By sheer coincidence, Lindy West was on the radio as I drove to my first Pony Sweat class at L.A.'s Live Arts studio. As the body positive activist made a compelling argument for reclaiming the word "fat," I drew closer to confronting my feelings about my own body and what it could do as I got set to enter this dance-aerobics world created Emilia Richeson. As the well-known internet saying goes, “God, grant me the self-confidence of a mediocre white man.” But in that moment, confidence meant swallowing my fear and trying to quiet the voice in my head asking: What if I, and the thighs I forever wish were a few inches smaller, totally suck at this?
It’s not that I’m not body positive… when it comes to other people’s bodies. But for as long as I can remember, one of my main goals has been to downplay my particular sack of flesh. I do enjoy exercising as a way to break up the monotony that comes with sitting in front of a computer all day—but usually not via a method that calls attention to a skill set I don’t possess, like dancing. So Pony Sweat presented a specific challenge for me. When I tell Richeson this, she sympathizes. She explains that, even after having taught since 2009, she can feel intimidated when she attends other people’s classes. At my shock—no one who sees Richeson teach would think she's lacking boldness—she points out much of her confidence comes from being the one who invents the steps.
“I will wholeheartedly tell people that I am a person who has run on fear for most of my life,” she confesses. “I’m a fearful worrywart. A rule follower. ‘You guys, we’re going to get in trouble!’ I’ve been like that since I was a little girl. This is an exercise in practicing not giving a fuck. And also giving a fuck so hard.”
It’s true, individuality rules at a Pony Sweat. There is Spandex. There are crop tops. There’s flannel, tattoos, and rock star hair. And although I can’t prove it, a few attendees look like me, fresh out of bed save for an extra swipe of deodorant. Early into the workout, during which both David Bowie and Die Antwoord make soundtrack cameos, Richeson tells us to “fuck the moves, feel the music.” Shocking, not so much for the clutch-the-pearls language, but because, seriously, have you ever heard an exercise instructor encourage you to throw out her choreography if it doesn’t suit you?
Surprisingly (for me—not Richeson who beams when I tell her this later), this permission, to be completely unapologetic about moving, really works. I twirl. I punch. I even fling my arms out in a fervor (and am instantly forgiven for winging the woman next to me). I have seen the light, felt the heat, and cursed myself for wearing roughly two-thirds too much clothing. (The “sweat” part of the class title is not to be undersold.) Even though I’m not sure if it’s me or the endorphins talking, the word “empowerment” seems to have taken on a new sheen. As Richeson explains, that’s exactly the point.
“Pony Sweat came out of a time when I didn’t feel like a gorgeous or powerful human being at all,” she admits. “I started doing it, and I do feel more empowered. It takes practice. Like when we’re doing the Swimmers and the Superman, that shit is so silly! Exercise is so silly. Moving your hips around in some spaces is considered sexy or sexual, but when you add lightness and humor, and you realize you like to move this way, it’s all so silly. This feels good, but it’s also funny and childlike, too.”
Therein lies the power of Pony Sweat. It’s unapologetically goofy. Unapologetically sexy. And unapologetically fun. But sometimes, in order to harness the power of all that, you first have to lose yourself in a like-minded crowd.
“Pelvic thrusting was my main move as a kid,” Richeson laughs. “When I started Pony, it went back to that '80s aerobics. There was a lot of pelvic thrusting… We all have different abilities. A lot of us have a lot of tightness there. Moving that way can be [emotionally] tricky for some people. How do you find the safeness?”
It’s hard to say one class has fully changed the way I feel about my body. But there was something about the Pony Sweat experience, 30 people in one room simply not giving a damn, that did resonate. I didn’t walk out the door with Lindy West-levels of confidence, but after a full hour of working out, I did feel like I had sweated away a few useless layers of self-protection. I’m still not exactly winning the self-acceptance game, but I think I’m ready to try.