“Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.”
Mary Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist, shared that off-the-cuff advice in a 1997 dispatch to graduating seniors. Decades later, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the US, her suggestion reads eerily prescient: dancers have suddenly lost the luxury of studios and stages, where they could stretch, travel and fly across space.
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But artists are not always good at sitting still, and dancers of all stripes have found ways to stay active, even as their profession entered hibernation in the city that never sleeps. And, thanks to both wifi and social media, the world has been watching.
‘Making sure stories don’t get lost’
Fans of HBO Max’s new reality series Legendary may recognize the name: Sydney Baloue. It’s appeared on their screens for weeks now, next to a producer credit.
As the show – which pits voguing houses against one another for a $100,000 prize – marked its first season, the energized crowds who were taped inside a Stamford, Connecticut, venue seem from a distant, bygone age. They’re packed together and cheering, expressing themselves in ways that feel familiar, jarring and enviable all at once.
Baloue commuted between Connecticut and New York City for two months to produce Legendary; on the last day of filming in March, that booming, warm audience was no longer there as the pandemic took hold of the east coast.
“If anything, I feel like now is kind of the most disappointing time because it’s pride month, and this is usually when everything is happening,” Baloue said.
Ballroom, dominated by talented black and Latino LBGTQ+ performers, is “all about community”, he said. Familial dinners, where “we all convene, we check in with each other, we pump the beat, we vogue down, we feel it”, can’t happen right now. And major events like the Latex Ball – founded decades ago to raise awareness about the HIV/Aids crisis – have been derailed by a modern-day public health emergency, an irony that’s inspiring Baloue’s academic work.
“I feel like there’s always been sort of multiple parts to my dance practice, just because ballroom is multiple things,” Baloue said. “It’s music, it’s dance, it’s fashion, it’s all this stuff. And then for me, my big thing is writing and documenting, and making sure those stories don’t get lost.”
Baloue is doing yoga, push-ups and dance classes from his room in Brooklyn, confined to an area roughly the size of two yoga mats. He misses being able to book a studio and have the room to try cool tricks. But ballroom has “always been something that was born out of scarcity”.
“You know, life gives us lemons, and we will make lemon meringue pie,” Baloue said.
‘I gave myself the time and permission to start creating’
Tap dancers need a specific surface to practice, but the 2ft-by-4ft wooden board Vikas Arun has in his home in Harlem, New York City, doesn’t provide much space. That’s both “a blessing and a curse”, he thinks.
“When you restrict your options sometimes is when the creativity is born,” he said.
Arun has had to negotiate with his neighbors to agree on times when he can loudly shuffle and clank in his tap shoes. When he records his classes, he knows his makeshift set-up is laughable: a phone on the ground, in a dryer sheet bag, tilted forward to at least show his feet.
It’s a stark contrast with his life pre-pandemic. In early 2020, he closed out a tour with Mystic India, a Bollywood show that took him across the US and abroad. He had started gearing up for a busy summer season with Project Convergence – the company he co-founded to combine bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form, with tap – and was finalizing summer tour contracts and lining up gigs at weddings.
Then came Covid-19, and a mass wave of cancellations. The sudden income loss has been scary for Arun, both as a freelancer and a business owner who feels responsible for his dancers.
But instead of retreating into his Ivy League engineering degree, he’s pushing full steam ahead with a three-act show, overcoming audio-video sync issues to casually set choreography for willing dancers over Zoom and Google Meet. Much like Project Convergence itself, the new repertoire will explore how “there’s no one definition of what it means to be multicultural”, but “you can still do it without losing part of your identity”.
“People feel like they have to wait for something to come their way before they create,” he said. “And I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from this is … there’s no reason for you to wait. Just do it. And then, you know, the rest will come.”
‘Now has to be the time for change’
Camille A Brown lives five minutes from her mother in Queens, New York City. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, they still sometimes meet for walks, at a distance.
“There are days that I just want to hug my mom, but I’m so scared,” she said. “And I just think, wow, what is it gonna feel like when I actually do get to hug my mom? I probably won’t let go.”
Brown’s artistic calendar is filled with postponed gigs and on-hold theater projects, including her Broadway directorial debut. But “right now, it’s not necessarily about being a choreographer”, she said.
“I don’t want to go back and be the same person that I was. I want to have evolved and want to have learned from this situation.”
Nor is she itching for the performing arts to return to “normal” – because “what was normal?”
“I am a woman, and I’m black. And sexism and racism are things that I have to deal with on a daily basis,” Brown said. “I know that I have to work 20 times harder than other people. And that’s tough, and it’s frustrating. And I would like to see the playing field leveled.”
Brown was recently contacted by someone who wanted to apologize for what’s happening in the US right now, where black Americans are disproportionately affected by coronavirus and and police violence. But people have to understand that this isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s a manifestation of “centuries of oppression”, Brown said.
“It has to go beyond saying I’m sorry,” she said. “There has to be action.”
‘Even greater reason to dance those roles the way that I want’
Calvin Royal III was on tour when he crash-landed with a sprained ankle during his final dress rehearsal for a premiere. Then, the American Ballet Theatre’s calendar went suddenly blank because of a pandemic, and it felt like falling all over again.
A soloist with ABT, Royal was slated for three principal debuts at Lincoln Center during the company’s stacked performance schedule. Now, he’s doing physical therapy over FaceTime and training inside a 500 sq ft home.
“It’s almost like in one week’s time, we went from having everything to having nothing. And so it’s been quite a rollercoaster, I would say,” Royal said.
He’s grateful to be safe, and to have a place to shelter. Although he’s kept journals ever since moving to New York, there’s more time to write nowadays. And he finally has the leisure to reach for his long-neglected bookshelf, pull down The Untethered Soul or Becoming, and find a corner to read.
He’s still collaborating on a virtual reality project around his and Misty Copeland’s highly anticipated turns as Romeo and Juliet; in May, they were supposed to make history as ABT’s first-ever African American duo in the titular roles. When the world’s stages finally reopen – and “that day will come”, he says – he knows he needs to be ready. After a long hiatus, he’ll have even more reason to portray characters such as Romeo the way he wants.
“I think that’s what I’m looking forward to most,” Royal said. “I’ll be able to bring that experience of really these dreams that have been deferred for me to those roles, and they’ll be deepened in ways that maybe they wouldn’t have been had I done them this year.”
‘An artist needs a stage’
During Val Chmerkovskiy and Jenna Johnson’s time in quarantine, they’ve celebrated both their birthdays and a first wedding anniversary. So they have decorated their house, mapped out a scavenger hunt, eaten dinner outside – small, creative gestures to make each other feel special.
“This time has definitely slowed our life down, refocused our priorities and allowed us to really appreciate the things that we love and find important in our life,” Chmerkovskiy said.
The Dancing With the Stars veterans have grown accustomed to their fast-paced lifestyle for the past seven years, where they shoot a season of the TV show in Los Angeles, then immediately hit the road. Now, their tour dates are all cancelled or postponed.
“I think especially as dancers, creators, movers, you have to keep using that artistic side of you, or else you’re gonna go crazy,” said Johnson.
They’ve shot videos for audiences around the world and hosted free Zoom classes for medical professionals. In May, they danced in The Disney Family Singalong, Volume II, which reached millions of viewers.
But when they visited Johnson’s family for Mother’s Day, they gave a much more intimate performance. With a Bluetooth speaker and a 100ft extension cord, they swayed and spun streetside, in workout gear, for Johnson’s socially distanced grandparents, who were supposed to see them on tour in Utah before the pandemic hit.
“Val and I decided to –”
“Show ’em how we’re thriving,” the couple joked.
“It didn’t take much from us,” Johnson said. “But that simple act truly made their whole Covid-19 experience a little bit better.”
‘It’s a city that never stops’
When studios shuttered, Kara Chan moved online with choreographer Pam Tanowitz for a virtual rehearsal.
“It’s definitely different because you’re not feeling the energy of the dancers, and I’m on a small screen trying to hear her from far away, but making sure that she can see me,” Chan said. “So I guess those are the limitations. But 10 years ago I don’t think rehearsing virtually would have been even an option.”
Chan was supposed to be working on a new project right now, and would have performed with Tanowitz’s company in London last month. But – virtual rehearsal notwithstanding – Covid-19 laid siege to her plans. So, instead of waiting in New York City, she’s thousands of miles away at her childhood home in Vancouver, meditating, playing piano and going on nature walks.
“That’s been very nurturing and grounding, just being able to escape into the forest,” Chan said.
She does ballet in the mornings over Zoom, “because taking class for me is like medicine”. But, after working on a whopping four projects in February, she’s also used the past few months to “reconnect with myself, with family – the things that really matter”.