Dance Routines, Pandemic Routines: Ryan Heffington's "SWEATFEST"
Spotting is a useful embodied-turned-discursive frame for considering the SweatFest obsession we’ve both developed during this time of self-isolation. We are both academics who — like everyone — are trying to cope with the stress of living in the time of Covid-19. While discussing the strangeness of this problem, we stumbled upon the fact that each of us had independently become SweatFest devotees. Neither of us have much of a connection to the commercial dance world from which Heffington springs. 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. 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. 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? Why has SweatFest become the way we organize our lives?
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. The introduction to every class — breaking things down — serves the SweatFest ethos that everyone can dance, and do so on their own terms. 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. 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. 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.
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. The best: the refrigerator run. 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. Opening the refrigerator door, he tells us we find the most LA of all pandemic tummy fillers: an array of nut milks. 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.
Domestic life — and what is possible within it even in this moment of profound confinement — drives the rest of the class. 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. “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. We transform objects, and then they transform us. 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 can feel this as Heffington leads the cool down. That sequence usually ends with hands pressed together at the chest — part isometric exercise, but also actually, truly a prayer. 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. This is clarity that is layered — sometimes uneasy, often hilarious. 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. You’ll see.) These invitations are useful aural cues to help dancers — including we SweatFesters with limited dance experience. 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.
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. 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. Doing Heffington’s choreography we experience this physical semiotic pile-up as an emotive tie between idea and referent. Imagining and mimicking sitting like a dog in a little chair or being Baby put in the motherfucking corner again is absurd. 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. 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. Knowing Kristen sometimes stops dancing to laugh at the whole thing furthers — rather than interrupts — Clare’s joy in taking something too far.
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. 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. 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. We feel and respond with our whole body. 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. 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 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. 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. This is where Heffington’s contribution to The OA becomes a handy guide to what SweatFest does. 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. The repetition, synchronicity, and relative simplicity of Heffington’s gestural choreography transforms claustrophobic, familiar, domestic spaces into something mystical and expansive. 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. 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 club gear is generally a combination of whatever bathtowel hangs on the door, and bops of color courtesy of yoga straps. 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. 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.
In what has become the heightened banality of our everyday lives, Heffington helps us make something special and strange. Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky coined a term that, for Kristen, is highly related to this notion of generative semiotic collision. The idea, “foregrounding,” unfolds in experiences like watching theater or film or, more specific to this conversation, watching someone exercise on Instagram Live. In these spaces of heightened spectatorship, viewers see objects in their homes, outside of their common contexts, differently. 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. 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. (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. (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. We get to see and feel our everyday lives, and appreciate how things don’t quite line up. The result is joy. . . or at least a little relief.
Let us be clear: neither of us think Ryan Heffington’s SweatFest is the revolution realized. 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. Heffington’s imagination is far from perfect. His foregrounding often makes us leery when it becomes about mimicking domestic labor. When gay men vamp through “sweeping the floor,” it’s campy fun and a chance to show off a tight butt in colorful shorts. For women — particularly those stuck cleaning up after whole families at home right now — sweeping the floor is straight-up labor.
Further, Heffington’s new feature of inviting celebrity guests to join him midway through the class interrupts the queerly collective experience. 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. The celebrity visit often feels like a protruding partition in what was a connected space. 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.
Too, we come to SweatFest with relative privilege: a great deal of control of our space and time. We are at home because we have jobs that are not “essential” (read: underpaid service labor or dangerous frontline healthcare work). 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. We can grab our “club gear” for a mid-day dance class.
Yet, even with all of these qualifiers, SweatFest is more than a dance party. 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. 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. We might not be — many are certainly not — ok even now, let alone in the future. But we can move our bodies together now, and that might be enough.
Kristen Warner is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. Her book, The Cultural Politics of Colorblind Casting, was released in June 2015. Kristen blogs at Dear Black Woman (https://kaydubya.wordpress.com).
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