In May 2020, Times Square was eerily quiet, as if it were holding its breath like the rest of the world, afraid to make a move. The clamor of taxis, crowds and construction was gone, but one faint trickle of music could still be heard if you listened closely—a mini Bluetooth speaker, resting on the pavement, playing "Walk Me Home," by P!nk, as Jena VanElslander and Randy Castillo danced away their early quarantine blues.
About seven weeks prior, on April 9, VanElslander was walking through Times Square for the first time since the shutdown. It was her birthday, and the musical theater performer was on her way to Open Jar Studios for her first shift with the Broadway Relief Project, making PPE gowns for frontline workers. Although grateful to have somewhere to go, she was struck by the lifelessness of a neighborhood usually bursting with energy.
"It was horrifying," she says. "I had to do something."
During her shifts with BRP, laying out material and prepping gown kits for sewers, she listened to podcasts and daydreamed about creating a safe space for dancers to gather outside. "I just started visualizing artists taking over Times Square. What if it was a little movement? Maybe it would grow by one person each week," she says. But uncertainty was king in those times, and she sat on the idea for a while until Castillo called one afternoon asking to go for a walk. "You don't feel like dancing, do you?" she countered.
They met later in Nederlander Alley—a strip alongside the New York Marriott Marquis lined with mirrors—and VanElslander taught him a combo she had created on her roof. They danced it together a few times in Duffy Square as her partner Dominique Finkley filmed it on her iPhone. "We felt a little more alive after," says VanElslander. She turned to Castillo and asked, "Would you want to do that again?" "Absolutely," he said.
The next Saturday, another friend joined them; then the following week two more joined. VanElslander officially named it "TSQ Project," bravely declaring it a movement, and people she didn't even know started reaching out, hungry for an opportunity to dance and connect.
Jon Taylor, Courtesy TSQ Project
"I dreamt that it would organically grow, and performers would realize there was an outlet. Everything moved online so quickly, and I rebelled against it," she says. They continued to meet in Nederlander Alley, the security guards happily bringing them water, filming and cheering them on. After 14 performances over five months, the finale of the 2020 run took place on October 24, just before the weather got too cold to proceed. With Lady Gaga belting "New York, New York," the empty streets filled with 50 exuberant dancers in masks.
"We never knew what we would run into," VanElslander says. They saw that a Black Lives Matter protest was setting up in Duffy Square and participated in the rally before the protesters continued their march and the dancers continued their performance.
Reed Luplau's piece for TSQ Project
Robin Michals, Courtesy TSQ Project
For 2021, VanElslander had a much bigger vision. "I just wanted to put money in artists' pockets and include more aspects of the performing arts community," she says. After almost a year, months of working to get a permit through the New York City Parks Department and going "100 times the wrong way through the forest," she finally acquired it three weeks before the first TSQ Project 2.0 production was set to take place in May 2021.
The shows have evolved tenfold, now including five to eight different choreographers of all styles, live singers, and sometimes partnering with Urban Word NYC, National Dance Institute or Broadway Bound Kids. VanElslander has taken on the new role of producer/curator/fundraiser/stage manager/choreographer/dancer all in one.
The Times Square Alliance, one of TSQ's sponsors, generously donates all of the sound equipment and provides a sound engineer, and Open Jar Studios donates rehearsal space. Fundraising via GoFundMe and private donors is always ticking in the background.
Each production has two shows, an hour apart, on a Saturday afternoon. The finale is always VanElslander's original "New York, New York" number, performed by the same dancers who helped birth the movement last year. Now, crowds of friends, industry members, tourists and local New York City wanderers huddle around the barricades, cheering for the return of art.
Reed Luplau created a piece for the second 2.0 show. "As a choreographer, it was kind of a little dream to be given a budget and rehearsal space, to be able to go with my gut and build whatever I wanted."
TSQ Project 2.0 has had four shows so far this summer, and they're gearing up for their fifth, and most likely final, one of the season on August 21. The movement has grown to involve more than 200 artists and raises thousands of dollars to support each one of them, but VanElslander has never let go of how it all started. "The bare bones, and the grittiness, and the real, and the raw that TSQ was built upon, we have carried that over to TSQ 2.0. I call it two-thirds scrappy, one-third legit," she says. "I'm not just holding a boom box over my head anymore."
Castillo is humbled by how much TSQ Project has grown. "Our original purpose was always to just bring our people, our community together, to dance in the streets because we'd been sitting at home," he says. "And now everyone wants to be a part of it."
VanElslander is looking towards the future, hoping to spread the TSQ message wider and create even more opportunities for artists to connect without pressure. She tears up with pride as she reflects on what she's built.
"When I know this is the first time a person has been able to perform in so long, or it's their first opportunity to be paid for doing what they love most, or seeing someone's first time back in a rehearsal space, and it's not in an audition or under a stressful situation, it's with love and togetherness," she says. "Those moments have been the best."