When we headed into lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic last March, what so many of us did not realize was just how long this new reality would last. Forgotten legwarmers flung across a studio floor sat exactly as they were, irretrievable by their owners for what's now been a full year.
In addition to the terrible loss of life the virus has caused, we are also experiencing a subsequent mental health crisis. A financial crisis. A racial reckoning. But as the saying goes, "New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings." We will be different on the other side of this, and that is okay. If we can lean into some optimism, we can find the ways the pandemic can change us for the better.
Problem-Solving Has Become Second Nature
We all know a dancer whose entire class can be derailed if they don't get to stand in "their spot" for class (if we're not that dancer ourselves).
Dr. Leigh Skvarla, a national certified counselor who works with dancers and athletes, sees potential in the growth mindset that could result from clutching the kitchen counter for barre. "I am hopeful that we will see a generation that has built a confidence and competence of cognitive flexibility," she says. "That is the ability to shift how one thinks about things, and use their own internal and external resources to figure out a solution to an otherwise difficult problem." Resilience is an ability to recover from or adjust quickly to misfortune or change. And as Skvarla puts it, the growth mindset says "I will find a way."
Keep it up: Don't forget the ways you have adapted and survived through each step of this pandemic. The next time you are confronted with something that is challenging or disappointing, lean into that growth mindset. Ask yourself, How can I make the best of this situation? It wasn't my best class/audition/performance, but it was the best I could do today. Tomorrow is a new day and I can learn from this one.
Time Off Has Provided Space to Talk About Hard Issues
Two months into the pandemic, the world saw George Floyd die at the hands of police officers. Although this kind of killing wasn't new, everyone was at home watching it on their phones or TV, points out Charmaine Hunter, former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal and current director of community enrichment and principal teacher at Orlando Ballet. People all over the world recognized the pervasiveness of racism, and the dance field quickly followed in questioning our cultural norms.
Petitions to provide true "nude" options for dancewear flooded the internet, and soon multiple brands announced that they would release more inclusive shades. As Black dancers spoke out about microaggressions, dance companies launched more robust inclusion efforts, holding antiracism workshops and town halls. Hunter cautions that true equity will only come if we are persistent. "DTH's trademark has been flesh-toned tights and pointe shoes for 51 years. It took this long for there to be any kind of consensus that it should be that way," she says. "I am happy to see the conversation happening in my lifetime, but we can't take our foot off the gas."
Keep it up: We can continue to uplift dancers of color by supporting inclusive companies, advocating for rosters and leadership to look like the communities in which they perform, and by speaking out when we see inequity.
We've Embraced Our Independence
When MOVE IT, a massive UK dance event, had to pull the plug days before it was supposed to run, co-creative director Kate Scanlan found other ways to serve the dance community. She launched livestreams about how hip-hop artists could access crucial government arts funds and provided online videos for newly graduated dancers on topics like managing money, dealing with casting and mental health. As a freelance hip-hop choreographer, Scanlan says that she is used to adapting: "I'm like water: If you block me, I'll just find another path."
Reaching out to a friend to explore how an outdoor staged performance could be mounted safely, she was connected with the English National Opera, which had been seeking the same solutions. The result was a collaboration in ENO's drive-in La bohème in September, which introduced hip hop to the beloved opera. Dancers all over the world leapt into similar creative solutions, launching new partnerships, making choreography for the screen and teaching online, in many cases for the first time.
Keep it up: The pandemic has forced an entrepreneurial spirit upon dancers who were left to come up with new ways to express themselves and make money. In a field where it is easy to feel that your future is in the hands of a director, dancers should remember that they are artists. Use that creativity. You can always find a way to keep dancing.
We've Had Time to Breathe
Dancers typically have little time to rest, especially as students: The start of the school year quickly turns to Nutcracker, and then audition season, followed by a spring performance, and then right into summer intensives. Jennifer Milner, a sought-after Pilates instructor and coach for dancers, notes that many young dancers take less than two weeks off each year. She likens the "time off" that has come out of the pandemic to early homesteaders who would work their fields in the spring, summer and fall and then retreat to their homes to weather the winter.
"As dancers we have an opportunity to be sitting by the fire mending our instruments and asking what worked and what didn't," she says. "And what are we going to do differently when the snow melts?" She notes that some dancers may be taking this time to rehabilitate injuries or address technique and strength issues that may have become injuries down the line.
Keep it up: Take time for yourself. You don't have to say yes to everything. Through distance we can learn where our heart is in a current situation, and what isn't working.
Being Outside the Studio Has Expanded Our Identities
When you ask most dancers to introduce themselves, they usually come with the same lead: I am a dancer. "As a mental health professional, I get concerned when people fully align their identities with the specific task that they do as opposed to a set of values and beliefs," says Skvarla.
With time away from the studio, many dancers have been forced to explore the things outside of dance that make them happy. "It is important to remember that you were a full human being before you put on your dance shoes and you will be a full human being after you take them off," says Skvarla. It is easier to weather the storm of injuries, disappointing casting and rejections that come with the dance profession when you have a well-rounded identity that allows you to see other skills and joys in your life.
Keep it up: Dr. Brian Goonan, a Houston psychologist who works with dancers, sometimes asks clients to sit down and finish the sentence "I am a person who…" Dances? Great. Then he encourages you to expand your self-awareness by writing down three to five more core elements that help you identify who you are. Put it up on your fridge and check in at least once every week. How did you honor the parts of you outside of being a dancer this week?
Limitations Have Fostered Learning
While footage of dancers from other countries and in other practices have always been available, there hasn't always been time to explore them. During the pandemic, many dancers have found themselves taking classes that weren't offered in their own studios.
"Kids are learning about artistic directors overseas; they are learning about Black choreographers. They have time now to do the homework," says Hunter. Maybe you took jazz for the first time in your living room with Debbie Allen, or tried out hula or flamenco. These opportunities may have felt more accessible because they were streamed to your living room, but also because you could participate as a novice with your camera off.
Keep it up: Dedicate some time every month to learning about a new choreographer, watching a company you have never seen online or trying out something that is completely new to you.
The Challenges Clarified What We Want
When the lockdowns began, many dancers were overcome with fears—How will I stay physically ready to dance? How do I avoid gaining weight? But as some dancers have slowly returned to the studios and stages, those fears seem to have melted and been replaced with joy and gratitude. Skvarla points out that the feelings of anger and sadness that some dancers feel being separated from dance may be affirmations that they still love it. And while the day-to-day in the studio may have had you questioning if this was the right path, now you have an answer.
Skvarla points out that some dancers may also have felt relieved, confused or even happy. "All of those feelings are valid," she says. And while they may be hard to wrestle with, they could be telling you that you have been in the wrong place, taking the wrong approach or that you may be happier doing something else. If you are having trouble navigating these emotions, seek out someone to talk to about them, whether it be a friend, family member or therapist.
Keep it up: Prioritize your mental health. Dance is as much mental as it is physical. Take time to ask yourself, Are you feeling down because of something that you can change? Seek support when you need it.
Lean Into the Change
A decade from now, when we look back, what will we see? "We had to dig deep and prove why we are so necessary to the existence of man," says Hunter. "We had to reinvent ourselves."
Dance is a grand old house that has been devastated by a natural disaster, but after the storm comes the opportunity to rebuild. "Do we want to get out the old blueprints and rebuild it exactly the way that it was?" asks Milner. "Are we trying to restore a historic landmark that is revered and admired, but isn't really lived in? Or are we going to take the time to ask what we can improve?"
As we lean into the uncertainty, we can learn from the bright spots that have presented themselves to us and build the house that dance, and dancers, deserve.