hot bod

The Choreography of Limitations

Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty Images

Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

You are not where you want to be right now. You are cooped up in your square footage. You must be there; we all know that. It’s the most important thing that you be there and stay there, but also you can escape. If you find the right earth-angel guide and arrange some perfectly articulated delusions, you can burst right out of your sad-sack skin.

In this case, my earth angel is the choreographer Ryan Heffington, who can get me to shift my weight and moods in ways I never would have imagined. With a shaved head and a generous mustache, small shorts, cutoff tanks, and a hearty voice, Ryan hosts almost daily dance parties on his Instagram. He switches between a follow-along structure and free-form raving, aiming instructions at his phone, propped on the hardwood floor at his house in the desert outside of Los Angeles. Ryan started the live classes a few weeks ago, when many of us were just beginning to self-isolate. I joined his second class on Thursday the 19th, where there were a few hundred people. Last Saturday morning, there were over 6,000 people streaming — all seemingly called over by word of mouth, Ryan tells me over FaceTime, smoothing out splatter-print leggings.

Ryan’s style is distinctive. He orchestrates disco-melty arachnid moves that clear my mind about everything else in the world. Ryan choreographs for art-pop acts like Sia, Florence and the Machine, and Christine and the Queens, and for shows like Netflix’s The OA. His taste is well calibrated to these explosions of warped hot-heart feeling. On the phone, he tells me he tries to make dance playlists filled with poetic bops that are “grounding, but you feel like you’re projecting up into the atmosphere.”

For an hour, that’s the sensation. He dives right into the feeling, playing “What Kind of Man” and encouraging emotive grapevines. They skitter me around the house, looking for something glittering to layer as a cape. When Ryan commands, you become. You’re a pony; you’re a firecracker; you’re a shape-shifter; you’re using your bookshelf as a stabilizer for butt wiggling. Given humanity’s terminal uncertainty now, I feel particularly malleable to existential suggestions.

You romp to all corners available to you. There’s no more space after that, but Ryan has you switch directions before you think about that. This is the choreography of limitations. When movement is so circumscribed, the sensation that there are endless melty ways to shift your weight feels like a revelation.

I think Ryan’s live classes have become such an energy muse for this moment because Ryan pulls on the opposed threads of denial and realism, playing games and working with what we’ve got. Ryan flings up his arms and leaps to the side, tells you that this is “putting sheets on the bed.” This is part of a newly beloved series that imitates chores — the total doldrums of life! — and transforms them into a stupid treat. The moves include hanging up artwork. “Oh, that floor is nasty, broom it — push, push, push, push! Put your body into it!” A tambourine shake is actually “sending emails.”

Pretending to send emails with a hair flip, I think: What if life was like this? What if I made the bed with such rhythm? I mean, I never will, but at this moment in life, I appreciate having my bedroom reframed as an antechamber of magical possibility.

Ryan loves dancing with an object. He gives instructions to find a microphone (I use an abalone shell) and find clothes to throw around. My friend Nora tells me she was a big hit at his Halloween party because she was dressed as dead Laura Palmer and her plastic wrap was a good dancing prop.

Ryan’s class seems to know exactly where you are as it tells you to leap away from there. Yes, this is weird you’re dancing by your closet, why not grab your strangest coat to shimmy with?! I think because Ryan’s choreography is so assured about the hard facts of isolation, I actually have the sense of other people engaging. I can’t see my friends doing it but there is some buzzing, comforting sense that we’re all doing the same thing at once.

After his classes, Ryan’s account is a heartening parade of people’s participatory videos: dancing with their kids or with their friends on video chat. A series of pretending to punch Trump with the caption “My therapist would never.” Someone is so absorbed by the class and her friends on Zoom that she screams when her real, flesh-and-blood roommate walks through the door. Children jump around with underwear on their heads, backward pants, thumbs-up. A talented actress, acclaimed for her impressively chameleon abilities, posted videos doing the class in a bike helmet. I’m shocked that I like watching this cavalcade of other people enjoying a class I just did. I think I miss people-watching. And their expressions are invariably blissed-out. Can you believe I’m doing this? Can you believe how happy I am doing this?

These classes aren’t efficient cardio, they don’t challenge your obliques, they don’t exhaust you. But they feel so good. Each time, I’ve grinned over Zoom at my friends and felt a cresting break of emotional release. Which is what I recommend finding, on whatever stream: something transportive and funny with other people from afar as your emotional anchor for a terminally clattered heart. You can have my Ryan, and you can also find your own Ryan.

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