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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.

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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