The first time I see Ryan Heffington, I don’t know it’s him. With his We Are the World bandmates, the city’s most important underground dance agitator is completely shrouded: A flat, white frock covers his torso, a blood-red veil pours from a black sun hat, and black nylon envelops his body. As art-damaged electronica pounds from the speakers of the Echo, his jerking frame looks creepy and triple-jointed, like a thing that crawled out of a Shyamalan thriller.
Witness the 35-year-old Heffington out of costume, and it’s a different picture. He keeps a boundless energy at bay just beneath his skin, but exudes softness. He’s kind and attentive, a born nurturer. In the studio, these traits make him a great instructor. Heffington teaches all comers two days a week at Silver Lake’s Foresight Studios, on “Sweaty Sundays” and “Wet Wednesdays.” For 10 bucks a pop, he combines basic jazz (chancés, pirouettes) with MTV moves (hand flinging, general sass) and the vicious choreography of WATW. It’s accessible and addictive, and the sessions usually sell out.
“I had friends who wanted to learn dance, but I couldn’t bear to send them somewhere where they might be discouraged,” Heffington says. “What we do is celebratory. By the end of class, everyone’s personalities are lighter. It’s not yoga, where you focus on yourself. It’s a group effort and everyone’s simultaneously releasing this magic that I couldn’t give by myself.”
After moving to L.A. from Yuba City in 1991, Heffington shied from commercial contracts in favor of stronger stuff. With dance vet Bubba Carr, he created Psycho Dance Sho in 1995 — “Gallagher meets burlesque ... fucking twisted,” he says — and in 2006, Heffington launched Fingered, a monthly that found his crew forcibly occupying a bar, leading the patrons in an impromptu dance lesson, then performing in the center of the room.
The second time I see Heffington, close to 20 plainclothes dancers stalk the line outside the Geffen Contemporary. It’s Fashion Week so none’s the wiser until the golden moment: Heffington plops down a boom box and hits “play.” Sweaty Sundays’ best swarm in and perform to Madonna’s “Burning Up,” then quickly dissipate, re-forming down the block to surprise the fortuitously located Kogi taco-truck crowd.
The guerrilla dance attacks had their inaugural run the previous weekend. After storming Watchmen fans at the ArcLight and the Vista, Heffington and his students descended upon the BOXeight runway show at the Los Angeles Theatre. As they made their escape, the show’s coordinator chased them down and begged them to perform onstage. Instead, they gave a reprise on the red carpet.
Heffington doesn’t shun the stage entirely, of course. Any old showgoer can see it in WATW’s movement and dress (he makes the costumes, too), and it’s also in the work he does as co–artistic director of the Hysterica Dance Company. He doesn’t pass on all commercial work either — he’s danced at the Oscars, in videos for Julio Iglesias and Beirut, and onstage with Tegan & Sara and Margaret Cho — but he’s much more animated talking about his plans to release a Sweaty Sundays DVD, which would function as a sort of DIY dance-revolution kit.
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The third time I see Heffington, I’m drenched in sweat, getting schooled by a 7-year-old in a turquoise leotard. He was right. I’m hooked. I’ll be back next week.