Stepping Up: How the Dance Community Has Given Back During COVID-19

November 2, 2020

The dance field is facing an existential crisis right now, with COVID-19 making most of our normal ways of operating unsafe. Performances have been canceled; classes have had to be reimagined.

Yet rather than simply going into survival mode, our community has displayed characteristic grit, creativity and determination, finding multiple ways to help out others in need. Dancers know that the only way to get through something as challenging as a pandemic is to do it together.

Atlanta Ballet costume director Colleen McGonegle sewing isolation gowns for Grady Memorial Hospital.
Courtesy Atlanta Ballet

Sewing for Safety

Within days of going into lockdown, costume shops and dancewear manufacturers from Cincinnati Ballet to Apolla Performance Wear and Eurotard began producing masks and other personal protective equipment like gowns, surgical caps and covers for medical-grade N95 masks. Many have helped fill in the gaps for local hospitals and nursing facilities experiencing a dangerous shortage of supplies. Smuin Contemporary Ballet dancers even fashioned masks from retired company costumes as a gift to supporters of the company’s new Resilience Fund; for each contribution to the fund, the company also donated a mask to a nearby homeless shelter.

Cora Dance student Mykie Laidlow at the studio’s pet food giveaway
Courtesy Cora Dance

No Neighbors Hungry

When dance venues closed, some organizations used the empty space to help feed their communities. San Francisco Ballet staff and dancers volunteered to distribute bags of groceries every week, using their loading dock as a pop-up food pantry to help out the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. Mark Morris Dance Center became a distribution site for World Central Kitchen, offering free, prepacked meals to locals. Also in Brooklyn, JACK performance space partnered with the aid group We Keep Us Safe Abolitionist Network to help distribute food, while Cora Dance hosted a giveaway of free pet food and supplies secured by Red Hook Dog Rescue.

BodyVox rtistic director Jamey Hampton at the company’s first blood drive
Courtesy BodyVox

Blood, Sweat and Tears

In Portland, Oregon, BloodyVox has become something of a Halloween tradition for dance theater troupe BodyVox. But the company took a different approach to blood this year, partnering with the American Red Cross to host two community blood drives in May and June. Its artistic directors, administrators and dancers staffed the events as volunteers. Those giving blood were treated to projected videos of the company in performance while they donated.

Jenna Johnson and Val Chmerkovskiy teaching for CLI
Courtesy CLI

A Neverending Pass to Class

Online training has not only offered a sense of normalcy for dancers, but also made classes accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Some artists, like Ryan Heffington and Kate Wallich, have built massive followings with their regular free livestreams. Others, like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Courtney Celeste Spears, have supplemented their Instagram classes with info sessions and panel discussions to help steer us all through the confusion and uncertainty.

Even organizations already set up for remote learning have given back: Online-dance-class platform CLI Studios launched a “Strong Studios Initiative” in March, investing $1 million to help traditional studios get fully set up for online learning.

Vivake Khamsingsavath teaching Battery Dance’s classes for health-care workers.
Courtesy Battery Dance

Bringing Dance to Our Healers

Battery Dance created free virtual movement sessions for frontline health-care workers; the 15-minute classes were designed to relieve stress. Meanwhile, Ballet West Academy allowed anyone working in health care to take its online adult ballet classes for free throughout May and June.

Close-up of a laptop screen showing Naomi Goldberg Haas teaching on Zoom

Dances for a Variable Population’s Naomi Goldberg Haas
Courtesy DVP

Keeping the Most Vulnerable Moving

For seniors stuck at home—many in an even stricter lockdown than the rest of us—Naomi Goldberg Haas and her Dances for a Variable Population have been teaching 19 classes a week in both English and Spanish, offering sessions not only online, but also over the phone for those without the tech familiarity to connect to Zoom.

Debbie Allen smiles bright at a camera, dancers behind her.

Behind the scenes of Debbie Allen’s dance-a-thon
MS Digital Ageny, Courtesy Allen

What’s Needed Most: Money

As unemployment hit record numbers, many—both within the dance world and outside of it—desperately needed funds just to survive. And dancers of all genres all over the country spent their quarantine working to raise what they could.

Debbie Allen (with the help of Dance Magazine and others) spearheaded a 12-hour dance-a-thon on her Instagram Live. Celebrity guests like Dolly Parton and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as top dance talent like Tiler Peck and the Rockettes, helped her raise money for dance artists and teachers. Allen partnered with choreographer JaQuel Knight, whose own Dancers’ Relief Fund has offered meal drives and individual grants to out-of-work dancers.

In New York City, the similarly named NYC Dancers Relief Fund, led by J. Bouey and Melanie Greene of The Dance Union podcast, has helped out freelance dance artists of color, those with disabilities, those who identify as LGBTQ and those who don’t have access to emergency funds due to their immigration status. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Ballet hosted an online ’80s dance party to raise money for MANNA, a local nonprofit giving meals to people battling life-threatening illnesses. In Chicago, footworker MurdaMommy hosted a dance challenge giving away $100 a week for five weeks, and raised money to donate food and PPE to people in need in the South Side and East Side of Chicago.

Possibly the most well-known effort came, unsurprisingly, from Misty Copeland. Along with her former American Ballet Theatre colleague Joseph Phillips, she helped to create a short film of 32 ballerinas around the world dancing Michel Fokine’s Le Cygne called “Swans for Relief.” Gaining mainstream media coverage, they were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the relief funds of participating dancers’ companies and other arts/dance-based relief funds.