It’s 1:13 pm on a Sunday in Los Angeles, and four dozen women in knee pads are snaked around one another on the floor in the fetal position. One, in leggings printed with Billy Murray’s face, stands and watches over the rest. She calls out instructions and affirmations between verses of the self-love anthem of 2002, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” “Put your arms around yourself,” she shouts across the dance studio. “There’s only one person just like you.”
Angela Trimbur, a 37-year-old actor and the founder and captain of the L.A. City Municipal Dance Squad, is leading one of her troupe’s monthly community workshops at the Live Arts Los Angeles studio right off Eagle Rock Boulevard. The eight other members of the squad, a group of colorful creatives in graphic leggings, are curled up on the floor with the crowd.
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The ethos of the squad runs counter to everything one might expect of a crew composed mostly of actors, comedians and models dancing in Los Angeles. They love to perform, and their performances draw a crowd. But in a town and in industries that can feel overwhelmingly lonely, high-pressure and competitive, particularly for women, and particularly leading up to the #MeToo era, the group is more about creating bonds within itself and building up its members than putting on a show. Like so many women, their bodies come under scrutiny in their careers and daily lives. But here, in this studio, they can move freely — sometimes absurdly — together.
No one in the room is particularly skilled; Trimbur puts the squad’s average level at around a six out of 10. But through exercises that range from wacky to earnest, like the “Beautiful” meditation, the squad members help each other and their workshop attendees to shake off their anxieties and take risks in a supportive environment. If everyone else in the room is going to wildly slide across the floor on her knee pads ala 80’s dance movies, you can, too. “If you mess up, who cares?” Trimbur tells them.
“It’s like therapy, a workout, a dance party and recess at the same time,” says Sarah Utterback, a 36-year-old actor participating in the workshop. She’s dying for a spot on the team.
“Your parents did the best they could when they raised you,” Trimbur calls out over the sea of prone bodies. She is speaking to herself as much as to the women at her feet. When she was a fifth grader growing up outside of Philadelphia, her mother closed her dance studio, pulled Trimbur and her sister out of school, and converted the family to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Trimbur kept her love of dance hidden in the safety of her bedroom. When no one else was home, a neighbor sometimes tossed TLC and Fiona Apple cassette tapes to her window.
Decades later, Trimbur rebirthed her dancing career with the online video series Dance Like Nobody’s Watching, in which she filmed herself dancing freely in public spaces (the Laundromat, airport baggage claim, anywhere that felt brazen). She wanted to snap herself out of a funk over a breakup by doing something scary. It foreshadowed her impulse in 2014 to post an open call on social media for anyone who wanted to come learn some dance moves to perform at halftime for her community basketball league’s games. Since then, the squad has developed a presence in town, performing at other sports events like roller derbies and even the Girls Build L.A. Summit in December 2017, where they shared the stage with Hillary Clinton.
The mood of the squad then, as now, is inspired by childhood memories of choreographing routines in the back yard with friends to perform for the parents before dinner. The dances Trimbur and squad member Bonnie Hernandez, a social worker, dream up are “silly” and “irreverent,” they often say. (The choreography at the workshop includes a move where one girl lifts the legs of her partner and mimics changing her diaper.) They dances are not sexy, nor particularly athletic. No one is here to get “in shape.” But beyond their quirkiness, the routines also channel something highly specific: Trimbur is rewriting her childhood — now with a crew of adult women, each with her own reasons for joining in. Above all, it’s a chance to play.
Kate Hollowell, 32, lost both her parents to cancer when she was in her early 20s. She moved to Los Angeles from New York City for a job in fashion feeling scared of life, then found the squad. “All of the sudden I was with these girls who had no guard up, who were super unafraid to mess up and just welcoming and themselves,” she says. “It took time, but who I am today is who I was before the tragedy.” Hollowell says the dance squad gave her permission to have fun again.
Sydney Schafer, a 23-year-old model and actor, is five months pregnant with a baby boy. She told the squad — the first supportive, non-competitive crew of women friends she’s had — as soon as she found out. “I think they’re all vicariously living through me,” she says. “I just feel an overwhelming amount of support.”
A few weeks after the workshop, Trimbur discovered she has breast cancer and will soon undergo a double mastectomy and begin chemotherapy. All the current and past members of the squad have created a spreadsheet of her medical appointments, making sure that she has a friend to go with her to each one. They’ve shared a GoFundMe campaign another friend launched to help with the bills, and plan to start a hashtag on social media where people can post videos of themselves dancing to lift her spirits as she undergoes treatment. The squad will pause their workshops while Trimbur recovers, but will continue to rally around her.
“I don’t feel as close to my family as I would like to be,” Trimbur says. “This feels like unconditional love, and that’s really rare.”
See more stories from this project, Women Across America: A TIME Road Trip.