Famed choreographer offers free online dance classes that Vogue calls 'a revolution from his living room'
Ryan Heffington is the dance maker behind videos for Sia's Chandelier and Arcade Fire's We Exist
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, everyone's lives have been upended — so there's a good chance you haven't been practicing your pirouettes or your hip-hop dance moves.
But top choreographer Ryan Heffington might change all of that. He has worked with top artists including Arcade Fire and Sia — he choreographed the unforgettable video for Chandelier — but when the pandemic hit, and everyone was forced inside, he decided to try something new: offer free online dance classes to the general public.
Now Sweatfest is drawing followers from across North America, and Vogue has called it "a revolution from his living room."
Tom Power caught up with Heffington to find out why he decided to make the move, why his classes are like therapy, and what skills you need to join. (Hint: none!)
You started this when the pandemic first came about. What inspired it?
Well, I was in New York working on a project. It got shut down. I came to L.A. to isolate and I was missing my dance community and I wanted to move. I wanted to dance. I wanted to process this chaos, as I know how to do, and that's through movement. And I thought, 'If I need this, I imagine that other people are going to need this as well.'
And that triggered the syllabus of what this class is. It's an accessible class. So I simplified what I normally do in class in hopes that everybody would be able to participate and join in on the fun and forget what's going on right now for at least an hour a day.
Where are people tuning in from?
That was the most surprising thing to me. Every country I can even imagine was being represented. People were just typing in where they're from. And the numbers of people were pretty shocking. But then the countries just made it more real. I just assumed It would be L.A. and New York. But it was Russia, Poland, Venezuela. The globe is taking dance class. It's incredible.
I've seen upwards of 6,000 people taking these dance classes. Is that a challenge to have 6,000 people of various abilities and fitness levels?
I wanted to cater to everyone, so the dance moves are, you know, we're cleaning our houses, we're doing a happy hippie, we're doing a rainbow. These gestures that we have in our everyday lives. So I'm not teaching people technique. I'm not using any French ballet terms. It's not the place for that.
It's the place to inspire people to let go and have a great time. Half the time we're doing a dance party anyhow. It's just mainly to engage people in a way that's super positive and it's accessible, to be silly and ridiculous and be childlike. So those are the instructions.
Do you ever get nervous having 6,000 people watching you?
I get nervous all the time. I'm not a perfectionist, but I edit the playlist and I'm kind of like a D.J. and then I make sure that my camera's working. I get nervous almost every day.
What do you get out of this?
Selfishly I get to work out, and on a bigger level, I help people access happiness and try to find a little light in the darkness. And when people give me feedback and send me messages that are so damn heartfelt and honest, it just inspires me to keep going and keep doing this.
I knew some people were going to do it, and then 500 and then 1,000 and it just kept going. It's really shown me what I'm here for, especially during this time. I've taught all my life, but this is special and I'm allowing and teaching the world to dance.
So what I get out of is immeasurable. It's a really powerful, special exchange that I get with people all over the world.
Do you think your work will change after doing this?
Yeah, I do. With this class alone, I feel like it's going to change the way I teach, and the way I do my work. The quarantine will hopefully be over at some point, and I'm going to teach. I'm going to do this class, which is like any other classes that I teach, I imagine for the rest of my life. I feel like people need this not only during this time, but people need to have fun, especially adults.
We put on these adult backpacks and carry a lot of responsibility and hardly ever do we put them down and dance around and sing into your lint roller mic. So it's important that we do this and let's do it forever.
A lot of people say the meditation at the end is what brings them to tears.
Well, I give people the opportunity to be responsible for the light and the happiness that's created during class. It's alchemy. We start class in one way — the way we hold ourselves physically and mentally — and then by the end, more than likely we're changed humans. And I think it's important for people to hold onto that.
A lot of times a dance class is like, 'OK thank you, bye.' But I take a moment and make sure that people appreciate themselves for showing up, for being willing to be happy.
And that's a lot for people to hold, that they're actually the ones doing it. And we don't really do that a lot. So I think that's where the tears come. And it's probably tears of joy. We're tapping in. We're tapping into spirituality. We're tapping into positivity that we kind of roll through on a day-to-day basis. And let's not let that go anymore. Let's calculate and catch it.
I wouldn't have thought of dance and meditation being linked, but they both require presence.
I call it a moving meditation. I've experienced this since I was a child. I had some harsh things happen to me in my life. And I would go to dance class. I would go to dance class before school, after school, on the weekends. And I would forget about everything. And I still do.
Even what's happening right now and the police brutality. Today's session was based upon acknowledging what's going on, and I was political about it. But then you put on music and you dance your heart out. So to this day, I think it's a really great way to escape in a positive way.
Tell me a story that you've heard from someone who's taken your class that's meant something to you.
Well, recently. [Voice cracks.] I'm getting emotional. But recently a nurse who has to work longer shifts and she couldn't take dance class because she was on the front lines. And she would put her phone in her pocket and put in earphones to get through her work and just listen to me yapping and the music.
And she's like, 'This is what's getting me through this.' She's helping people live. And just by hearing it she would look down every now and then in her pocket and just watch it. And it just means so much.
It's tangible proof that we can help. We may not be able to be in a hospital, and we may not be able to be in a grocery store, but we can help.
Yes. Let's do it. Let's help. Let's teach. Let's inspire. There's light everywhere; we just have to find it and share it with people. And that's what I say at the end of class: all this light we've created, it's yours and you created it. But share it. Call a friend. Let's share the goodness that is possible right now. And it is a possible, tangible thing.
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Vanessa Nigro. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
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