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Dancing When No One is Watching: How Dancers are Persevering in Year Two of COVID-19

This International Dance Day, Culturas brings you the second and final part of our dance feature. Today, we look at how young dancers navigate ‘Zoom University’ during the ongoing pandemic.

Eli Alford (Photo by Rose Eichenbaum/source: @eli_alford)

Eli Alford, Anijah Lezama, and Jordan Powell should have been on the Broad Stage in Santa Monica for their performance final. They had planned for months and prepared their minds to look down and see their friends and family as the red velvet curtains open, the spotlight quickly flickered from dancer to dancer. 

At the end of the show, everyone would roar with applause, and parents armed with bouquets and camera phones would rush to the stage as they eagerly wait for their kids. They should have been there. But they weren’t. Because Alford, Lezama, and Powell were unlucky enough to be college sophomores in 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the world and put all our plans on pause.

Rather than giving their dream performance, they were all in their hometowns finishing their studies. But, unlike students in other fields who could more readily log on to Zoom classes and learn, they were forced to use their kitchen counters as makeshift ballet bars and rearrange furniture to create space to dance freely. 

“It’s really just not the same experience as it is when you’re [on stage],” says Alford, a 21-year-old from Birmingham, Ala. He spoke fast and purposefully–like each sentence was a movement in itself–and his eyes got big with excitement at the mere thought of performing again. “It’s kind of hard to describe, but dancers in a room together, sweating together, moving together, it just creates a whole energy.”Lezama, who donned a neat bun, simple gold jewelry, and a white sweater turtleneck as she recounted her online school experience, was very soft-spoken and didn’t really use her face or hands to extend what she was saying. Nevertheless, she beautifully expressed how dance and movement have helped her construct not just her creative identity, but confidence and voice as well. 

Celine Kiner (source: @celinekiner)

“Dance has always been my opportunity to use my voice,” said Lezama. “I’ve always been really shy and nervous, and dance has always been a way for me to be that other person that I could be on a stage. In that performance setting, I come alive. It’s an experience that I don’t really feel any other way than when I’m on that stage.”

It wasn’t just student dancers like Alford and Lezama whose art was affected by the pandemic. Celebrity performers too had to adapt over the last year. Everyone from the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra to Erykah Badu to Coldplay’s Chris Martin live-streamed at-home concerts from their living rooms, while opera singer Andrea Bocelli stood outside the Duomo Di Milano and sang “Amazing Grace” to a completely empty square. Performance festivals and shows across the globe were postponed. By April, the American Ballet Theater canceled its season at the Metropolitan Opera House, and music festivals South by Southwest, Coachella, and Stagecoach all postponed or canceled altogether, leaving millions holding tickets that would never get used.

These canceled performances led to one thing: canceled jobs. And for new college graduates, it meant going to the back of an ever-growing entertainer unemployment line. 

Dance studios closed down left and right as the pandemic grew. As reported by the L.A. Times, The Pieter Performance Space in Lincoln Heights shut down in June, choreographer Ryan Heffington (Sia’s “Chandelier,” Netflix’s “The OA”) moved his Silver Lake studio online in July, and the Edge Performing Arts Center were forced to close their doors in August.

In 2020, the live events industry has lost more than $30 billion in revenue, according to a December report by concert trade publication Pollstar. This figure includes $9.7 billion at the box office, with the remaining billions in “unreported events, ancillary revenues, including sponsorships, ticketing, concessions, merch, transportation, restaurants, hotels, and other economic activity tied to the live events,” as stated by the annual report.

Jordan Powell (Photo by Joye Qualls/source: @jordannpow)

For Celine Kiner, a current junior designer at boutique creative studio Nom de Pixel, dancer and arts journalist who graduated from USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance in 2019, the pandemic has rattled her employment status and nudged her to pivot almost entirely to freelance work. 

Freelancing has been interesting,” says Kiner. “I do a lot of client-based work, which translates well from dance… but [freelancing] is also different, it feels unstable. Of course, I was going to be a freelancer as a dancer, but this is new territory.”

The pandemic has also made the job search process a more competitive one for Kiner’s friends and colleagues.

“People that I really looked up to in school had to move back home and wait since the entire [dance] industry shut down,” says Kiner. “It’s really important to put that into perspective. Everyone is doing the best they can, and I give my friends and colleagues grace for that.”

Of course, the arts aren’t only about getting paid, but finding fulfillment in the work.

During this pandemic, performers were forced to get creative in the ways they practice. This school year–which has been completely online–Alford, Lemaza, and Powell have performance midterms along with technique classes that consist of two genre classes in a three-hour time block, whether it be contemporary, hip-hop, jazz, or ballet. They also have repertory performance classes and labs where they learn how to rehearse and work with their peers during performances. 

“When I’m moving, it can transgress all kinds of boundaries that language and culture set up,” says Alford. “Not only am I a dancer, but I’m also a historian in a way–I’m a cultural ambassador of my own heritage. That gives me a duty in the world as an artist.” 

Anijah Lezama (Photo by Rose Eichenbaum/source: @houseofanijah)

But, throughout this semester of adaptation and rethinking, these classes have transformed into Zoom lectures and discussions about what kind of creative projects and conversations about dance can be facilitated online, places where students can present homemade dance films or read their poetry. Rehearsals now take place in little Zoom squares, in which students strategically set up their laptop and dance in front of the camera, welcoming critique from their professors. 

And while this situation isn’t ideal, the students are persevering and finding comfort in their bodies and crafts in ways that don’t rely so much on live performance. 

“Doing dance in any kind of capacity has always been fun for me,” says Powell, with a charming smile that fills her face. “There’s always so much to learn and explore within dance, whether it’s different genres, learning about the ways that dance intersects with culture and society, or how dance can be used to help others. Dance is ingrained in all aspects of life, so [I don’t] ever get bored of learning about it.”

It’s clear that no matter the circumstances dance is something that lives within each of these student dancers. 

“We tend to think of dance as this big production, with all the costuming, performance, who’s in the theater, but [the pandemic] really made me realize that I need dance,” says Alford. “It’s my personal art form, and I wouldn’t be myself without it.”

Aarohi Sheth
Aarohi Sheth
Aarohi Sheth is a writer + artist originally from Houston, TX, currently pursuing a degree in journalism at the University of Southern California. She hopes to keep creating interdisciplinary work that pushes boundaries, empowers underrepresented communities and generates empathy in others.
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