In 2018 I wrote an article about how Instagram was changing the value system of the dance world. It took to task the hyper-sexualization of the body's facility, the fetishism of dance tricks. The article sparked an international dialogue and people weighed in, shared and reposted so much that it was the second most popular article on Dance Magazine's website that year.
Although the field agreed with the sentiment, not much changed. People were still posing half naked in window sills, dodging traffic to get a shot, stretching, turning and foot modeling, and liking and reposting it all.
Often I have likened the process of reforming the culture of the arts (which includes diversity, equity and inclusion) to the process of addiction recovery. It is part emotional and spiritual enlightenment, part accountability and part behavior modification. Also, the first step is admitting you have a problem. I have even created my own 12 Steps of Cultural Recovery which I presented at the Dutch National Ballet's 2019 Positioning Ballet conference in Amsterdam.
Although artistic and school directors, professional dancers and students alike agreed that Instagram content was an indicator that culturally "we have a problem," we continued to create the same images, continued to like, heart, share and tag. The thing they say about recovery is that you have to hit rock bottom.
With the shuttering of schools and theaters, the canceling of tours and the sudden impossibility of performing or watching the art of professional dance live, as everyone was forced to retreat to their respective abodes, we all met up online. The truth is we were already there. But now isolated, with more time on our hands and a mandate to socially distance, it was the best way to connect, commune, console and to continue to work.
As companies scrambled to salvage something of shortened seasons and new works never to be debuted, the digital space became the outlet that allowed all those trees falling in the empty woods to be heard.
In an effort to stay in shape and be ready to come back in what was naively projected as two weeks, dancers began clinging to the backs of chairs and countertops to give themselves class. The digital space being the first language of Millennials and Gen Alphas, it did not take long for dancers to transform their living rooms into remote dance studios through Instagram live. Literally overnight, the exhibitionistic nature of Instagram was sublimated from being mainly a tool of narcissistic self-promotion (to be sure, it still is) into what could be the highest form of itself: a tool for education, nurturing an authentic community.
Now instead of jetéing across streets or showing themselves off looking wistful and half naked, some of the world's premiere dancers are posting videos of themselves doing or giving at-home class, offering tips and advice for how to maintain your strength, flexibility and technique while on lockdown.
My all-too-frequent Insta scrolls have revealed more posts about the realities of what a life in dance really looks like. It's not surprising that during this period the tone of content overall has become more thoughtful. The one thing a crisis is good for is creating instantaneous clarity of who and what is important; wants and needs are separated like chaff from wheat. The things you take for granted like traveling and meeting for a drink, things you complain about like public transportation and traffic, and just the mundane normalcy of life like running errands and grocery shopping become extraordinarily precious. They seem to be distilled to their essence. For dancers, that includes taking class.
Stripped of tiaras, costumes, makeup and stage lights, what we are left with is the dance, the art itself. The repetition, the tedium, the punctiliousness of technique, the moving through space, the muscular musicality. In truth this is what the sweat and strain is about. The diligent and deliberate care of the form, and the bodies of the people who do it are what's important. Without that, there would be nothing to market, to sell, to commercialize. The coronavirus has stripped dance of its pomp, circumstance, its rules and traditions, of what is correct attire, comportment and grooming.
Internationally, one of the ongoing conversations in diversity, equity and inclusion has been exposure, access and opportunity, firstly clarifying the difference between them, and solving for the solution of inequity. The internet has always supported exposure, but now with every genre of dance school and all kinds of independent artists providing classes, the concept of access has certainly broadened.
In one fell swoop, dance is getting a glimpse of what democratization would look like. Granted, gripping the back of a sofa on a parquet floor or rug, trying to avoid knocking over lamps is not ideal. But it does shake, if not shatter, some of the paradigms that have been held about how we get dance to people, and get people to dance.
The world itself is in the midst of a reboot. Mother Earth is fed up with us, and we have been sent to our rooms to think about what we have done to her and to one another. During this pause, the dance community should take the time to take a good hard look at itself, examine the cracks, and shine a light within them to see what and who have fallen through.
As we emerge, the landscape will be unrecognizable. Economically and spiritually, we will have to rebuild. This time will be fertile with possibilities. There are choices to be made, and one of them is who is invited in to make them.
We can be better than courageous; we can be righteous and take the learnings from the workshops, conferences and consultancies, along with the newly-conceived "core values" and "mission statements" painstakingly guided and crafted, funded by grants and foundations, and take them out of the theoretical and actualize. We will have an unprecedented opportunity to choose again, to redesign systems and practices that reflect the ethos of dance.
Let's be clear: Along with the IG classes and Insta-tips, the PR masterminds are still hard at work as content quickly gets codified and "guests" get scheduled for IG chats. A telltale sign is when they tell you just how many people tuned in. Even when providing a well-needed service, they remain acutely aware of the potential of building their brands.
On some level this dulls the shine. However, we are talking about performers, who are highly competitive and the reality is that it generates income which is paramount, particularly in these times. As per usual, those who were previously privileged stand to get the bigger boost with nationwide newspapers highlighting high profile white influencers, while either ignoring or being quite oblivious to those of color. But if you push cynicism aside it is still quite incredible to witness the human instinct for connection.
Who would have ever thought that in the presence of an extreme collective experience, a social media platform like Instagram could be the instrument to illustrate in real time a transformation in values, and possibly be sketching at least a portion of the blueprint of what dance should aspire to be on the other side.