Dancing With Our Coronasphere to Navigate the Pandemic

July 20, 2020

Being able to carry out my job from home suggests that my body’s labor is deemed non-essential in this moment. Yet, as part of that majority “yet-to-be infected” population, I am responsible for moving in public as though I could be exposed or expose others. As dance critic Gia Kourlas points out with regard to the pedestrian dances we engage in on the street: “If this pandemic is teaching us anything, it is that we need to return to our bodies.”

As the pandemic redefines the extent of our bodies by the range of our breath, it changes how we choreograph public movement.

It may look like there is more distance between us than usual, but it feels like the matter of my body and that of others have expanded. I sense each stranger in terms of how close my air might come to touching them and vice versa. Indirect spatial pathways are the new normal, as we each step sideways, allowing the particles of our respective breath to become entangled between us as they fall to the ground. Someone passing within what used to be a reasonable amount of personal space is now threatening.

In dance, we talk about the kinesphere of the body as the widest curved geometry that the limbs could circumscribe in three-dimensional space. That’s less than one half the radius that public health guidance suggests my body should occupy on a sidewalk or grocery aisle to socially distance in this time of COVID-19.

Over the last few months, countless visual analogues have arisen to help us imagine what six feet looks like, from “a refrigerator on its side” to “two Golden Retrievers standing nose to tail.” But, the distance at which a cough or a conversation can mix a high enough concentration of virus particles into the air to infect another human changes with all sorts of factors, from the level of ventilation to the violence of the respiratory event. As infectious aerosols scientist Donald K. Milton explains: “It’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s six feet, they’ve all fallen and there’s nothing.’ […] It’s more like it’s a continuum.” Just as the kinespheric scaffolding expands and contracts to encompass the possible locations for a dancer’s limbs at a given moment, so too does what I call the “coronasphere.”

Sandra Hooghwinkel, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Coming from architect-turned-movement-theorist Rudolph Laban’s early 20th-century studies of embodied geometry, the kinesphere offers dancers a tool for movement invention by transforming the negative space surrounding the body into something more available to sensory perception. The coronasphere likewise becomes a way to imagine how breath extends the possible spaces occupied by the body and find movement amid the radically altered sense of proximity that this produces.

At a moment in which breath already seems to make the body too permeable, and our relation to that porousness is often ruled by fear or, at best, mutual care, expanding sensory awareness outward might seem to add another layer of vulnerability. Early in the pandemic, I noticed how many people on the street had stopped making eye contact, even physically closing in on themselves as though any connection might somehow translate through the textured air between them.

There are similar anxieties in shared space but across time: I enter places that other people and their breath have previously occupied, and I wonder about the others who will reuse my questionable air before it falls to the ground. There is a robust conversation about the invasion of personal space, from manspreading to the cultural specificity of appropriate social distance, but once breath functions as a kind of touch, we need new skills to manage the intimacy that results.

Right now there is a false dichotomy being set up, with social distancing on the one side, versus “freedom” of movement on the other. As lockdowns continue to ebb and flow in a cycle nicknamed “the hammer and the dance,” mechanical spatial solutions have been proposed to prevent transmission in brief encounters, from taped lines on a sidewalk, to augmented reality apps that draw rings around people in grocery stores or warehouses. Even more experimental forms (including hoops, inflatable bubbles and wings) emphasize non-movement and staying away.

But new public choreographies—ones that let us feel the pleasure or passion of moving with others, while minimizing risk—will only emerge once more people hone their capacity to sense the contours of changing breath forms that extend beyond the skin, and to move attentively in proximity to other coronaspheres.

Every person outside has a responsibility as a dancer, to train to better exist at this moment in which we are engaged in more communal movement, not less. This demands a shift toward moving with the space around us—instead of through it—and with all of the breathers that share it. Dancers know how to make physical choices in response to sensed imagery, and they are also accustomed to building kinesthetic connections to other moving bodies. Public life now depends these skills, and we as dancers can help.