I’m a Broadway Dancer Facing the End of Life on Broadway. Now What?

October 8, 2020

Before the theater industry vanished overnight, I was a dancer in the Broadway company of Chicago. When Broadway shuttered on March 12, I filed for unemployment and fled New York City. Today, when the Broadway League announced that Broadway would remain closed through May of 2021, I was still 2,000 miles from home, sitting in an apartment in downtown Salt Lake City, watching the sun go down in an orange blaze behind the smoke from California and Colorado that had colonized the Utah skies for weeks. The U.S. president announced a halt to stimulus negotiations. I was going to lose my unemployment benefits in December, my health insurance soon after that. And with every day that passed in this new city, it seemed more and more likely that I was never going to dance on Broadway again.

Leading up to the ban on large public gatherings in New York State in March, rumors had been circulating through the dark wings and mildewy dressing rooms of Broadway for weeks. The show would close for a day or two, someone had heard; it would be an act of God and we would get a few extra days of paid vacation. Someone else was certain the virus would keep tourists from coming, the show would shutter for good, and live theater would disappear.

But I assumed everything would go on as it always had. After all, New York would not be New York without Broadway, Broadway would not be Broadway without our long-running, sleek and slithering Chicago, and I wouldn’t be myself without dancing. To become something other than a dancer would be like surgically altering my prominent nose; that is, it would be possible, but painful, and could potentially render me unrecognizable to my family, my friends and, most of all, to myself.

Then came the email from the Chicago producers, requesting the cast’s presence on a conference call.

“This is just a blip,” Barry Weissler told us. “The show will reopen on April 12!”

Opinion pieces and also my mom were saying that theater would be the last thing to return from a pandemic, if it returned at all. “Time to start thinking about what you’re going to do with your life,” my mom said.

I went to pick up my personal belongings from the theater. At my light-bulb–lined spot in the wedge-shaped dressing room I shared with three other chorus boys, there was a toothbrush, a bottle of mouthwash, a stick of deodorant, a few photographs and old Christmas cards, and my mesh costume and worn-down leather show shoes, which were not mine to take. I looked around and wondered what I had traveled to 49th Street for. After going to work at the Ambassador Theater six nights a week for 13 years, the things I wanted to take with me—the show, the cast, a sense of normalcy—were nowhere. I did have a bike locked in the stage-door alleyway. I decided to take the bike with me, because the subway seemed like it would never again be a good idea, and left everything else.

Being a dancer has always meant knowing that whatever I have will not be mine for long. It has always meant a life of waiting for the audition that will not pan out, the show that will close without warning, the injury that will cut short a career. I knew I was signing up for a life of impermanence and uncertainty when I moved to New York City at 22.

Author Brian Spitulnik performing in Chicago

Courtesy Spitulnik

But I booked Chicago the summer I turned 25, and it was easy to imagine that a better, more stable life had replaced the precarious one I’d been expecting. Chicago was the show referred to up and down the rialto as a “government job,” the show that wouldn’t close, the show where dancers went to die, or at least to save for retirement. I had gone from cater waitering and auditioning six calls a week to doing exactly what I’d always wanted to do, in the exact show in which I’d wanted to do it. A paycheck began appearing in my bank account every Thursday, I had a pension and my 401(k) ballooned. I started drinking top-shelf tequila after the show with an array of new friends in Hairspray, Mama Mia and The Producers. I was certain it was all too good to last and, simultaneously, that it would never end.

Years went by and I watched as, one by one, all those shows that had once seemed indomitable went dark. My new friends stopped drinking from the top shelf and disappeared to look for new gigs or new careers. But not me. I was in Chicago and Chicago would survive anything.

After leaving the theater, I biked back to my apartment and received a text from a friend who seemed to know things. He said the mayor was closing down the bridges and tunnels. No one would be able to get into New York and no one would be able to get out. My partner, an actor and expert catastrophist named Colby, said, “We’re leaving the city immediately.”

My instinct in a crisis, like any Jewish boy, is to hurry home to be fed matzo ball soup by my parents. But the scientists were saying we couldn’t go home without risking my parents’ lives, so we messaged a friend to see if his house in North Carolina was vacant. It was. We rented a car with a two-week term, loaded up a few sweaters and pairs of jeans, asked our neighbor to water our plants, and set off down I-95. We felt like Thelma and Louise, on the run. We looked like Ozzie and Harriet, tense and entirely unprepared.

Alone together on a remote stretch of sand dunes and wood-slatted homes in the Outer Banks, Colby and I quickly sequenced through the three stages of quarantine. First, delirium: Everyone we know is drinking wine every night. We can drink wine every night! The CARES Act was passed, and with the additional $600 a week for each of us, we would be able to hold on to our 650-square-foot New York apartment until our jobs returned in April.

Delusion was next: I’m going to start intermittent fasting! I’m going to write a book! I’m going to post regularly on Instagram!

“June” was the text I received from a castmate who’d read that the Broadway League was suspending performances through June 7. Then my dad began running a fever at home in Maryland. He had shortness of breath, a dry, pummeling cough, and was too exhausted to speak. Over Zoom, while invisible funeral attendants typed in heart emojis and complained about the audio, I watched a childhood friend shake with sobs over the casket of her father, who had been healthy three weeks earlier, then died of COVID-19. An email from the Chicago producers said the show wouldn’t be back before the fall. It was around then that the third stage of quarantine set in: despair.

I switched from wine to tequila. My dad tested negative for COVID and took a round of antibiotics for pneumonia. I decided it would be a good time to expand my cooking repertoire beyond stir-fry, but I couldn’t figure out the grill. I discovered I no longer had a reason to practice restraint—the show wouldn’t open for months, I would have time enough to worry about flexing in my mesh costume again—so I ate family-sized bags of tortilla chips every day until my mouth became swollen and numb. I took a Zoom dance class every Sunday from my beloved childhood teacher and felt, for three hours, like a person I recognized. Then an email came in saying that Broadway ticket sales were being refunded through January 2021, though the cast was whispering in side-texts that mid-March or Whenever-There’s-a-Vaccine were more likely return dates. “Better build an ark, honey,” said one Chicago castmate. “The rains are coming.”

I found it impossible not to believe that Broadway, that fabulous invalid, would soon stretch its gams and strut its stuff again. But reading about the daily case numbers and rising death toll, I wasn’t sure how long I could tell myself that theater was necessary. Broadway generates over $1 billion in revenue each season, provides an estimated 87,000 jobs and, it could be argued, brings joy to millions. But essential? We watched for months as the world applauded the frontline workers saving lives and risking their own. The standing ovations we had once come to expect at the end of every Broadway performance now felt, by comparison, slightly grotesque. Work for everyone on Broadway—from dancers to spot operators to doormen to wardrobe supervisors to company mangers—had evaporated. But no one had died because our theaters were empty. No one had died because I could no longer do the only thing I knew how to do.

Over a Zoom call with the Chicago cast—which veered from manic to melancholy and back again—everyone seemed intent on convincing everyone else that they were thriving in this pandemic. I learned that two or three members of our company had been infected, then recovered, and one had confused her COVID symptoms with a hangover. One cast member was going into real estate. One had taken a corporate job in management. One had been offered a high-paying position selling doors, which was not the most improbable thing I’d heard that week. Others were editing videos, getting yoga certifications, raising kids, moving to New Jersey. Most were beginning new lives. All were aware that they may never dance on a Broadway stage again.

I wondered, but didn’t ask, if, like mine, my castmates’ bodies had already grown thicker and felt shorter and moved slower. I wondered if, like me, they didn’t recognize themselves without choreography to move through and other people to move with; if, like me, they were hoping this wasn’t the moment they’d always known would come: the moment they would have to redefine who they are and who they’re going to be.

Scanning that checkerboard of faces on my computer screen, I realized how well I knew the physical essence of each member of the cast. I missed them, sort of. These vain, goofy show people were my people. I missed how the proximity of what we do, the collision of our bodies onstage, means we know each other’s scents and we know when someone’s switched deodorants. We know whose palms get slippery when nervous. We know who has lost or gained weight, not by the way we look in our see-through costumes, but by the feel of our bodies balanced and lifted and slammed against each other night after night after night. When we dance, the distance between us is zero. We are one organism, an interdependent system. That system was now broken, and without those other bodies, I had no idea who to be in mine.

Broadway will return eventually. Of course it will. But who will return with it? Which shows will make it through this year and a half or more of suspension? Will I have aged out of Chicago by the time there’s a vaccine? Will my body remember how to ooze and amoeba and split and slink when it’s safe to be less than six feet apart? Or will it not matter because by then—whenever “then” is—I’ll have found a way to move on?

When squabbling between the House and the Senate spelled the end of the $600 unemployment topper, Colby and my combined income shrank to $704 a week. After paying our $2,552 New York rent, we had $264 left for everything else. We were already pulling from savings to pay for the extended rental car, which, we rationalized, was the cost of maintaining our mental health. A few teaching and writing gigs had popped up, each lasting a day or a week or two, and given us a fleeting sense of purpose as well as some much needed cash. But as the virus continued to rage, and with no steady work or stimulus package in sight, Colby and I had to figure out how, precisely, we were going to survive; or at least how we were going to keep the apartment we were renting on the Upper West Side.

Our time in the Outer Banks came to an end in August. We left to make way for the home’s owner and family to enjoy what was theirs. We felt we were, once again, on the run, and leaving behind what wasn’t ours to take, which was everything. We made a plan: I would return to New York for 48 hours, clear out our drawers and closets for an as yet undiscovered subletter, then meet up with Colby out West, to Salt Lake City, where rents were cheaper and neighbors remained a lawn’s distance away. We posted photos of our New York apartment online and tried to make our need to sublet sound like an adventure rather than what it was, which was a necessity.

I flew back to New York, into the new terminal at LaGuardia. Outside, it was an oddly humidity-less August day. Watching the city go by from the back of a cab, I wondered why the streets that had always felt so expansive and vivid now felt claustrophobic and airless, until I realized I was panting shallowly behind my mask.

At first glance, it could have been any other afternoon in any other New York summer, except that everyone was wearing a mask and lunch was being eaten in the bike lanes. But the longer I looked, the more I realized how for every table and umbrella in the street there was a vacant storefront or boarded-up shop on the next corner. And the people—it could have been my own projection, but the city seemed slower than I’d ever seen it. No one was moving at the usual New York pace. No one was darting on and off the sidewalk to get around someone else, no one was sprinting for the bus. I decided it was either the blanket heaviness of living in a pandemic or it was simply that no one had anywhere in particular to be.

Entering my apartment, the hallway seemed to have contracted, taking on the dimensions of a dream. On the fridge I found a Save the Date for a wedding that would not happen in October and a dry-cleaning receipt from March 10. The mirror hanging in the living room had slumped to the floor, taking a good chunk of the wall with it.

As I sorted stacks of accumulated mail, I tried not to let my mind cycle through the infinite loop of “ifs”: if we can find a subletter, if we can stretch our savings, if they approve a new stimulus package, if we can find work, if they find a vaccine. I tried instead to imagine how maybe, out West, I would stumble upon a version of myself no longer defined by the need to move and the urge to collide with other bodies in front of an audience. It seemed possible that, away from New York, in a place where Broadway could never exist, I could find a new life and finally leave behind the bone-deep compulsion to dance.