Dance Routines, Pandemic Routines: Ryan Heffington’s “SWEATFEST”

If you haven’t watched that wonderfully weird series, the way that the characters — who are imprisoned by a charismatically evil scientist and trapped together in a basement separated from one another by glass boxes — negotiate their captivity is through the dance movements that they learn in dreams (yes, the show is wonderfully weird) and practice together. These layers are best dissected through Heffington’s signature dance steps, which he names by invoking images, “little dog in one of those chairs”; moods, “gluttonous and lonely”; pop culture references, “wax on, wax off,” and scenarios, “fork, fork, stab in the wall, throw it out, pass out, come to.” (Re-read that last bit and actually do it. Heffington’s offering of himself as focal point lets us feel our own feet on the floor, in our homes — momentary clarity of self via seeing another. That difference displaces the object’s mundanity and makes it “strange.” Put simply, foregrounding is what happens when everydayness is not allowed to be banal. Yet, even with all of these qualifiers, SweatFest is more than a dance party. The strangeness of being disoriented in your own home — of coping with the stress of having to repeatedly figure out how to simply be at home — feels symptomatic of life during COVID-19, so spotting feels like an apt technique. But they also explicitly connect dancing to everydayness, imbuing our currently mundane existence with a fascination — or at least interest — that feels increasingly absent as lockdowns continue. Human agency — even limited as it may be — is important to acknowledge and give voice, but it often does not change the structural circumstances in which we find ourselves. That sequence usually ends with hands pressed together at the chest — part isometric exercise, but also actually, truly a prayer. The idea, “foregrounding,” unfolds in experiences  like watching theater or film or, more specific to this conversation, watching someone exercise on Instagram Live. or at least a little relief. For women — particularly those stuck cleaning up after whole families at home right now — sweeping the floor is straight-up labor. Heffington’s final moment with us: still and focused on him again — our spot — we throw our hands into the air, as he assures us, “We’ll get through this.”
We return to focusing on Heffington, filled with a physical sensation that highlights that this is no simple moment of clarity. Like much of Heffington’s vocabulary, there’s a basic shape to make, but once you sync with the pop music he blares, the formula of simplicity + repetition + pop bounce/swagger turns shapemaking to joymaking. While discussing the strangeness of this problem, we stumbled upon the fact that each of us had independently become SweatFest devotees. When gay men vamp through “sweeping the floor,” it’s campy fun and a chance to show off a tight butt in colorful shorts. The best: the refrigerator run. This moment of the signifier connecting with the body might qualify as what film scholar Vivian Sobchack defines as “ecstasy and ex-stasis,” cinematic moments where we are called to act — and in this case, mimic. The introduction to every class —  breaking things down — serves the SweatFest ethos that everyone can dance, and do so on their own terms. Domestic life — and what is possible within it even in this moment of profound confinement — drives the rest of the class. Ironically, part of the reason it is so difficult to be present is because we may feel trapped in spaces filled with all of our familiar stuff. We might not be — many are certainly not — ok even now, let alone in the future. Doing Heffington’s choreography we experience this physical semiotic pile-up as an emotive tie between idea and referent. We get to see and feel our everyday lives, and appreciate how things don’t quite line up. Clare’s club gear is generally a combination of whatever bathtowel hangs on the door, and bops of color courtesy of yoga straps. Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky coined a term that, for Kristen, is highly related to this notion of generative semiotic collision. Heffington’s imagination is far from perfect. After basic vocabulary is set up, there are yoga-esque stretches and a little ab work, and then we get to Kristen’s favorites: Heffington’s turning of everyday scenarios and objects into full-body, dance phrases. He invites us to run, in slow motion (we’re still avoiding stepping on the dog), to the fridge, exaggeratedly opening the door using your whole body not just arms. Why are we making such efforts to grapevine in our living rooms with 8000 strangers online, led by a campy gay guy with a giant mustache? And then there’s the “Nancy Pelosi clap.” You clap your hands like the Speaker of the House at last year’s State of the Union address. Heffington never says, “it will all be ok.”  He says, “we will get through this,” and reminds us to “throw it [the stress, the nerves, and the anxiety] off.” These are not platitudes, but rather physical actions letting us connect with our emotions, others’ affect. A lip syncing routine begins with the direction, “grab a prop.” TV remote, lint roller, or hairbrush transports you and your new 8000 friends into a production of Grease. Further, Heffington’s new feature of inviting celebrity guests to join him midway through the class interrupts  the queerly collective experience. (That damn pepper.) The simple, completely ridiculous act, makes something common an event that maybe a number of us sweat festing have a memory of, and maybe just for a 45th of a second, moves our focus away from the Groundhog day-to-day and into the “OMG I did that shit last week!”
If we imagine spotting and foregrounding as the formula to the effectiveness of SweatFest, it resembles a sort of a layered routine: locating the structure of the experience as the way to focus energy and mimicking the signifiers that allow us to foreground our everydayness into something special that helps us be present and realize our embodiment. The result is joy… In what has become the heightened banality of our everyday lives, Heffington helps us make something special and strange. Kristen, a media scholar, knew Heffington as the choreographer of her beloved TV show, The OA (which Clare thinks is weird), and Clare has been taking classes at the East LA dance studio Heffington owns, including his all-levels, gender-bending longstanding class Sweaty Sundays, which must have been partial inspiration for SweatFest. We’ve laughed at what we (ok, not the two of us) store in our homes, but we’ve gone (even if we didn’t quite mean to) from exercising to dancing and a mundane, regular pandemic activity — yet another trip to the fridge — got us there. This is where Heffington’s contribution to The OA becomes a handy guide to what SweatFest does. “Grab a cape” or “get some club attire” kicks off an even more boisterous dance section, in which you can (and we might have) danced along to “Like a Prayer” with a now-holy bath towel. Spontaneity is possible because he assumes your home is ready to be a dance floor, and if you move with your household objects, the claustrophobic can be transformed into something expansive, strange, and, for Clare, queer. While we have some utopic tendencies, both of us are rather cynical folks, yet we repeatedly arrive at the end of class feeling nervy — in a good way — and a little bit settled. We transform objects, and then they transform us. None of this really explains though — in a moment where we often don’t know what day it is — why we both always know when the next SweatFest class will be. The formal look of the frame splitting him in half reduces the ability to spot properly — there’s literally a line that prevents you from being able to find your focus — and from finding him and, through him, your connection to the unseen dancing masses. Similar to The OA, Heffington’s SweatFest take the stuff we already have and already feel in the midst of the pandemic and asks us to make something of them: “Grab a prop!” Kristen’s water bottle and remote control are now basically microphones. When we absolutely must, we do a quick flip of the head and then find him again. Neither of us have much of a connection to the commercial dance world from which Heffington springs. The celebrity visit often feels like a protruding partition in what was a connected space. Until Heffington asks us to imagine ourselves doing an “everyday thing,” we might take for granted sitting in quarantine writing an email, washing the walls, or eating a hot pepper. The repetition, synchronicity, and relative simplicity of Heffington’s gestural choreography transforms claustrophobic, familiar, domestic spaces into something mystical and expansive. The “Pelosi clap” goes even further, as it connects us to other bodies past and present — a dance aerobics versions of performance theorist Diana Taylor’s “repertoire,” an embodied, collective archive that offers tools of resistance. But we can move our bodies together now, and that might be enough. A quilt and robe have been a skirt, a wig, and “club wear” — answering Heffington’s call to “get ready for the club” (which I — Kristen — never do in real life, but I digress). Clare’s favorite Heffington step is the “happy hippie.” The dancer puts one arm at a right angle, hand pointed up, and the other arm at a right angle, hand pointed down, and then alternates the arm positions quickly, letting head and hips fall into rhythm with the arms. We are both academics who — like everyone — are trying to cope with the stress of living in the time of Covid-19. Living in the pandemic, especially in the broken U.S., much is uncertain, unclear, or overwhelming. We can feel this as Heffington leads the cool down. Knowing Kristen sometimes stops dancing to laugh at the whole thing furthers — rather than interrupts — Clare’s joy in taking something too far. We’re also tenured professors, who, yes, are working during this time, but can choose when to do so in the course of a day. Spotting is a useful embodied-turned-discursive frame for considering the SweatFest obsession we’ve both developed during this time of self-isolation. We feel and respond with our whole body. We are surprised by how much SweatFest helps us be present in our bodies — and all our collisions of joy, anger, and anxiety — while we are quarantined in our respective homes, apartments, and rooms. Why has SweatFest become the way we organize our lives? Elsewhere Clare has written that “no single entity marks something as queer dance, but rather it is how these textures press on the world and against one another that opens the possibility for a dance to be queer.” Enmeshing domestic objects and bodies, Heffington queers our quarantined homes, even if we’re stuck with glass walls between us for some time yet. Opening the refrigerator door, he tells us we find the most LA of all pandemic tummy fillers: an array of nut milks. JUNE 1, 2020

“Find me.” That’s LA choreographer Ryan Heffington’s direction when teaching people how to “spot,” a technique used to avoid getting dizzy while turning. One (Kristen raises hand) often laughs midway through a Heffington dance step because the instructions are ridiculous and comment hilariously on popular notions of modern dance as formal and serious art. And the guest (very often white, cis, straight women) often overdo the focus on the visual, emphasizing physical beauty rather than offering an orientation point. Spotting assumes that dizziness will happen, but also that, if we connect to our bodies and other people, we can survive dizziness. (It also keeps you from stepping on the dog too much while dancing with Heffington.) Spotting is part of every orientation to SweatFest — Heffington’s Instagram Live dance/exercise class — and it is a technique for orientation. Courtesy of her academic expertise, Clare slips and slides across more ideas of dance than most SweatFesters, but loves the plunge into the ridiculous that invites excessive joy. The image in your head — a clap, technically, yes, but not one of approval — fuses with the choreography you’re enacting in your living room, producing everything from laughter to collective nostalgia for polite transgression. Heffington’s movement cues act as signifiers, images and concepts embedded with meaning that we perform at several levels: the words he says plus our mental conception of the idea plus how we physically enact it. Part of it has to be the essentially democratic spirit of Heffington’s instructions, the way that variation, contingency, and even accident are baked into the class concept. In these spaces of heightened spectatorship, viewers see objects in their homes, outside of their common contexts, differently. As he explains the class’s movement palette, he repeatedly underscores personal variation: “If I’m going in one direction, and you go the other way, great.” There’s a map, but not so much right or wrong. By spotting we find a focal point amidst the incomprehensible. Heffington teaches SweatFest participants how to spot by telling us to focus on him, and then start to rotate in place. Let us be clear: neither of us think Ryan Heffington’s SweatFest is the revolution realized. We can grab our “club gear” for a mid-day dance class.   Even in the tightest of places — stuck next to Mike Pence on the House floor or stuck at home in quarantine — one can still push back. We are at home because we have jobs that are not “essential” (read: underpaid service labor or dangerous frontline healthcare work). Noticing what our bodies do when we feel gluttonous or lonely gives us a break from uncertain futures and drops us into a more mindful present. (All are recent Heffington directions.) His cues, re-imagined as directions toward dancing, call on us to mimic the scenario and the sensation it produces, like slowly “running to the refrigerator” to grab one of the aforementioned milks to douse the fire in our mouths. You’ll see.) These invitations are useful aural cues to help dancers — including we SweatFesters with limited dance experience. Imagining and mimicking sitting like a dog in a little chair or being Baby put in the motherfucking corner again is absurd. This is clarity that is layered — sometimes uneasy, often hilarious. It’s an opportunity — three days a week, fifty minutes per day — to find a place to structure our focus and to allow the objects in our homes to become gadgets of possibility. His foregrounding often makes us leery when it becomes about mimicking domestic labor. Too, we come to SweatFest with relative privilege: a great deal of control of our space and time.