Like author Alice Walker, I believe that “hard times require furious dancing.” I have written, time and time again, that dance has the potential to empower individuals, unite communities, and be a force for good in the world. But when I first learned that schools and studios would be transitioning to online classes in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, even I was skeptical:
How can we create a sense of community when we can’t be in the studio together? How can we ensure our students are working safely and utilizing proper technique if we can’t use hands-on teaching methods? How can we set choreography, prepare for performance, keep working toward our shared goals?
Duty called, however. I sat in my car for 30 full minutes before my first online class, worrying about how I would look on camera, if I’d get the technology right, whether the students would be able to navigate through the movement I planned in their spaces at home. (This was in the “good old days” before Arizona went to a Stay-at-Home order, back when we could teach from the studio instead of from our living rooms.)
By the end of the class, however, I was a true believer. I didn’t realize how much anxiety I had been experiencing, not just about teaching online but about the entire pandemic situation. I didn’t want to admit it, but I had convinced myself that having any semblance of normalcy in these “uncertain times” was just wrong. After the class, it felt like everything changed. I felt calmer, more hopeful, more myself. Dancing, even under less than perfect circumstances, created a tremendous shift in my sense of well-being. I found myself thinking: If I needed that so badly, how much more did my students?
Of course, conducting classes online isn’t the same as being there in person, moving together in real time and space. There will be glitches and delays and the strange sensation of dancing into a screen instead of a live audience. However, the chance for teachers and their students to be in their bodies at the same time, expressing their feelings, exploring their new dance spaces, and sharing smiles and virtual hugs, is incredibly grounding and energizing at the same time.
The fact is dancers need to dance, even in less that ideal circumstances. In fact, we might need to dance more when our circumstances are not ideal. Are online dance classes a magic fix for the problems the world is facing? Of course not. Would I choose to teach online rather than in-person if given the option? No way. But I truly believe that dancing “alone together” in virtual settings is better than not dancing at all right now, and here is why:
1.) Dancing gets people into their bodies. Most of us – including kids – are spending way too much time in front of screens right now. Whether we are conducting business online, crisis schooling online, or engaging in digital distractions (did someone say Tiger King?), too many of us are living through the screen and not in our bodies. Even though online dance classes are conducted with the assistance of technology, they are providing a healthy, embodied experience at a time when we desperately need to disconnect from virtual reality and connect with our physical bodies.
2.) Dancing is all about routine. From a familiar warm-up to a favorite piece of choreography, dance provides a comforting sense of routine in chaotic times. The simple acts of connecting with a beloved teacher and treasured friends (albeit virtually), warming up the body, and moving through the technique that has become a part of us as dancers helps establish a sense of normalcy that will get through uncertainty, isolation, and grief.
3.) Dancing is good for mental and emotional health. At its most basic level, dance is a form of physical exercise, and like all exercise it will result in the release of endorphins that make participants feel happier. Because dance is also a creative and expressive experience, it can have a more potent affect on our overall well-being. The use of improvisation and therapeutic exercises in dance class can help students process scary circumstances and overwhelming emotions in a healthy, productive way.
4.) Dancing can lead to personal empowerment. Students – like the rest of us – are likely experiencing a lack of agency, as if they no longer have control over their own lives. Because of this, it is especially important to help them discern where to focus their energy and how to respond to adversity. Through dance, students become empowered. They learn to feel and control their bodies, performing challenging physical feats with ease. More importantly, they learn that this mastery is possible only through hard work, grit, passion, and self-control. These qualities will be key to helping students overcome our current situations and shape the trajectories of their lives to come.
Parents, I know you may be tempted to pull your children from online dance classes because they aren’t “the same” as being in the studio. I understand, but I encourage you to at least give it a shot, if you are financially able. You may find that dancing – even online – is just what your child needs to thrive in these challenging times.
Dance teachers, I know you probably don’t like this very much. It’s hard, it’s not what we signed up for. But at the end of the day, know that providing these tiny respites from the chaos of the world for your students can make a lasting impact for them,.
Dance studio owners and program directors, I see how hard you are hustling right now, and I thank you for providing an outlet for us teachers to keep doing what we love.
Dance students, especially seniors, I hope you never forget how are amazing you are. You are rising to the challenges in front of you and handling disappointments with as much grace as you can. I encourage you to keep moving. Even if it doesn’t feel perfect, even if you wish you were on stage or in the studio or anywhere but in your bedroom in front of a screen. Whatever you are feeling, put it into your dance. You are a dancer, it’s what you do, and it is what makes you an important part of this special dance community that will always have your back, even if we have to have it through Zoom.
Dance teacher colleagues: Since so many of you are seeing your studio close or class going to online due to COVID-19, I want to offer a free copy of my dance journaling guide for students. It has 52 prompts to help students reflect on their technical, artistic, and social emotional growth￼, as well as the important role of dance in their lives and communities. Suitable for ages 12+ with some dance experience. I’m hoping that it will be a helpful tool for keeping your students engaged in their dance training when they can’t be at the studio, and be a good supplement to online classes. You can get it as a free download – no email address required – here
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