Before every Pony Sweat class, Emilia Richeson reminds the group gathered at her L.A. dance aerobics studio that “Pony Sweat is fiercely noncompetitive.” With the ground rules set, she kicks out the jams and embarks on an hourlong class of body-positive, dance-based aerobics that would make Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons proud. That’s exactly what Richeson was aiming for when she started Pony Sweat out of her bedroom back in 2014. “Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I always loved aerobics, and have always been a big fan of a lot of ’80s bands, so there was already an aesthetic that is close my heart,” the 34-year-old dance instructor tells Fast Company. “Richard Simmons was always a role model in my family.”
Richeson, a “queer punk ray of sunshine,” according to a press release, started attending Simmons’s dance classes when she first moved to L.A. in 2006. “He’s been such a huge influence on me. He created an inclusive space for people to express joy through dance,” says Richeson. “It was so powerful watching people open up and share where they were at, what they were struggling with, and then all of us dancing together.”
Richeson used exercise as a way to battle her depression, but she struggled to find a workout routine that she enjoyed, especially since Simmons had retired from his studio. A few friends encouraged her to come up with her own dance aerobics routine instead, and soon Pony Sweat was born. “Pony Sweat the class came from a real need for connection and inspiration,” she explains. “Dancing to music I love makes me like being in my body. I want to offer a safe space for folks that feel that way, too.”
She started putting on a weekly class of high-energy aerobic workouts soundtracked by a mix that ranges from the Cure to Santigold to Nine Inch Nails, Robyn, Prince, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and posting on Instagram about her #danceaerobicsisforfeminists. “It was meant to be a venue for friends to come together and sweat it out to music we loved,” she says. “Eventually, folks started telling other folks, and I started teaching more classes to more people!”
Her inclusive classes (“It’s for EveryBody,” she says) have spread throughout Los Angeles as exercise junkies look for a way to whip up a sweat while having fun.
But don’t call it a major business enterprise yet. Richeson is adamant that Pony Sweat is and will remain a labor of love, built on a “punk/DIY ethos.” She is also generally opposed to the idea of fitness as a money-making industry. “It makes us feel like the next trendy workout will be the solution to achieving idealized body types that are sexist and racist, and promote the oppression of folks outside that ‘ideal,'” she says.
She adds that the promise to new instructors and trainers of immediate steady income is not always realistic, and that can put pressure on instructors to see financial gain as their only metric for success. That said, she is slowly and organically growing Pony Sweat. She currently teaches classes at three locations, hosting 10-45 students per class, and is training a new teacher to help expand further. She is also hoping to reach people outside of the Los Angeles area, particularly in places where body-positive alternatives don’t yet exist.
That mission is directly from the heart of the Pony Sweat’s everyone-is-welcome ethos. “I want it to be a space for anyone who wants to belong to it,” says Richeson, adding that there’s no experience necessary to get in on the fun. “Pony Sweat is a practice in im-perfection, which I think is a very radical and necessary thing for us to practice.”
In the meantime, she’s launching her first official workout video, Pony Sweat: Volume 1. The nearly hourlong video will let people around the world throw on their favorite leotards and leg warmers and channel their inner Jane Fondas in their own living rooms while working out to Richeson’s routine. If sweating to the beat isn’t your thing, though, Richeson doesn’t mind. “I hope everyone finds a way to like being in their body,”she says. “I think that moving your body is the best way in, so whatever way that is for you—do that!”