Quarantine, day 38. The weeks: blurring together. The headlines: grim.
By now, most everyone has settled into their coping mechanism of choice to get through this surreal period of human history. For some it’s the endless scroll of Twitter, for some it’s good old booze, and for many, it’s the deliriously joyful dance classes that Ryan Heffington is hosting five times a week on Instagram.
The Los Angeles-based choreographer — lauded for his work with Florence + the Machine, FKA Twigs, Arcade Fire, Christine & the Queens, Netflix series The OA and Sia‘s renowned 2014 video for “Chandelier” — has become a viral phenomenon during quarantine. Dancing around the living room at his house in Joshua Tree, CA, Heffington leads hour-long classes during which participants are are encouraged to twerk, shake, spin, twist and reach towards the sky as they execute moves with such title as “angel wings”, “the saggy diaper” and “inflatable at the car lot.” It’s sweaty, silly and often deeply cathartic — the thing many participants didn’t know they needed but now lean on to get through these strange days.
“It’s changing the focus,” Heffington says. “You have to log in, be there and pay attention, which in turn takes you away from what’s happening in the world. I’m giving you an opportunity to not think about that. I’m giving you an opportunity to look f–king ridiculous for an hour and to focus on that instead.”
Given the engagement rate, it’s clear people are keen on temporarily escaping reality to shake their butts and feel more connected to their bodies and other humans. 500 people participated in Heffington’s first class. A month later, upwards of 10,000 amateur dancers are tuning in daily from far flung points on the globe including Serbia, South Africa and Argentina — although Heffington says Australians “are pissed because it’s 2 a.m. their time.” Actress Kate Hudson commented that she was joining in for a recent class, and on Tuesday (April 14), frequent participant P!nk joined Heffington on Instagram Live to perform her 2017 single “What About Us.”
“There’s something about being in the safety of your own home and being free,” he says of the barrage of attendees. “A lot of my friends in Los Angeles… have never stepped into class, because you’re around people and insecurities bubble up, but they’re taking class now because they’re in a safe zone. All of these people who love what I do and say they’ll come to class are now actually doing it.”
A lot more have joined on as well, with Heffington’s Instagram following ballooning from 6,000 to 177,000 in the last six weeks. He first turned to the platform when his Los Angeles dance studio, The Sweat Spot was forced to close under quarantine. With his current projects on hold — including doing the choreography for the forthcoming, Lin-Manuel Miranda directed big-screen adaptation of Broadways’ Tick…Tick…Boom! — he wanted a way to stay busy while “in captivity.” He also was looking for a way to raise money for the instructors who can’t currently teach at The Sweat Spot, which opened in LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood ten years ago. By week two, he had raised $30,000.
It takes Heffington, 46, roughly three hours to work out each routine, with an amalgamation of moves taped onto his living room mirror at home so he can coordinate each day’s dance. He keeps the moves simple so classes remain accessible for everyone, with highlights from each day — a man singing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” into a kitchen whisk, small children in tie-dye fist-pumping to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ “Heads Will Roll” — shared on his Insta stories. The soundtrack ranges from Florence + the Machine — “her music on such a high vibration of love and intimacy” — to Calvin Harris, Rihanna, to disco, to house, to pop to more ethereal tracks like those by Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard.
These latter songs are played at the end of class, which is typically the moment people break down crying tears of joy, release, relief. “The stress of this time is leaving peoples’ bodies through this, and that is healing,” Heffington says. “And I think for people to hold the joy and happiness [they get through dance] in a moment like this where you don’t necessarily have it in the day-to-day… I want you to recognize that those things are possible, and to hold onto them.”