At Your Fingertips: Dance Film Festivals Take Their Offerings Online

October 15, 2020

When theaters shut down last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even dance film festivals were forced to pivot away from in-person screenings and towards online streaming. The 48th annual Dance on Camera Festival in July, co-presented by Dance Films Association and Film at Lincoln Center, was held for the first time in a completely digital format. “We felt a sense of obligation to our filmmakers and to our public to move forward with an online festival,” says Shawn T. Bible, one of the DFA board members responsible for the shift. The digital festival saw viewers from 19 different countries log on and participate; over 2,000 individual audience members purchased tickets. “With such a high level of digital saturation, we were happily surprised by the level of participation,” says co-organizer Michael Trusnovec. DCF’s Best of Fest winners will be screened at Lincoln Center during the 2021 iteration of the festival, assuming theaters reopen by then.

This month, the San Francisco Dance Film Festival will also host all of its films online, through a streaming partnership with Marquee TV. “Screen fatigue is an issue the longer this pandemic goes on,” says SFDFF executive director Judy Flannery. “Initially there was a novelty to digital, but we are wondering whether audiences will have the mental bandwidth to watch more dance on screens.” The festival, scheduled for October 18–25, is planning limited, additional in-person screening events at the Catharine Clark Gallery, so small audiences can sign up to see the art/experimental films live at spaced-out showings over multiple days.

An audience sits in movie theater seats, faces lit by the film on screen.
The opening night crowd at last year’s San Francisco Dance Film Festival

Miller Oberlin, Courtesy SFDFF

Unsurprisingly, with so many dance artists turning to digital projects while in lockdown, both festivals witnessed robust numbers of short film submissions—DCF’s #mydancefilm category had more than 400 entries within two weeks, and SFDFF received more than 330 submissions from 45 different countries. “We couldn’t believe the response under the cloud of COVID,” says Flannery. “We really struggled to select our 75 films!”

Many of the films resonate with the ongoing fight for racial equality, particularly Khadifa Wong’s documentary Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, which was voted DCF’s Best Feature, and will be featured at SFDFF. Susan Misner’s short film Bend, featuring dancers Troy Ogilvie and Jeffery Dickerson Duffy, won DCF’s Best Short category for its powerful depiction of white guilt.

Three dancers in rehearsal clothes are caught in motion, moving through pliu00e9 with a hip cocked, hands drifting across their solar plexus and stomach.

Still from Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance

Vibeke Dahl, Courtesy DFA

“We can’t replicate the human magic of gathering and seeing film as a community—that can never be replaced online,” says Flannery. “But the strength of the content will draw people in.” The silver lining of theater restrictions? Dance film festivals will likely continue to incorporate digital screenings in the future to reach beyond their local audiences.