It's been almost two years since the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic and it is still far from resolved. Alongside the financial challenges of lost jobs and incomes comes another challenge: falling ill and recovering from illness. For roughly 10-30% of the population who contract COVID-19, they will continue to feel the effects of the disease for months and sometimes years afterward. For dancers, this has a particularly insidious implication: what happens when your livelihood is threatened by a chronic illness?
Known as long COVID-19, long-haul COVID-19, post-acute COVID-19, long-term effects of COVID-19, or chronic COVID-19, it’s described by the American Medical Association as a cluster of new, returning, or ongoing health problems that persist for more than four weeks after the initial COVID-19 infection during the period when the individual should be recovering from illness. Even mild encounters with the disease can spawn long-haul COVID-19.
Symptoms are vast and far-reaching, affecting all organ systems. Many report ongoing pulmonary effects, like shortness of breath from diminished lung capacity, or cardiac symptoms like tachycardia or bradycardia. With these two systems compromised, it should come as no surprise that many sufferers of the chronic illness struggle with extreme fatigue and exercise intolerance. Other common symptoms include gastrointestinal disturbances, kidney damage, blood clots, hair loss, skin rashes, continued loss of taste and smell, and cognitive or neurological issues like brain fog or numbness. Alongside the physical manifestations, there are also mental concerns that frequently crop up like anxiety and depression.
"I’m trying to remain hopeful that the community can become more understanding of chronic illnesses. Not just for long-haulers, but everyone." - Allie Kronick
With all of this in mind, consider dance as a profession. This is an incredibly physically demanding endeavor, and many dancers further supplement their incomes through equally physically taxing second and third jobs like dance instruction, personal training, retail work, waitressing, or bartending. Dance, as an athletic and artistic enterprise, requires long hours and consistent dedication of the body, mind, and soul to not only create the best work you can but also to stay financially afloat. In the days prior to the pandemic, it was not uncommon to see dancers racing from job to job and working impossibly long days. Of course, after March of 2020, while many tried to continue dancing during the pandemic, the ensuing lockdowns changed everyone’s daily schedules. Yet, for those who have fallen under the shadow of long-haul COVID-19, the trauma of the pandemic is compounded with the burden of becoming an athlete with a chronic illness; operating in a world that has little to no tolerance for physical hardships.
Five dance artists were willing to open up about living life as “long-haulers:” Anonymous (Houston, TX), Emily Bufferd (New York City, NY), Corina Kinnear (Los Angeles, CA), Allie Kronick (New York City, NY), and Katie Stephanson (New York City, NY). These five women are accomplished dancers, instructors, and choreographers, who are deeply passionate about dance as an art form. It is their source of livelihood, passion, and purpose. All five worked incredibly physically demanding schedules before their bout with the illness, racing from job to job, traveling from city to city, and all have seen their artistry, bodies, incomes, and overall quality of life upended in the aftermath of the pandemic.
In 2019, like many dance artists, these five women were stretched thin on a day-to-day basis, working 12 to 14-hour days in incredibly physically demanding fields. When they weren’t dancing, they were teaching dance, teaching fitness classes, or working on their feet at retail jobs. Kronick laughs about eating on the subway between jobs, stating, “My friends used to make fun of how busy I was. If you didn’t schedule a coffee date with me a month in advance, you wouldn't see me for a while.”
“Oh, it was insane,” agrees Stephanson, “I would teach ten to twelve fitness classes per week, take one to two dance classes per day, take a fitness class at least every other day, and squeeze in gigging and auditioning in the midst of all of that.” Bufferd relates a particularly extreme example in which she taught a class at Broadway Dance Center back-to-back with a class at Steps. “I played for ‘team no days off’...” she says with a chuckle, “...I taught at Steps from 12 to 1:30, and then I taught at BDC from 1:30 to 3:00.” For the uninitiated, these two studios are (on a good day) twelve minutes apart by car.
Kinnear, who frequently traveled for her concert dance career, often found herself in new cities and new timezones, but still managed to always find and take local classes despite a rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule. “I’m one of those dancers that just loves to train,” she notes wistfully. “I would find a place to take class no matter what.” Anonymous relates her intense teaching schedule, which involved always teaching ballet to lower school ages from three to thirteen. “This involves a lot of energy and demonstration,” she notes, “since kids at that age need to visually see what you’re asking them to do.” Their days were long, full, and involved consistent physical effort. Then everything changed.
Most of these women contracted COVID-19 in the earlier days of the pandemic, and for the three in New York, living in the epicenter of the outbreak meant there was little to no help for them. Bufferd, isolated in her studio apartment for ten weeks and was told that unless she was “actively dying,” she needed to stay home. For some of them, their primary experience with the disease was difficult and brutal. Stephanson calls it “the worst virus ever” and she battled the initial illness for two to three months.
For others, the infection was mild, and strange new symptoms appeared after the first ones subsided. Kronick recounts how lucky she felt in the early days. “It was mild, all things considered. I mean I hated it, but I kept telling myself that I’m young, healthy, and fit. There was no reason to assume I wouldn’t just push on through.” Some of the women even continued to work during their illness, like Anonymous, who continued to teach from her home via Zoom. “It was just like a bad flu at first,” says Kinnear, “but then about a month after, I got all these new symptoms… doctors kept telling me that I looked healthy, and I had (and continue to have) a hard time getting them to understand that no matter how I looked, I certainly didn’t feel healthy.”
"In the same way we strive to honor peoples’ experiences when it comes to gender or race, we need to honor peoples’ experiences when it comes to health" - Emily Bufferd
Now, some of these women are one year into their long-haul COVID-19 journey and some are over two. Kinnear still experiences severe exercise intolerance, daily headaches, nausea, and fatigue that make dancing and working incredibly difficult to manage. Bufferd takes asthma medication, carrying an inhaler and an EpiPen with her at all times. Kronick, too, deals with exercise intolerance and doesn’t feel healthy enough to dance. Both her and Anonymous teach still, but often need to sit and moderate how much they are demonstrating, especially when it comes to jumping and turning. Stephanson has been forced to place her dance career on the back burner as she focuses on regaining her health, noting that it feels weird to dance. “I hate modifying in a dance class, honestly. I feel alienated like I don’t belong in my body or the community, and I get so tired I can’t focus on the class.”
All of them touch in one way or another on how different their relationship to their body and their art form has become. Dance artists from a young age are taught that being tired is normal and that pain is just something to push through. Yet, when you’re up against a debilitating chronic condition, that kind of mindset is impossible, and it becomes an insidious voice in your head, a brutal taskmaster that makes a tough situation that much harder. “It took me forever to realize that I wasn’t lazy,” says Kinnear, “I was beating myself up for resting, but I didn’t have a choice. My body wouldn’t let me keep going.”
They’ve reevaluated their schedules, with most of them cutting back on the classes they teach, carefully selecting the jobs they book and realizing that if they do not rest, their bodies will force them to. “If I push too hard, I crash,” Kinnear notes. Bufferd adds that the “show up at all costs'' mentality is something she can no longer do. “If I don’t feel well, I have to call out. I know in the past, I would have tried to just make it happen, but who is that benefitting? I won’t be able to give my students the best class I can.”
Yet, with this new normal they’ve been forced to reckon with, there is also a deep fear of stigma. Our world in general and the dance community specifically is not typically understanding or accommodating of those whose needs fall outside of what is considered “normal.” For Kronick, even just daily life in New York City is taxing. She has to consider which subway platforms have stairs, which transfers will be easiest on her body, and how many times per week she can run errands. She remarks, “I can’t do anything on the weekends. I need that time to recover.”
In their experiences, the dance community doesn’t know what to do with them. It’s been a mixed bag, with some employers remaining incredibly supportive, while others brush them off. “It feels like a silent illness,” says Anonymous. “Because as dancers, we look typically ‘healthy,’ so no one takes you seriously. There’s still this shame attached to contracting COVID in the first place. A lot of people just don’t believe that you’re struggling.” Bufferd, as a result of her teaching jobs, has been very open and vocal about her diagnosis to protect herself and her students. She still requires masks and limits the number of dancers allowed in the studio with her. “I think that makes people a little uncomfortable. I’m a reminder that COVID can make you really sick, and people are fearful of that.”
"It took me forever to realize that I wasn’t lazy, I was beating myself up for resting, but I didn’t have a choice" - Corina Kinnear
Kronick, trepidatious of how her diagnosis will impact dance jobs in the future, cites a general lack of empathy for what long-haul COVID means. “It’s already tough to advocate for yourself. I just keep wondering why someone would want to hire me as a ‘sick person,’ and I’m trying to remain hopeful that the community can become more understanding of chronic illnesses. Not just for long-haulers, but everyone.” So many questions remain, and the pandemic has not even fully concluded. The long-term implications of COVID-19 are vastly unknown, and the wide-reaching symptoms make the future incredibly difficult to assess. The best thing that the dance community can do at this point is to become aware of and welcoming to those battling a long-haul COVID-19 diagnosis. They need to operate differently in a studio and rehearsal setting, and they need employers and instructors who understand this. In a race to return to “normal,” we shouldn’t forget those for whom “normal” is no longer an option.
I’ll let Bufferd close it up for us: “My final takeaway for the community is this: there are a lot of us walking among you…And I want to be clear, I have so much gratitude for the kindness that is already offered to me, but in the same way we strive to honor peoples’ experiences when it comes to gender or race, we need to honor peoples’ experiences when it comes to health… If you’re struggling or feeling shame about having COVID, please share your experience because you are not alone. There’s somebody there for you.”
Thank you to Anonymous, Emily Bufferd, Corina Kinnear, Allie Kronick, and Katie Stephanson for taking the time to share their stories and experiences with the dance community. This is an incredibly personal and sensitive topic, and their openness should not go unacknowledged.