Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it just changes form. When the spread of Covid-19 was officially deemed a pandemic and the performance world ground to a whiplash-inducing halt, all that creative fire had to go somewhere. And so, with dancers and choreographers and musicians and comedians and puppeteers and every stripe of live performer confined to their homes, the energy funneled almost immediately online. Cultural criticism followed close in its wake, ruminating over the explosion of live-streamed classes and prerecorded performances online, and offering up compassionate profiles of artists coping with isolation, financial states that went from teetering to toppling, cooped up and facing an uncertain future.
There’s no telling at this point when we will convene in the theaters again. But the redirection of creative energy from the big, shared room to a bunch of networked small, private rooms, has transformed the way we experience people dancing. An art form that is widely considered intimidating, hard to understand, niche, is being shared and cultivated in a way that is profoundly personal and, literally, meeting people where they’re at. Amidst anxiety of the uncertain future, we have an opportunity to move together in the strange, suspended now.
With studios closed, scores of dancers and choreographers are offering classes via Instagram Live or Zoom or other conferencing software, for free or pay-what-you-can donation. It would be near impossible to list all the classes out there (and there’s sure to be dozens more by the time this goes to print); @dancingalonetogether on Instagram posts a daily lineup of the high-profile dancers offering class, and at Newcity we’ve done our best to keep up with the efforts of Chicago-based artists in our “Out of an Abundance of Concern” resource page.
With artists streaming from every time zone and in every genre, dance classes are available around the clock. Instagram Live keeps videos up for twenty-four hours and Instagram TV makes them somewhat more lasting. With this wealth of knowledge pouring online, I’ve taken a class nearly every day since going into quarantine March 14. Staring at my laptop screen or my phone propped against a stack of books, I’ve followed along as best I could to members of José Limón and Martha Graham’s companies. I learned a snippet of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” from company member Hope Boykin that proved a balm for the soul, and a simplified version of Bob Fosse’s “Manson Trio” from “Pippin” that brought some much-needed sass to my day. I’ve salsa-ed with Lucky Plush and I look forward to spiraling with Molly Shanahan. All this moving, though confined to the five square feet I’ve cleared in my living room and done by myself, staring at a screen, has unexpectedly opened a new window into our collective generosity and humanity.
Let me pause to make something clear: I’m not a professional dancer. Never have been. But I’ve loved dance and done it in some capacity since I could walk. I was a shy, self-conscious kid… except, magically, when moving to music. I lived for the jazz class I took at our community center each week and watched whatever performances I could find. In suburban Detroit in the eighties and nineties, that was pretty much limited to PBS specials and Gene Kelly movies on VHS. That kid is still alive and well, eager to try new ways of experiencing my body in motion. Never has there been such an abundance of affordable education in every way of moving imaginable. And never have I felt so strangely close to many dancers I’ve never met.
The most emotionally raw performance on stage, with its costuming, lights and theatrical trappings, is a different type of vulnerability than broadcasting from one’s home, with whatever lighting is available, with pets walking through the frame and kids running up to hug legs or wave at the camera. I now know that my tai chi teacher’s cat walks down to the basement at 8:30 every morning. I know New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck is using her kitchen counter as a barre. I know Dance Center Evanston instructor Kara Roseborough is, like me, using a chair and, although I’m lousy at ballet, it’s a comfort, a connecting thread. We’re used to seeing professional dancers in the finely calibrated context of the theater; watching them work and share in their homes makes them more, well, human. It’s an act of openness and generosity that I find touching every time I log in to a quarantine class.
To fellow shy, self-conscious, anxious people—and in the current circumstances, who doesn’t fall into that last category?—to those silent multitudes who yearn to dance but don’t want to be seen doing it, I say there’s no better time to dance than now. The aura of the studio can be a thrill, but it can also be damned intimidating. In our living rooms and kitchens we’re constrained by couches and counters and ceiling fans, but we’re liberated from the tyranny of the mirror, from measuring ourselves against fellow students, from worrying about what we look like and the fear of what others might think about it. We can let go, move, and explore, unfettered, new ways to do it. And, if we’re able, throw a few bucks to artists sorely in need of income.
Life is movement, and we need to keep moving. Like everyone, I eagerly await the moment we can gather again on a dance floor, settle expectantly into theater seats, and line up in the studio to leap and roll across Marley floors. But I want to remain curious about this moment and what it is capable of holding. To borrow a seasonal metaphor: new seeds germinate in small containers. And like a patio garden, constrained spaces can hold great abundance and beauty. The beauty of this moment seems to be gentleness and care. Dancing at home, alone together, has given us a new way to experience gentleness toward ourselves and each other.