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During COVID-19, Dancers Must Reframe What It Means to Be Resilient

Movement Headquarters Ballet Company in Distinct Perceptions. Liz Schneider-Cohen, Courtesy Barry Kerollis

Resilience. This word has been on my mind a great deal over the past week, and, honestly, I've been quite challenged by it.

I've had my eye on the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning of January when news started breaking about a novel virus in Wuhan, China. The world watched as cases multiplied and a faraway city of 11 million went into lockdown. While this situation felt distant, many of us kept a watchful eye simply because we thought this couldn't happen here.

Fast-forward to the week of March 9 in New York City, where life actually started moving in fast-forward. Within a week, Broadway went dark, opera houses across the country were forced to shutter and dance studios started closing down.

As an educator and retired dancer, I felt rocked to my core. Dance artists are resilient. We show up for work sick. We dance through pain. We rehearse when cities shut down for holidays and weather. We survive on meager wages. When one job falls through, we use creative immediacy to develop new opportunities. I have always been extremely proud of the resilient attributes of those who work in the dance field, until last Friday.

After walking through an empty Times Square, I arrived at Broadway Dance Center to teach my regular advanced beginner ballet class. In my classroom, I found eight frightened dancers, eyes glazed and faces riddled with panic. I immediately questioned if I had made the appropriate choice to hold this class.

As dancers, we are taught that class is home. It is a place where we can better ourselves, work through emotional trauma and express every ounce of our being. These dancers had shown up to lose themselves in ballet. But through my expression of resilience as a teacher, I may have been putting my students in very real danger. News regarding this virus and how to curb its spread was becoming increasingly alarming. Yet, I had invited students to trust my instinct.

Our co-resilience no longer felt like a positive trait because it elevated dance above humanity. Why did I show up? To share, to help others through a hard time, to get my mind off of the world, to make income knowing that I might be financially impacted in the near future. There was talk that New York City might be locked down for months, just like in China and Italy. That day, I felt my perception of resilience change.

Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Dancers are taught from a young age to push through physical challenges. And we also develop a thick skin to help us deal with the emotional hurdles presented to us throughout our careers. But the challenge with the resilient dancer mindset is that we don't always think through our expression of toughness beyond the world of dance. We urgently push through situations that others wouldn't even consider, perhaps due to the urgency of our shorter careers. Is there enough humanity in this? Looking back, I feel I should have taken a moment to pause for thought and consideration of public health and safety.

What I'm starting to recognize is that resilience doesn't always mean pushing through something without mindfulness. Sometimes, resilience is taking a step back and pausing for a moment. Sometimes, it is choosing not show up to rehearse with that sore throat. Sometimes, it means humbly accepting that the season you have been steadfastly working towards is not as important as the well-being of your community. Sometimes, resilience is learning new ways to survive and thrive. And we must always remember that we are human before we are dancers.

I've paused. And I'm reassessing my resilience, as I hope we all will.

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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