I'm a Broadway Dancer with COVID-19. Here's What It's Been Like.
Many in the dance community have been directly impacted by COVID-19.
Paloma Garcia-Lee, a Broadway veteran who was performing in Moulin Rogue! until the Great White Way closed down, tested positive for the virus last month. Now recovered, she shares her experience here.
In early March, I had been sick for a few weeks. I didn’t have a fever, but I was bedridden for four days, sleeping a ton. Everyone, including myself, just thought I had the flu, so that’s how I was treating it. This was back when news of the virus was starting to spread, but it wasn’t a massive thing yet. There were very few cases in the US. The only situation that my company was keeping tabs on was the one Broadway usher who had tested positive for COVID-19.
On Thursday, March 12, as we came into work, we were told we were going to have a pre-show meeting. They told us they were canceling both shows that day. We thought it would just be temporary. In reality, the Broadway League was about to announce the closure of all of Broadway until April 15, a deadline that of course now has been extended.
The night before that meeting, I was uncharacteristically tired, and I started getting the craziest body aches. My hip joints, my knees, ankles, even my toe joints were hurting. It was the weirdest sensation. I’m a dancer, so I know my body really well. Something was up that was different than anything I’d felt before. So right after our meeting, I went to my doctor to get tested for COVID-19. Considering that I didn’t have a fever, I was really lucky to have access to that.
Afterwards, I went straight home and started quarantining. Over the next few days I became super sick. It was like a relapse of the illness I had had for a while, but with very different symptoms. Sure enough, four days later I got my test results back and found out I was positive. After that, other cast members who had been in close contact with me, like my dressing roommate and dance partner, were able to get tested as well.
Some of my symptoms were in line with what people had been categorizing as COVID-19–related, and some weren’t. I never experienced any loss of taste or smell, and I never had a fever. There was a scary 24 hours where I had breathing issues. It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, and I spent the whole day with 911 dialed on my phone, ready to call. It really freaked me out. But I’m immensely grateful that I was able to weather the virus without having to go to the hospital.
And it’s become clearer and clearer just how lucky I was. I have friends on ventilators fighting for their life now. I lost one of my old dressers from Phantom last week, whom I’ve known for 12 years, to the virus. We’re losing a lot of great artists and people.
Being one of the first Broadway dancers to test positive was terrifying. At first, I didn’t want anyone to know that I had it. But soon enough, the news got out. A few other members of the cast ended up testing positive, as well. I had tons of people texting me, tracing back the last time we had contact, and asking if I was contagious at that point. I was just lying sick in my bed being like, “I don’t know, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to help you.” There’s still so little we know about this virus.
Now, I’m back to 100 percent again, which I’m so thankful for. But I haven’t been able to get a clear answer on how long the virus is in my system. Is there any possibility of me still passing it on? The unknown is scary. For now, I’m staying home as much as I can to do my part in slowing the spread. I’m also interested in donating my plasma, if it can help develop a vaccine or some kind of cure.
In terms of social distancing, now that I’m recovered, I’m just trying to find ways to be creative and artistic like we all are. I want to focus a lot of my energy on how I can be of service in this time, to help inspire and support people. There’s a lot of possibility for connection right now, because we’re all experiencing the same thing. I’m trying to do seminars with dance and theater programs and reach out to dance schools, as they’re really hurting. I did a webinar for a musical theater program that my friend has here in New York City. I haven’t had two free hours in years, to just sit down and answer his students’ questions. It felt like such a gift to be able to connect with them.
I’m keeping up with dance in my living room, too. It’s funny, because last week I took maybe five dance classes. That hasn’t happened in the longest time. The opportunity to train and take class with all these people you may never be able to otherwise is such a silver lining. And with IGTV and saving Live Stories, you can take a class at the time that actually works for you.
Nothing should obscure the fact that this is a horrific moment where a lot of people are suffering and losing their lives and livelihoods. But for me personally, this came at a moment where I needed a break, and I would have never ever given myself one. I’m a hustler who loves having five jobs at once. I was looking so far ahead in terms of my career, but this moment has really grounded me in the present, in quiet and stillness.
I’m letting my body heal not only from this virus, but from my eight-shows-a-week lifestyle. I’ve been doing that grind for almost 12 years, and last year, I was doing it in addition to filming a TV show (FX’s “Fosse/Verdon”) and a movie (her upcoming role of Graziella in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story). Now, I have this dual mentality of remaining inspired, picking up new skills, feeling productive, but also allowing the pace of my whole life to change. We’re used to showing up and pushing through no matter how we feel, but this is forcing us to show up for ourselves in a different way: as humans. Someone posted this meme saying how when Broadway comes back, the dancers will be well rested, the voices will be pure, the riffs will be perfectly clean…it’s true.
There’s never been a moment I haven’t felt wildly lucky to be an artist, but the way the global arts community has come together has blown me away. I’ve been moved to tears multiple times this week seeing how people are opening up their hearts during this time. Dancers helping other dancers keep moving, artists helping other artists stay inspired. Art continues no matter what, because in times of struggle it provides an escape. Right now, everyone is staying home benefiting from art. I hope that after seeing how art saves us in many ways, there will be a continued push to develop and fund it.