reviving ourselves, our psyches, and our outlook on life. Even if it’s just temporary, it’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re changing our vibration, our makeup. We’re shaking it all out and creating a new reality.
You mentioned Pink and Sia, but who’s been the most surprising or exciting famous person to join the class, or to talk about taking it?
Surprising? There’s been a lot. Tracee Ellis Ross. My friend Margaret Qualley is taking a class now. Christine and the Queens took it. Emma Stone just told me yesterday she was taking a class. It’s so damn cool. Everyone’s on the same level. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about dance: There are no boundaries. Everyone’s welcome. If you’re a celebrity, great. If you’re a mom, better. If you’re a human, we’re winning.
From what I can see on your Instagram, a lot of people have reached out to you to talk about how much they love the classes — what’s the most moving story you’ve heard during all of this?
There are cancer survivors who were exercising to keep their spirits up, but then they couldn’t, because they were in isolation and feeling so lonely. So now they’re feeling life again. It’s so moving. This one nurse says she can’t do my classes — she absolutely loves my choreography, but she has to work. So she puts her phone in her pocket when she’s at work with her headphones in and she just listens to the class and she gets the same feeling. It helps her get through her shift. I mean, it’s just un-fucking-believable. There are pregnant people, there are amputees, there are deaf people taking my class.
I had this dream to make the world dance years ago. I didn’t know how it would happen. It seemed overwhelming and daunting, but it’s happening and it’s really fucking special for me in my life that I get to reach so many people and have fun with so many people. It started two weeks ago and I feel like I’m going to have to do this for the rest of my life.
For the rest of your life?
I’m going to choreograph and still work and make money. But I’m going to do this. I’m going to allow people to have fun. I think in our culture, dance is not integrated. Crazy drunk dancing, yes. But it should be. It’s my duty. I was put here to do this and I’m going to do it. If I can make people happy and tune in to goodness for an hour, I’ll do it.