Dancers are no strangers to the identity crisis. In an industry that has operated for so long under the misguided, though largely accepted, notion that age is an affliction, we are uncommonly aware of our own expiration date from a young age. This deeply rooted perception that time is running out is perhaps one of the driving reasons behind the requisite intensity with which young dancers approach their training. The practice of becoming a dancer is so all-consuming that it eventually becomes the lens through which we see the world and, moreover, ourselves. It is a box in which we are placed, a narrative that comes to define us. Faced with the inevitability of the end of our careers long before they have even begun, questions about who we are without it permeate our beings.
The onset of Covid-19 and the seismic shifts the performing arts industry has been forced to weather have exacerbated this crisis, as dancers grapple with the harsh realities of the current virtual landscape and future viability in the field. With theaters broadly shuttered and no reasonable expectation of normalcy on the horizon, this sudden stillness had spurred deeper introspection into the artistic self than perhaps ever before. Instead of hustling from day job to dance class to rehearsal to gig - hurtling our bodies through subway turnstiles or zipping through seemingly interminable traffic while shoving an energy bar down our throats and fervently praying to the commute gods for the good luck of five extra minutes to grab the coffee that will help us through a day that is inexplicably both fleeting and endless – there was nothing. It is easy in the midst of the relentless daily grind to combat questions that accompany the grueling and undervalued lifestyle of a dancer. Busyness tends to equate to feelings of success in this regard, so when that frenzied rat race abruptly goes dark, the doubt surfaces and we must evaluate through self-reflection.
The urge to take a dance class has resurfaced - not for the sake of being relevant, not for the sake of being seen, but for the sake of reconnecting to this form my body and soul have been mourning.
There are two overarching questions that plague a dancer throughout their career, both of which have been uniquely illuminated and amplified during the pandemic – how do I keep doing this? and should I keep doing this? Dancers dedicate their lives to this profession – many forsaking a life of financial stability and comfort - in the name of art, passion and for a greater cause. For these reasons, and because dancers are creatures of action, the “how” tends to win out over the more existentially troublesome “should”. In the best of times, the interaction between these two questions can be unsettling. During pandemic times, it more closely resembles dropping a tube of Mentos into a liter of Diet Coke. It’s counterintuitive and messy.
For many, the “how” has meant scrambling to adapt to digital media or site-specific presentations, admirably pummeling through the unexpected adversity with the resourcefulness and resilience that characterizes those in our field. For others, no less admirably, it has meant sitting in the uncomfortability of the moment and hanging on for dear life. And for some, it has meant pivoting away to explore other avenues of interest in the interim or for good. The “should”, however, is where the identity crisis comes into play, as we parse through the myriad questions that could conceivably move the needle in one direction or the other.
When the pandemic began, I was two months away from premiering an evening-length production that my company had been working on for four arduous years – our longest and most ambitious project to date. I had the finish line in my sights and was limping towards it with determination. The production was intended to be a semi-immersive event for a mobile audience in an open warehouse with an ensemble of no less than twenty dancers, actors, live musicians, tech and crew. When it became clear that a May performance would be impossible, and with abject awareness of the difficulties of rescheduling amidst all the unknowns, I surrendered to the loss and sat still. The prospect of converting this production into a dance film struck me as inauthentic, logistically effortful and, ultimately, implausible. So I did not adapt. I took a handful of virtual classes - more to test a theory than to stay in the game – and shortly thereafter granted myself the freedom to disengage. As both a performer and a maker, I could not reconcile what I had previously known about myself as an artist with the new challenges surfacing amidst the pandemic. The simple act of detaching so fiercely contradicted my entire career, in which the “how” do I keep doing this routinely beat the “should” I keep doing this into a bloody pulp, that I felt compelled to uncover what was at its root.
When reflecting on one’s artistic identity, a dancer will typically ask themselves whether they value process or product more. There are countless variables at play here, and no right or wrong answer, though it can be a worthwhile exercise when intention and motivation come under scrutiny. I have discovered that (more often than not) when identifying as a dancer, I find the most satisfaction in the product – the act of performing. Alternatively, as a dancemaker, I find the process most rewarding, at times feeling overburdened by the expectation to produce a deliverable. Thus, in my early resistance to adapt as a creator in the virtual landscape - stripped of both process and product - I reverted back to my original form of dancer, fueled by the lifeblood of performance. But what does it mean to be a performer without a stage?
A dancer’s career hinges on the basic premise of being seen. We step into the spotlight, we dance for the camera, we commandeer public spaces for site-specific presentations. Yes, for the sake of art. But intrinsically …so that someone will see. Of course, there are artists who dance for themselves and make work that is never shared - but as an industry, we require the existence of an audience. Anything else encroaches on a tree falling in the woods and other conundrums that lack witness. But it went further than just the performance opportunities. The prospect of taking online class was, at first, unappealing and awkward. The inability to share physical space with other bodies in motion, the seeming loss of community, the inadequacy of space to move, and the act of taking class reduced to squinting at a tiny box on a glowing screen, felt like major hurdles to overcome. Of course, this has become our new normal and what a gift those tiny boxes have become.
We can evaluate what we want to preserve from our pre-pandemic lifestyles, acknowledge what did or did not serve us, and conceptualize how to move forward with intention.
But it went even further than that. Pre-pandemic class time was often a successful substitute for performance. In the lulls between gigs (and certainly in preparation for them), it served as a place where a dancer could perform without expectation, experiment with new modalities, and continue to hone their skills while preserving their sense of purpose and place in the community. It was a place you could go to be seen. An inherent component of the second half of most dance classes is the combination. A collection of movements is learned (which can be likened to a miniature dance), the dancers are split up into groups and take turns executing the combination and applauding each other’s efforts. This, for all intents and purposes, is performance in itself. In a time during which the possibility of being seen by an audience was drastically reduced, the possibility of being seen at all had predominantly disappeared.
As someone who values the integrity of art above all else, and who believes resolutely in its societal significance and power to affect change, I had never put much stock into the vanity of it. But dancing in isolation in a small corner of my living room, scanning the thumbnail versions of my classmates forced me to reconsider. Even the loss of the mirror and companionship of my own reflection, however absurd, was disheartening. I had always seen class as a joyful space to train – to sharpen neuromuscular pathways and connect to my physicality – so to realize that much of that satisfaction was derived from being seen was both enlightening and problematic.
This sparked further crises, including whether my artistry was more contingent on personal fulfillment than the act of contributing to society in a meaningful way. To which I was reminded of the long-held fallacy that great art cannot be achieved without struggle. Artists are conditioned to believe that if we are not sacrificing at great cost to our own well-being (financially, physically, mentally), we are not operating from a place of authenticity - a construct of a society that consistently undervalues and undermines our worth. Yet in other industries, success is often measured by health and wealth. Couldn’t it be the symbiotic relationship of personal fulfillment and a greater purpose that enhances the art, infusing it with deeper meaning and proliferating outward into the world?
In light of these, amongst other uncertainties the pandemic has exposed, the ominous “should” remained steadfast. Should I keep doing this? Even more troubling, was the sheer volume of dancers that were simultaneously struggling with this same dilemma. (Notwithstanding the numerous dance organizations that have since dissolved permanently, due in large part to the untenable financial realities at present – an article for another time.) We had lost our sense of purpose, which for an artist, can be crippling. Experiencing a lack of motivation, in a field that requires unyielding commitment from the outset, can feel defeating at best. At worst, it can feel like a sign, however impossible it may be to imagine a life beyond it. The fear of doing too little, of not doing it well enough, of not knowing how to do it, has brought on unique heights of anxiety. To which we must remember that we are all working against the same adversary at the same time. You cannot fall behind.
Busyness tends to equate to feelings of success in this regard, so when that frenzied rat race abruptly goes dark, the doubt surfaces and we must evaluate through self-reflection.
I have “taken a break” from dancing exactly three times in my life. Each time, I asked myself whether it was truly my calling or if I had simply boarded an unstoppable train, plunging forward with unquestionable persistence and no destination in sight. Each time I got off the train, it took no longer than nine months to re-board. The same has held true during this pandemic. What initially felt Sisyphean in nature, cursedly rolling a boulder uphill in perpetuity, has tempered with ensuing months. The urge to take a dance class has resurfaced - not for the sake of being relevant, not for the sake of being seen, but for the sake of reconnecting to this form my body and soul have been mourning. To those dancers who approached this crisis with vigor – who were energized by the challenges, found rigor in the quiet, and easily attuned yourselves to this new normal – my utmost respect.
In these unprecedented times, we have been shaken to our cores. Loss has been woven into the fabric of our daily lives with differing and, often unthinkable, levels of devastation. There were no preexisting coping mechanisms to rely on, no comfort in the knowledge that this, too, would pass. Thankfully, dancers are resilient. We have made entire careers out of rejection, thrive under pressure, improvise amid impractical situations and exercise a level of self-reflection and self-awareness underutilized by most. Despite the crushing blows of this past year, it is worthwhile to recognize the good. The virtual space has granted us unparalleled access to companies, choreographers, and teachers around the globe. It has expanded the bounds of what is possible, forcing innovation and creative problem-solving to the forefront. It has also allowed dancers the ability to take inventory of our lives. We can evaluate what we want to preserve from our pre-pandemic lifestyles, acknowledge what did or did not serve us, and conceptualize how to move forward with intention as the world opens up again. We are performers whether or not we’ve recently taken the stage, we are dancers whether or not we are dancing. Our identities will fluctuate until our bodies leave this earth, so let’s give ourselves permission to do so without judgment – to adapt, to sit still, to move on, to come back, to reinvent, to be bigger than the box that confines us.