You know those superhuman magic people who love to exercise, glisten when they sweat and leave every workout with a healthy, beautiful glow? I am the opposite of that.
The last time I went to a dance aerobics class, I swore I’d never go back. Giant wall-length mirrors and harsh fluorescent lights are not my friends (are they anyone’s?). No matter how hard I tried to hide in the back of the room behind the good dancers, I couldn’t escape disheartening glimpses of my reflection, my siren-red face and awkward, jerky moves mocking me with every beat. Since then, I’ve limited my dance-cardio sessions to the safe confines of my apartment. I decided Robyn is right when she sings “Dancing on My Own”: Solitude is best when tackling heart rate–raising dance moves.
“I see you, girl,” Emilia Richeson tells me when I explain my dance-class phobias. “I grew up really unathletic,” she continues. “I was a theater nerd. I took piano lessons. I could never run the mile. I was terrified of sports, mostly because I was just scared of doing something wrong. I never felt safe moving through the discomfort.”
Now in her early 30s, Richeson has tackled her fitness fears and transformed into a strong, contagiously energetic dance aerobics instructor. In 2014 she launched a new kind of dance class/fitness experience called Pony Sweat, a “fiercely noncompetitive” group class that is more free-spirited, living-room dance party than polished Hollywood workout. What began as a once-a-week hobby has morphed into a part-time job for Richeson, whose accessible, $10 classes are rapidly increasing in popularity. This week she released her first full-length (free!) Pony Sweat video on YouTube.
Richeson gets a little emotional when she talks about Pony Sweat’s origins. Everything about the class –– the music, the moves, the encouraging, inclusive vibe –– is a product of her passion and personal experience.
“I love music so much,” Richeson says. “It’s been such a strong identifier for me. When I was young and growing up in rural Vermont, music was how I connected. I was an adolescent. I was queer. The only queers, the only punks, the only freaks I knew were the people that were singing and playing the music I listened to.”
The goth, post-punk and Riot Grrrl music Richeson loved as a teen dominates the soundtracks that accompany her catchy routines. Each month she puts together a new mixtape and, at home in her bedroom, develops dance steps to her favorite songs. (This month’s playlist features music by Goldfrapp, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nine Inch Nails, Grace Jones and The Cure, Richeson’s all-time favorite band.)
Richeson got serious about aerobics in her late 20s with the help of an instructor at a treatment center. As she let go of her fears and learned to move her body in new ways, she discovered that exercise helped her with depression and anxiety. She had always been self-conscious about how much she sweat when she worked out, but at the treatment center’s aerobics classes, she embraced her body’s profuse, salty release.
“You can’t avoid discomfort forever or your life becomes totally fucking unmanageable,” she says. “I finally got to a point of desperation where I stopped giving a fuck about being perfect or looking a certain way. I sweat a lot when I exercise. But I feel really good afterward. It’s not about what it looks like. It’s about what it feels like.”
In 2014, when her friends urged her to rent a space and lead them in a dance aerobics session once a week, Richeson loved the idea of putting the word “sweat” in the name of the class.
“My friend Noah was the main catalyst,” she explains. “He’s really good at coming up with names. Pony is a dance step. It’s also an incredibly powerful creature. Hoofed creatures in general are close to my heart. And 'sweat' because I have a very human body that does very human things, like gets red and sweats a lot. When you call something out, it takes the power away. It’s like saying up front, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be a fucking mess at the end of this class.’”
Beyond Instagram and word-of-mouth, Richeson hasn’t really marketed her Pony Sweat classes. She calls her students “ponies” and has created such a strong bond with them that they keep bringing their friends to class, steadily increasing her fold. She now teaches six classes a week at three locations, some so popular she ends up turning people away at the door because she runs out of floor space.
It was two of Richeson’s enthusiastic ponies who made her new artsy, gritty video a reality, and a group of dedicated ponies who star in it alongside her. The video was shot in just two days in the studio where the punk/indie rock children’s television show Pancake Mountain is filmed. It was the perfect location for a grown-up punk kid to dance her heart out with her friends and students.
“It is basically my dream come true to dance to Siouxsie and the Banshees with a bunch of kind-hearted people,” Richeson says. “The most rewarding part is when I feel like we’re all in it together, when the ponies are connecting with each other and taking care of each other. I just want everyone to feel included, regardless of their experience level.”
After talking with Richeson, I was excited to experience Pony Sweat but still a little hesitant about tackling a group aerobics class, no matter how cool the playlist or encouraging the instructor.
On a recent Wednesday morning at the Sweat Spot in Silver Lake, things started OK. The soft yellow lights were dimmed. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the mirror, which was partially hidden by a friendly, industrial-sized fan.
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I felt pretty good about things as I stomped my feet in warm-up mode to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” It’s actually hard not to have fun jumping around while Lady Gaga and Beyoncé belt out “Telephone.” It wasn’t until somewhere in the middle of Mew’s “Water Slides” that my concentration, stamina and willpower waned and I started to panic. Richeson was energetic, encouraging the class with high-pitched screams of “Fuck the moves!”
“Fuck you!” I thought to myself. I was still desperately trying to keep up, tripping over my own feet as I sashayed in the wrong direction. Again.
And then there it was: the familiar pulsing bass line of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” Richeson was still running around the room with unbridled abandon, darting in and out of her ponies and screaming above the music, “Fuck the movessssss!!!”
“OK,” I thought, “Fuck the moves.” I embraced the mantra, let go and ran in place as fast as I could, singing the familiar words of the song to myself. I quickly realized that nobody cared whether I was following the steps or what I looked like doing it. Everyone was just having a really good time dancing to music they love. Actually, I was, too. I even smiled when I saw my reflection in the mirror. In that moment I was just one of Richeson’s weird, sweaty little ponies, following our fearless leader as we danced on our own, together.