Odds are, your social media feed has recently become cluttered with a barrage of virtual dance classes. The dance community's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been quick and creative, with artists across the field jumping on the online class bandwagon.
These classes, and the posts from students taking them, are often accompanied by language about how class is essential for dancers' physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and how this is an opportunity to connect with one another in a time of social distancing.
While for many this is true, the new culture of virtual dance classes has some dancers feeling more overwhelmed than excited.
Even at the surface level, there are material obstacles for some dancers to overcome. Stephanie Mizrahi, a senior in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program who has recently gone home to Los Angeles, had a "meltdown" during one virtual class. "I hit my couch a billion times and bruised all my bones," she says. "I feel like this is a great opportunity to take free classes by amazing dancers and feel frustrated when it doesn't work in the space, or isn't fun for me." American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary has started a humorous series on her Instagram featuring run-ins with her ceiling fan, who she has dubbed "Fanny."
Virtual classes can also be challenging for dancers for whom the experience of class is predominantly about relationships in space with others—without real-time feedback or the energy of classmates, it can be hard to feel like you're getting something out of class.
Beyond these logistical concerns, some dancers are finding that the prevalence of online classes has not brought them feelings of normalcy and unity, but rather of anxiety, judgement and guilt. For Montclair State University senior Madalyn Rupprecht, seeing friends share on social media that they were taking multiple virtual classes a day made her feel pressured to do that, too. "I felt that I needed to take class in order to be a valid member of the dance community," she says. Feeling the need to "prove" that you are a serious dancer can be intensified by the fact that no one else is around to witness your participation, and the fact that the phone screen is now an essential, ever-present part of class.
(On the other hand, taking class by yourself can also the relieve the pressure that some dancers feel in in-person class, says dancer and Dance Magazine video editor Kelsey Grills. "You can access exactly what you want to get out of class without the judgement of the teacher or classmates," she says.)
Jaqlin Medlock Photography, courtesy Rupprecht
The race to establish a new normal as quickly as possible can also feel like it's feeding into a culture that does not know when to rest. As writer Eva Yaa Asantewaa wrote in a recent blog post, it's okay for dancers to take time to grieve the loss of our lives as we knew them, and to reject the idea that we need to be productive or live life as normal in favor of taking care of ourselves and processing our complicated emotions around this pandemic.
That is easier said than done, especially for dancers, who work in a hyper-competitive field and are often encouraged to dance through pain. In dance, and in our broader capitalist culture, the "grind" is often glorified, and it's tempting to put hard work over self-care—even when we're not dealing with a crisis like this one.
But considering how high the stakes are for many dancers (a Dance/NYC survey indicates that many are struggling to pay this month's rent and to buy food), now is not the time to buy into the idea that you are the sum of your productivity. You are not how many virtual classes you take, and you are not how in-shape you stay during this time.
There's no question that virtual class offerings are bringing a sense of joy, community and normalcy to many dancers. At the same time, those who don't feel like participating shouldn't worry that they aren't dancers anymore, or that a break in their training will ruin their dreams for a career in dance. Dancers have always had unique, individual ways of dealing with life's difficulties. And if "dancing through it" isn't what you need, that's okay.