Watching the Dance World Return, Without Me

July 26, 2021

Sitting on a quiet South Carolina beach this month, I felt something I hadn’t felt in many months: the desire to move. I tried single-leg balances, some basic floorwork, headstands…formerly easy things that I now couldn’t quite do. Stunned and emotionally spiraling, I sat in the sand and let it all wash over me; it wasn’t until this moment that I finally reflected on what I had lost to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to and for some months into the pandemic, I had a full-time touring company contract with health insurance. The shutdowns hit the company hard, as it did many arts organizations. Losing my job without warning the week of Thanksgiving was, put lightly, a disappointing experience, but worse was the vaguely evasive language that fooled me into thinking that I might return. I felt crushed again as I later watched the company hire two new dancers and realized that my “last dance” had long since passed.

At 27 years old, I am technically a “young dancer” that the dance world so often prizes, but my body feels like it has aged 10 years in the past eight months. And although “dance artist” is one of the many hats I claim, I can’t say that I’ve wanted to dance much this year.

Other than a single, rushed rehearsal for a livestream performance with Abilities Dance Boston in May, my last time in a dance studio was March 2020. I’ve maintained some semblance of a workout regimen, but that doesn’t quite hold up against the many challenges of experiencing displacement not entirely dissimilar to housing insecurity, dealing with (and failing at) the complexities of unemployment benefits, not being able to access health care and therapy, and holding space for family care and death.

Facing the audience, Bradford shoots off-balance to the right with all of his limbs trailing behind him. His awkward stance is made playful by the joyful narrowing of his eyes, indicating a smile beneath his face mask. He is flanked by three other princesses who watch him with a mix of judgment and horror. They are all wearing deep blue dresses except for Bradford, whose dress is lit turquoise by the stage lights, and they all wear white headdresses, white and gold face masks and waist sashes, and flesh-tone ballet flats. At the back of the blue-lit stage radiates six silvery-white suspension cables from the lower-right to the upper-left.

Bradford Chin (center) as the self-titled Drunk Jade Princess in Abilities Dance Boston’s Firebird livestream, May 2021

Mickey West Photography, Courtesy Chin

As I write this amid the return of live performances, I am reminded of Kai Hazelwood’s “I’m Breaking Up With Dance.” Kai and I have only crossed paths once but share similar circles, and I feel a vicarious connection to her because of our similar histories at the same company. These days, dance brings me a deep pain and pronounced lack of joy that I never fathomed it could. The excitement with which I cheer on my friends as they return to in-person performances is mixed with a bitter and, dare I say, resentful sadness that perhaps my place on those stages was stolen from me.

I’m finally recognizing that I am in a state of mourning. I have donated to and bought tickets for so many friends’ performances and livestreams, but when it comes to actually watching the performances, most of the time, I simply cannot. They remind me of how, were it not for the pandemic, I would also belong on those stages. They remind me of what I have lost.

Maybe all I want at this point is to enjoy that “last dance” on my own terms rather than feeling forced out. Or at least to know that my last dance was my last dance.

My need for closure includes the obligation I feel to the many folks who have carried me to where I am today. I always made it a point to invite “my people” to performances and, when possible, offer them free or subsidized tickets. Sharing my performances was an opportunity to give back to those who have fervently believed in me and showered me with generous love. I would have appreciated the chance to share my involuntary exit—and my favorite work to sass up, Robert Dekkers’ Flutter—with the people who got me there. I feel robbed of that opportunity.

Two dancers gather their outstretched arms over their head as they pull forward from the ground into a deep lunge. Between them, a third dancer in a wheelchair does the same while facing toward the back. The trio wears a variety of black tops, dark grey pants, and black socks. They are dancing on a slippery, brown laminate floor in a large community hall with tall, white ceilings and a large, taupe fireplace behind them.

(L-R) Bradford Chin, JanpiStar and Yuko Monden Juma perform Robert Dekkers’ Flutter for an AXIS Dance Company community outreach event at Pomeroy Recreation & Rehabilitation Center, May 2019

Lenore Chinn, Courtesy Chin

Dancers are constantly told that dance is ephemeral, shared by those lucky enough to be present at that moment. I didn’t expect to understand this so soon, much less without the gratification of a final bow. This experience makes me cheer even harder for my friends who dance on.

My youth and my love for dance—it’s in there somewhere—give me an admittedly doubt-riddled assurance that, someday, I might again have the privilege of sharing the stage with others and for others. Just not right now.

In the meantime, I’m trying to create my own closure by channeling my hurt, anger and sadness into my continued advocacy for a more accessible, equitable and just dance future. My ongoing experiences continue to radicalize me as I support my peers and push for greater change. Nobody else should go through what I experienced.

And don’t you worry, friends. I’m still cheering you on, donating to your fundraisers, and buying your tickets with joy, enthusiasm and love. Keep sending those links my way. One day soon, I’ll actually make it to a performance, and I cannot wait. Toi, toi, toi and merde!