What the Pandemic Has Given Us

June 19, 2020

Given the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the dance field, it can be easy to get caught up in all that’s been taken away from us. But just focusing on the loss doesn’t offer the full picture of what’s actually happened.

Recently, I hopped on a Zoom call organized by Harkness Dance Center director Taryn K. Russell where an array of artists and admins from across the country answered the question, “What has this time given you?”

Although the conversation took place just before the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests throughout the country, a few of the themes that emerged remain relevant—some even more so.

A stronger sense of community

No one can deny that the dance world can feel incredibly competitive. It’s also isolating if you don’t have an artistic “home.” Alicia Delgadillo, a former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago member who went freelance this season, pointed out that, after spending the past year hunting down opportunities and running from one audition to the next, the pandemic put everyone in the same boat. “It was a sense of relief, in a weird way,” she admitted.

More than just a shared experience, the pandemic has led to connections that may not have been made otherwise. Those teaching online classes have been able to reach students they may never have encountered before. Forums like the very one organized by Harkness have brought together people who wouldn’t have met in our old world. Former colleagues who had fallen out of touch have found themselves now checking in regularly.

“I’m talking to new friends, and talking to people I barely get to see,” said Madison Hicks, a former L.A. Dance Project member who’s now pursuing her MFA at CalArts. Those connections even led to a new opportunity for her—she was asked to be a creative director for the Shut In Dance Film Fest. “I don’t think I would have ever been hired if not for quarantine,” she said.

Kristen Brogdon, director of programming at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop theater, added that not only are more organizations sharing ideas and strategies on how to get through this crisis, but artists are collaborating across countries on digital projects in ways they had never tried before. “Geographic boundaries are less relevant,” she said.

A push for change

“This has been a revealing time,” said choreographer Gregory Dolbashian, co-founder of the Dash Ensemble. “The way our industry is set up, the structures in place are not totally functional.” With everything shut down, many dance artists have realized how the systems we have provide little or no safety net, particularly for freelancers who’ve been left to tackle logistical and emotional (and financial) hurdles on their own.

As we rebuild, there’s hope the industry will rethink how dance gets made and funded so artists can be better supported. “How can we build things in a new way that respects everybody’s place in the creative process?” asked Brogdon, pointing out that artists haven’t always had a full voice in the conversation.

Since Black Lives Matter protests ramped up this month, more voices (in particular, white voices that had previously remained quiet) are questioning how we can create more equitable access for all races, and how we can shift the power dynamics to decenter the overwhelming whiteness throughout the dance industry.

“Hierarchy needs to be challenged,” said vice dean and artistic director of USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance Jodie Gates. “The field needs to shift from a presenter standpoint, an academic standpoint, a ballet company standpoint.”

Brogdon also shared that she’s been thinking about the environmental impact of touring, and how we could make dance performances less damaging to our climate. As we watch almost every dance performance online right now, it’s a chance to examine the way we share work across borders.

Healthy perspective

With our normal busyness at a standstill, many have used this time to reevaluate their priorities, and think about what is truly fulfilling to them.

Delgadillo mentioned that although she’d been ambitiously chasing after major opportunities like Broadway and film projects over the last year, she’s now realized that what makes her happiest is being part of a more intimate group of dancers. “I thrive in something smaller, something that brings me home,” she said.

Dolbashian, who’s spending the pandemic in Dallas, has realized that Texas might be a better environment for him. “Being a stubborn New Yorker, I felt guilty about leaving my family there, my home base, my team,” he said. But now he’s excited about the possibilities of perhaps contributing to a new community, and maybe having his own dance space once things open back up.

Time to be human

A dance career takes so much focus and determination that sometimes it can be hard to develop other sides of yourself. Alexandra Clair, who’s planning to soon move from Brooklyn to Israel, said that after spending a couple post-college years doing the freelance hustle, the lockdown has forced her to build a sense of herself apart from dance.

All it takes is a quick scroll through Instagram to see how many new hobbies dance artists have picked up. Some have even expanded into new career possibilities—Dolbashian, for instance, started EMT school. Others have used the time more internally to check in with what feeds their passion and who they want to be.

Even within their dance practice, some artists have found more fulfillment in dancing without the performance element of an in-person group class or rehearsal. “Because I’m by myself, I can play around more. Maybe the creation process can be a little more reckless,” said Hubbard Street dancer Alysia Johnson.

Being off has also meant rare time with family: Many artists spend most of their year in distant cities or touring the globe, and have to sacrifice holidays with their family for performances with their company. Yet over the past few months, many have flown home. “It’s a blessing I didn’t realize I’d get,” said Hicks.

Proof of the value of art

With typical distractions on pause, everyone—dancer or not—has relied on the work of artists to provide a sense of relief, Clair pointed out. Whether you’re spending more time reading books or watching films, we’re all constantly consuming content that’s been created by artists. “I hope people take that in, and realize why they need to support artists,” she said.