I currently have 500-plus unread emails in my inbox. It looks like the opening credits of a Star Wars movie: like a scrolling galaxy far, far away. Never mind that 50 percent are composed of mindless politician mailing lists, weird Groupon-esque "deals," and subscriptions to things drenched in the best of intentions—I still have a lot of emails, including several teaching inquiries, panel invites and small, artistic gigs as our industry creeps its way back from the dead with all the hope and fervor of a Netflix documentary in the "woke" collection.
You'd think with a year at home, I'd have some time to unsubscribe. But, no, I'll still need a week before I can be counted on to read an email from your new basement podcast or your white-led institution I've never worked with before that suddenly wants a "diverse dance teacher." Perhaps two weeks. Maybe even a month.
Let's be very clear: I believe that artists are some of the strongest members of society. We manage to create new ideas, revenue streams, gathering spaces and mindful projects with literally anything that's thrown at us. Not to mention, we also manage to express poignant perspectives with every hand we're dealt. It's absolutely beautiful how art will, without fail, be the reason this industry survives and the catalyst, if not the entirety, of how we ultimately thrive.
And yet people keep ignoring that we are still trying to survive a global pandemic. I've been in my living space for the better part of 13 months, and your new diversity department keeps inviting me to teach a Zoom class that "takes the participants on a journey to the sacred lands of India." No thanks, I'm good. And I cannot get back to you about that by Friday. It's already Tuesday!
I understand the urgency. I really, really do. At Dance/NYC, where I work part-time as the symposium coordinator, we are continuously in conversation about best practices in providing our constituents with the guidance and infrastructural support to somewhat resume their necessary programming. As a field, our organizations, institutions, dance companies and touring troupes cannot recover without engagement, and that is where we, the artists, come in. This is what many of us have been waiting for. This is what we've been deprived of for more than a year. This is what feeds us: the opportunity to create.
Now the vaccine is becoming a reality for most, businesses are reopening, Broadway announced its comeback and studios are resuming classes. But are we really going to pretend like this year just didn't happen? Is returning to "normal" even plausible, let alone appropriate? What's the goal now?
At this year's Dance/NYC Symposium, curator and dramaturg Melanie George asked, "If you take achievement away, what's left?" I was co-producing and I remember needing to set up the next cue of the broadcast when I froze in my spot to think about that. I felt my ancestors screaming through my soul. Don't ever ask a South Asian woman and daughter of first-generation immigrants (who was raised by parents of India's post-partition years and grandparents of British colonialism) such a blasphemous question. Achievement is always the goal, and creating a legacy of achievements is the main duty of one's lifetime.
Even through severe depressive episodes that lasted weeks on end; and rehabilitating myself after a year of not creating work; and discovering The Nap Ministry on Instagram (hallelujah); and making peace with my twice-a-month panic attacks; and co-parenting our 9-year-old championing the confines of virtual school; and having to move apartments in the middle of a pandemic; and producing workspace documents from my bathroom; and taking a two-week intensive on social justice choreography from my living room; and manipuri and kathak training as well as a professional-development course from a dark room that wasn't the home office yet; and the random nightmares of my parents' demise because of all the science-denying conspiracy theorists; and studying all of artist-activist Sydnie Mosley's commentary on literally everything and anything—I still don't know what it means to take "achievement" off the table. Woof.
And this, my friends, is why I cannot answer your email when you want me to.
I need you to consider the fact that I'm mourning profound loss: of practicing my craft, of access to space, of receiving mental health help, of being able to train properly, and of being able to create movement. I need you to consider the fact that although I've had the privilege of an admin job through this pandemic, I chose my job as the priority over artistic gigs because I work for an organization that counts on me to act on my administrative capabilities in full, pays me fairly, on time and for all mandatory trainings, and considers my humanity through it all while also making me better equipped to function in the field that I love. I need you to consider that my engagement on social media is my "me" time, and so you might see me active there and still not get a response to your email. I need you to consider that your drop-in dance-class model that pays me by donations only (and throws in free marketing—thanks?) doesn't even cover my family's groceries. I need you to consider that I'm exhausted from working in dance for 15 years straight. I need you to consider that Arkansas is probably getting away with anti-trans health-care bills, mass shootings are happening regularly, Georgia doesn't want Black people to vote again, U.S. governors can't keep their hands to themselves, people still think they own my vagina and womb, our immigration system is still based on a carceral system, Black and brown people are disproportionately and negatively impacted by nearly everything entitled white people do, Asian people are getting beaten and violated in the streets, cable TV consumed us with a 4-week public trial of a police officer who murdered a Black man in plain sight on camera, and then, on the same day of a long-awaited conviction, another 15-year old child was shot and killed by the police. On the same day."
If you truly wanted to have me in your space, then you'd know this about me: I can do more than produce a digital dance or teach a "world dance" class for you. No shade, but I can do more than talk about intersectional feminism and Politics 101 on the podcast you suddenly debuted because you discovered Zoom's audio capture and GarageBand. If you really cared about me, you wouldn't pressure me to answer you immediately after your organization just finalized its first seasonal, post-pandemic programming.
The insidious nature of white supremacy delusion and its pesky cousin, capitalism, has socialized us to feel indebted to you at all times. It has manipulated us into thinking that without your offer, we will fail as artists. It has convinced us that we will never be happy in this body or with the knowledge that we've already embodied in our practices. It has us twisted up in knots about replying to your email "in time"—even though you only gave us three days to think it over. How dare you?
As musician Heather Chelan has said all over the internet, "The pandemic is not over just because you're over it." Artists need to feel supported about returning to the field in a real way.
I'm touched that you thought of me and took the time to invite me. You can trust that you'll one day receive a thoughtful response. Believe it or not, I am rooting for you to open your doors, virtual or in real life, with all the success and adoration that you deserve for your service to the field. We all deserve at least that for what we've collectively been through.
That being said, I'll still need you to wait until I can get to your email.