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Work Out Self-Doubt at Sweat Spot

Sweat Spot

Choreographer Ryan Heffington's L.A. gym offers a unique workout for locals and visitors alike.

To the uninitiated, finding the right spot to work out in Los Angeles can be intimidating. Like most clichés, Los Angeles as the epicenter of hard-bodied gym culture is reinforced—one need only peruse the bodybuilders at Muscle Beach in Venice, the lithe bodies hiking Runyon Canyon, everyone in WeHo.

But working out here doesn’t have to be scary. What’s more, it can even lead to a bit of self-discovery. Ryan Heffington, the award-winning queer choreographer responsible for the contorting antics of Maddie Ziegler, the blond-wigged girl from Sia’s “Chandelier” music video and more, wanted to make his dance studio in Silverlake not just a place to dance and sweat, but also to get over your hangups.

“It’s an exercise in letting self doubt or critique—in letting that go,” Heffington says of the Sweat Spot experience. “You’re gonna have a good time no matter what.”

The Sweat Spot is a dance/yoga studio, workout space, party and community gathering venue that manages to toe the line of being very cool but not stuck up in any way. The clientele has grown into a community of seasoned dancers and curious visitors who come to sweat, have fun, and explore something deeper and more creative than a mere workout.

“It’s pretty bare bones, which I kind of love,” says Sweat Spot member, Harpal Sodhi of the utilitarian space, with minimal accents like ceramic lighting fixtures by local sculptor Ben Medansky

Sodhi, 36, is an artist and freelancer who comes regularly to the studio for dance classes, but working out is only a small part of why he keeps coming back. “You’re there to work on yourself,” he says. “That’s what the mirrors are for.”

Full-length mirrors line the front wall of the raftered, black box space, but this isn’t about vanity or looking pretty. Rich Yap, 28, a filmmaker who’s been dancing at the Spot for three years and works the front desk in exchange for free classes, says, “It was welcoming from the get go. I never felt like I was being judged.”

Instead, The Sweat Spot is about moving. Since starting out in 2010, Heffington has been teaching his trademark pop-influenced choreography, challenging seasoned visitors while making sure not to put off first timers.

“Ryan has this remarkable ability to bring people together by a common-denominator love of dance,” Sodhi says. “But he takes the pressure off. Especially if you’ve never been, that helps with the doubts you may have.” 

“It’s a language. Dance is a physical language,” Heffington says. “A lot of people who have never tried it or are coming back to it—it’s important to be patient with yourself. Learn the basics before creating a sentence.”

At the Spot, classes always start with a warm up that clues you in immediately to why this place has the word “sweat”in its title; drawing from yoga, ballet and jazz basics, the opening exercises are toning, tightening and get the heart pumping, all to a beat. 

“I try really hard when I'm there,” says occasional visitor Jake Weinraub, a 27-year-old clinical psychology grad student at LA’s Antioch University campus. “I think about the things I'm going through and try to bring it into the movements.” 

After getting into the zone with the warm up, Weinraub mentions his favorite part of the class. With tracks by Robyn or Florence + the Machine blasting, Heffington corrals students to the sidelines, and everyone forms impromptu rows. Newcomers follow along with regulars—“the Sweaty Kids,” as Sodhi terms them—and they cross the room from one side to the other, leaping, hopping and yes, strutting like runway models or drag queens.

“I used to dread that. I didn’t want to be vulnerable or exposed,” says Sodhi of this part of the class experience. “Now, it’s empowering. As it’s constructed, you’re on a runway, and you’re just killing it. It’s your own fashion show.”

This is where The Sweat Spot goes beyond the normal L.A. workout experience and becomes an experiment in self-expression, where judgment and insecurity fly out the window.

For the final portion of class, students arrange themselves as best they can to catch a sliver of their bodies in the mirror, and if they’re lucky, a bit of Heffington, too. 

Facing the mirror as well, the instructor takes things step by step, first teaching the movements slowly and without music, and then bringing in the beat. He introduces each dip, sashay, turn or step differently, always with an element of performance or physical metaphor that allows students to really grasp the movement.

In a recent class I attended, part of the choreography involved raising our right arms and reaching toward the upper corner of the room. As with each movement, Heffington introduced it, and the students followed. But hedidn’t seem satisfied. “Reach,” he said, raising his right arm rather listlessly. We followed suit. “Now, reeeeach,”he said again, and this time he moved his whole torso in the direction of that reach, almost in service of it. 

There was a palpable change in the room, and this time wegot it. This wasn’t about assigning movements to different limbs and learning some timed steps. It involved something deeper and more experiential within the body itself. After we performed this reaching movement, Heffington spun around from the mirror, devilish grin beaming from under his bright eyes, and said, “Now that’s dance.”

“Ryan has a way of creating this energy. People are able to pick up on it and it just bounces around the room,” Sodhi says. “It’s the ultimate satisfaction when we have the routine in our body and get to be our own private dancer, and go for it!”

This energy is sure to grab anyone who comes through The Sweat Spot’s doors, travelers both blasé and inquisitive included. “It was hard for me to get past the technical part of learning the moves,” says Weinraub. “But once I did, they sort of dripped down from my head into my body and I began to play with this whole new way of expressing myself.”

When it comes to exercising while traveling, Heffington likes to keep things simple. “Find the things that you love to do. There are yoga and dance classes all over the world,” he says. “But it’s about committing to it! We’re now connected enough in a global community, and you can do research through a friend of a friend to find something tailored to your liking for where you’re going.”

Thanks to your trusty smartphone, it is ridiculously easy to book a Sweat Spot class, even if you’re still planning your trip from thousands of miles away. First-timers are more than welcome to try a one-off class. Using the MindBody app, you can find the class you want and book in advance: a single class costs $14 in cash, but if you use your credit card, there’s a two-class minimum. 

Sweat Spot classes—with names like Wet Wednesdays or Get Me Bodied—are varied in both dance style and skill level, but nothing this studio teaches is out of reach for anyone interested in having fun and letting loose—elevated heart rate and cardio very much included.

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