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The crazy, joyful, uninhibited moves of the choreographer who is changing how we see dance

Ryan Heffington encourages a student at his dance studio, the Sweat Spot, in Los Angeles on Sept. 15. (Jessica Pons/for The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — Bright midday sun pours through an open door on a recent Sunday, flooding a studio where a dance class has gone bananas. 

What started with gentle yoga stretches has exploded into a party, with 50 or more fired-up souls bopping and spinning in a freestyle conga line to the thumping bass of electro house music. Ryan Heffington, who’s teaching the class, is the single bounciest person in the room. He leads this serpentine joy-jam like the Pied Piper of Self-Expression.

Heffington moves like a trailblazer because he is one. His creative visions have rebooted the way the pop-culture world thinks about dance, and the way the dance world thinks about success, because his achievements — in music videos, film and television, onstage and in the business realm — have been as untraditional as his choreography.

He stops to pull up the neck of his T-shirt and mop his face with it. He demonstrates a move to his students that you’ll never see in any conventional dance class: a wide squat, feet pumping, arms outstretched. His fingers wiggle impatiently, like he’s hailing a waiter to bring over the dessert cart. He throws back his clean-shaven head and sticks out his tongue, tasting the humid Southern California air. His moves may look, at first, like random outbursts, but they tell a story. This one is about feeling worthy of what you desire. 

“You can ask for anything you want, remember that!” Heffington, 46, shouts above the din. “Don’t make me choreograph a smile on your face.”

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Even if you don’t know Heffington’s name, you’re bound to know his work. His choreography is all over YouTube, for Arcade Fire, Sigur Rós and others. He created the time-shifting dance moves in the sci-fi series “The OA” and in “Transparent”; he’s uncorked kooky perfume ads for Kenzo and Chanel, and helped Uniqlo and Target market hipness. He’s turned character actions into musical expression in the movies “Baby Driver” and Sia’s forthcoming “Music.” 

Heffington’s choreography for Sia’s “Chandelier” music video, performed by the bounding, wild-eyed 11-year-old dance sensation Maddie Ziegler in 2014, rocketed it into the YouTube stratosphere. It’s been viewed 2.1 billion times. 

Starting Friday , Heffington’s work takes the spotlight in “Transparent’s” 100-minute series finale on Amazon Prime. Conceived as part comedy-drama, part surreal movie-musical, the episode distills the Pfefferman family’s five-year saga of sexual awakening into singing and dancing. But more than Heffington’s choreography is on view. As in “Chandelier” and his classes, Heffington’s philosophy of self-acceptance shines through. 

Series star Judith Light puts it this way in a recent interview: Heffington “just sort of loved me into being able to do my very best. He’s this very generous spirit. There’s cheering but no shaming.”

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Heffington is on a mission, and his “Sweaty Sunday” classes — open to all comers, all abilities — are as much a part of that mission as his work with Hollywood stars and Parisian models. Heffington is a dance populist. He wants dance to be our scrambled eggs, not some fussy, unapproachable delicacy. 

“Dance has such a strict definition to so many people. I’m trying to break that,” he says. “Everyone can dance.”

To help people believe that, “you have to really hold them, and make sure they feel safe,” he adds. “That’s 80 percent of the job. And then you can infuse ideas about movement and concept, and then it becomes fun.

“I think that's how we win.”

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In two days he’ll be shooting another Chanel commercial in Paris. He’s also shopping for a new home for his dance studio, aptly called the Sweat Spot. The humble single-story bunker it’s occupied for nearly a decade in funky Silver Lake — a neighborhood Heffington helped gentrify — is about to be demolished for apartments. So Heffington really shouldn’t be here, spending the afternoon jumping around with his students. He’s too busy for this much fun, for gyrating until he’s wringing wet on a rare day off from rehearsals and sound stages and contracts.

“Find your funky self!” he calls out. Crouching into another squatty, arm-waving stance: “It’s like you’re keeping the bad juju away. We all have that power!”

Heffington has promised himself never to stop teaching, no matter how busy he gets. Who knows when a student will surprise him with some crazy new move that the choreographer can slip into his next video?

“I get so inspired by these non-dancers,” he says after his last class of the day, late in the afternoon, when he cools down over lunch down the block. Slim and wiry, with a bushy black mustache and round, earnest eyes, Heffington has changed into a green print shirt, rolled-up khakis and sandals. You’d never guess he just spent three hours in a mob of bodies pounding the dance floor so hard it pulsed like a living organism.

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His students “make choices I never would.” Heffington grins, jabbing the table with a long finger: “And I literally steal that s--- from them.”

He has always been hungry for new ways of moving. He grew up in Yuba City, in Northern California, where starting at age 6 he studied jazz, tap and ballet. He arrived in L.A. at 18 for community college but ended up pursuing his education in the city’s underground dance clubs. 

“I'd go into a trance for five hours,” he says. “That really developed how I moved as a human, not as a dancer. Everyone moves so differently, and to see that in the clubs was beautiful.”

Friends started asking if he’d teach them how to move like he did, so free and uninhibited, which led him to open the Sweat Spot in 2010. He also started staging showcases, and a drag show/fashion show/dance party he collaborated on called “Ktchn” drew notice from the local art scene. That’s where Sia saw him. After that, the music-video work started rolling in.

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“He completely broke every rule for dance in the best way possible, and that’s why I like working with him so much,” says Ziegler, who turns 17 on Sept. 30. For the past six years, ever since “Chandelier,” she has been Sia’s muse and alter ego through Heffington’s choreography. The balance of balletic control and flying-apart chaos that Heffington coaxed out of Ziegler in “Chandelier” was an artistic milestone in the world of commercial dance. Its visceral portrayal of inner feelings builds and builds; it’s deeply mysterious as much as urgent, and the turmoil is all the more powerful because we're watching a child express it with the abandon of a seasoned artist. Heffington’s concept took a sharp left turn from the glitzier direction of most popular music videos: He bridged pop music with the symbolic, theatrical and expressive language of modern dance. 

He also upended the way Ziegler approached her craft.

“Growing up I was always trained to be super technical and everything had to look perfect and put together,” Ziegler says. “With him, there’s so much more freedom, and I’ve learned that the imperfections are amazing. . . . He broke so many standards I thought I had to live up to in the dance world, and taught me that flaws are beautiful.”

For the “Transparent” finale, Heffington worked out the choreography with a group of professional dancers before teaching it to the actors. At that point, Light watched some of the work intended for her — a fantasy floor show dubbed “Your Boundary Is My Trigger,” where her character sports ladylike heels and a nursing bra, with a chorus of yentas in granny pants and bunny slippers. Light was awed by the freedom and collaboration Heffington encouraged, and to her surprise, she suddenly found herself whirling around the dance floor with the pros.

“I’m not a dancer,” Light says, “and yet I was seeing how he opened up with all his dancers. So I just jumped in and we had this wonderful time together.”

“Ryan makes it so anyone can jump in,” says Jason Baum, a producer and director who worked with Heffington on “Transparent,” the “Music” movie and other projects. On the set of the “Transparent” finale, he says, Heffington held warm-ups every day, coaching the cast through 20 minutes of bouncing and shaking in the same motivational way he does for Sweaty Sundays. 

“By the last day of our shoot, we had the entire 100-person crew on the sound stage moving while Ryan talked them through it,” Baum says. “Camera operators, grips, wardrobe, makeup, hair — everyone was up there dancing.”

There’s no question that Heffington has changed the commercial field artistically, carving out space for thoughtful, quirky storytelling in movement. You see his influence in, for example, Justin Bieber’s 2015 video, “Love Yourself,” a narrative with an out-of-sync romantic couple. They’re even framed in the narrow hallways and doorways of a small apartment, as Ziegler is in “Chandelier,” and the focus is largely on complicated emotions expressed in sharp, unusual gestures. “Never Catch Me” by Flying Lotus, which came out several months after “Chandelier,” spins forward the poignancy and technical finesse of children dancing, placing them in another unexpected setting: a funeral.

But Heffington is not done spreading the gospel of dance love. There’s more work to be done to make the industry more dance-friendly. 

“There’s tons of room to grow, for dancers and choreographers to get more credit,” Heffington says. He adds that union coverage and health insurance would be a good start, as would pay equity. At one point earlier in his career as a video choreographer, hairdressers on a shoot were making twice his salary.

Now that he’s got the “Transparent” mini-musical under his belt, Heffington has Broadway aspirations. He’d also like to produce more evenings of live performance, bringing commercial dancers and concert dancers together.

“My voice is yearning to be louder,” says Heffington, who’s soft-spoken when he’s not belting out pep talks over a driving bass line. “I’m really craving to bust through on a personal level.”

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