Dance class is in session: flail, get weird, unlock yourself

You’ll feel silly, Angela Trimbur promised.

It was a Sunday, and Trimbur, a dancer and choreographer in a Jane Fonda-worthy ’80s leotard, was conducting a class at a midtown Manhattan studio. Nearly 50 people were drawn to their pitch: an afternoon that spun in frivolous but very intentional motion. The goal, Trimbur said, was to get the effervescence of kids putting on a backyard dance show.

“We’re the same, we’re 13 and we’re just going to do some silly choreography to show our parents before dinner,” she said. “That’s the vibe.”

To ease the inhibitions, Trimbur suggested shouting. And hug a stranger. The dancers – from ballet shoes to ripped tights to Converse and knee pads – were instructed to run across the room, whine in each other’s faces and then hug. I agreed: it felt great and powerful and downright ridiculous. The energy was equal parts eighth grade physical education and genuine affirmation.

Then the routine came to a synthic 1986 cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. “I don’t count,” Trimbur said, directing us to smack our butts, roll on the floor, kick, punch, and spin. Her references weren’t so much Balanchine as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” — she also choreographs for faces. “FYI, thrashing about IS dancing,” she wrote in her newsletter.

The kind of intuitive movement that Trimbur champions, low stakes and approachable, found new audiences during the pandemic as dancers and dance teachers migrated online. Ryan Heffington — the pop choreographer whose Los Angeles studio, Sweat Spot, helped nurture a come one, come all dance culture there — had tens of thousands of followers (including Trimbur) on his Instagram Live sessions during the early lockdowns. Even eminences like Debbie Allen took two steps to the feed and found an unexpected communion, although everyone was literally dancing for themselves.

Among this thriving group of teachers and influencers, and the legions of creators memesing on TikTok, Trimbur, 40, stands out. Underpinned by an intimate, self-revealing aesthetic, she navigates fluidly from sweaty group class to phone screen to ambitious project – dance is her public palliative for physical and emotional upheaval. And yet she enjoys it.

“For her, it’s really the endorphins, the feeling of being in love, that they can induce,” said filmmaker Miranda July, a friend and collaborator. Evan Rachel Wood, another friend and creative partner, trusts her unreservedly: “Me I would privately make my own dance videos and edit them and play around,” she said, “but I wouldn’t show anyone — except Angela, because that’s the energy Angela brings. It’s about authenticity.”

A short, lavish-looking dance film, Unauthorized, choreographed by Trimbur and directed by Wood, is yet to be released and is set to songs from Fiona Apple’s 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters. In solos and with other performers, some traditional dance stars and some not, Trimbur takes scenes through the Los Angeles cityscape and its dusty wastelands. It begins to move with sweet musical precision and morphs into something wilder, more feminine and beautiful, settling into male-female power dynamics and rebirth. Wood and Trimbur have managed to cope with the pandemic and other struggles, they said.

Trimbur’s work is filled with empathy for people struggling like her, July said. “All they have are their own bodies, which aren’t perfect and they could fail in a million ways, and yet they’re alive, and she’s alive, and that’s what dancing is about — that’s all right with her.”

Channeling all of her ups and downs on Instagram has made her popular with nearly 100,000 followers. In the pandemic-driven social media dance boom, even established artists have found new footings. Though Heffington is commercially successful and has spent a decade building Sweat Spot (it shut down during the pandemic), he said the overwhelming, global response to SweatFest, his Instagram series, was life-changing. It redefined what was possible for him to rid dance of its intimidation factor, steer it away from perfection and help its followers find joy. (Substantial money was also raised for charity.)

“It’s not about how high you kick, your flexibility – none of those traditional rules or metrics matter in this new wave of thinking and getting people involved,” said Heffington, who planned to quietly return to teaching in person this month, telephone interview. “It’s only because you want to do it; that’s enough. Let’s lower the bar – let’s bury that bar – and allow everyone to come and just join in.”

In Los Angeles, where she lived until late last year, Trimbur had built a reputation as a community dance maven, hosting “Slightly Guided Dance Parties” at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art and even conjuring up viral dance videos before TikTok. (She’s also an actress, most recently playing a roller skating influencer in HBO Max’s dark comedy, Search Party.) For six years, she founded and directed a women’s dance group that performed at local basketball games, inspiring fierce devotion among fans and members.

This crew and other friends enveloped her as she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 and underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and then six reconstructive and related surgeries. She documented her treatment online, advocated for other cancer patients, and built a support network (about 500 people joined, she said) via video messaging app Marco Polo.

Between Trimbur’s health and the pandemic, the dance troupe disbanded. But after a Search Party shoot last summer, she fell in love with Brooklyn — “I’ve never felt so alive, you know? New York is magical” — she packed 15 years of her life on the West Coast and her two cockatiels and moved. Now she’s relaunching her career here, starting from a Bushwick loft, which she decorates in high-gloss black and white to resemble an ’80s nightclub. There are several disco balls, 1981 Vogue magazines fanned out on a Panther coffee table, and a boxy white TV/VCR that had been in her childhood bedroom. When I met her at home for an interview, she put on a VHS of Dirty Dancing.

She choreographs in the studio-style mirrors she’s installed and teaches a Zoom dance-fitness class — recently dubbed “apathetic aerobics,” for when you can’t handle the regular high-spirited workout. (It’s set to emo.)

Trimbur is also developing a TV show about her life for a cable network, she said, with July as the producer. They met when July cast her as a YouTube dancer in her 2011 film The Future; They later discovered a mutual affinity for real estate sales, and there they began secretly recording impromptu scenes.

“She’s a very special combination of innocence and bluntness,” said July. “Sometimes she says something and I just want to write it down because it’s perfectly worded, but not the therapy version of it, which is pretty rare these days.”

Trimbur grew up near Philadelphia, where her mother ran a dance studio – “When she answered the phone it was, ‘Pitter Patter Dance Studio, where everyone’s a star!'” Trimbur and her sister Colleen were exemplary students, learning all routines. But when Trimbur was about 12 years old, her mother became a Jehovah’s Witness, closed the studio and pulled her children out of school. Trimbur’s formal dance training largely ended by then, but she spent hours at home filming herself dancing — just like she does now.

“The way I think about dance is the version of myself that’s stuck in my living room just dancing to Mariah Carey,” she said. “It gives me joy to just be free and not think about what the right move is.” Still, New York’s diverse dance scene brings new opportunities, and Trimbur already envisions taking Broadway-style classes and concerts for Organize adults in school halls. (A couples dance for Valentine’s Day she organized for the Bell House in Brooklyn sold out quickly.)

Dancing through and after cancer was his own revelation. Hosting the Slightly Guided Dance Parties during chemotherapy, she sometimes had to step off the stage to regain her energy, she said, but she has no regrets about the performance. Dancing, she said, “is how I talk to myself.” She and Wood did the Fiona Apple briefly just before she had her breast implants removed; As dancers, Trimbur said, “they just felt like stapled Tupperware.” She also had her ovaries removed as part of the treatment, so the film is an emotional memento, one of her last appearances with her old body.

“It was real watching Angela dance — I totally understood her way of processing things,” Wood said.

Trimbur begins her in-person classes with students in a fetal position for a womb-like meditation, followed by an intimate listening to, say, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” It’s not uncommon for people to cry, she said.

She wants to rid them of those emotions when they start shaking: “Get weirder, girl, get weirder!” she praised in the class I was taking.

In another class, she instructed, “There’s a part in the song where you’re going to throw yourself on the floor like a toddler” and throw a tantrum — “but the face is cute.”

“I want to be able to get people laughing just by dancing without it being honk, honk,” she told me, mimicking a sloppy comedian with an air horn. In this Manhattan studio there was a sense of joyful abandon — I’ve rarely seen so many students smile between rehearsals — as the shrieks mingled with the giggles.

Your New York dancers are already excited. “It’s like church,” said Chelsy Mitchell, 32, a dance newbie who has been coming weekly since Trimbur started her Sunday classes and is an hour and a half from her upstate home. “Dance Therapy.”

Catherine McCafferty, a comedian and actress in her 20s, had the weight of 18 years of ballet and other dance training when she first entered Trimbur’s studio this afternoon. She’d come because she liked what she saw on Instagram, but she was also new to New York and nervous that she wouldn’t be able to keep up. Instead of feeling judged, she felt liberated. “The only eyes that are on you are a bunch of other people who want you to shine,” she said.

For Trimbur, this atmosphere of affirmation is paramount. “I get so frustrated when someone says something like ‘I can’t dance,’ or ‘I’m the worst,’ or ‘Nobody wants me to do that,'” she said. “It’s so sad because scientifically I know how happy you could be if you gave yourself permission to move.”

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