The Time to Dance Is Now
How dancing can help us navigate the challenges of COVID-19.
Posted April 1, 2020
On March 31, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company offered free streaming of a 2015 recording of its most celebrated dance piece: Revelations (1960). As artistic director Robert Battle noted in his introduction, Mr. Ailey wanted to bring dance to the people, wherever they are. Now, with social distancing, that place is home.
Battle also noted how appropriate the theme of Revelations is to our current coronavirus moment. Choreographed to traditional African American spirituals, the dance evokes the African American experience of moving from the abject suffering of slavery to the joyful salvation found through music and dance. Dance, Battle noted, touches our shared humanity.
Revelations is just one example of how, in this time of coronavirus, dancing is leaping from the internet. Dance companies are streaming previously recorded performances as well as producing composite videos of dancers dancing at home. Dance teachers and dance schools are offering online classes, often for free, from beginning to advanced in multiple styles. An interested student with internet access can begin a study of the Martha Graham Technique with teachers in New York City, take classes in advanced ballet with professionals like Christina Johnson, who works with the LINES Company in San Francisco, or learn sequences from Revelations from Hope Boykin. They can take Movement Medicine from Emily Wright in Virginia, or the Art and Practice of Movement from Karin Stevens in Seattle.
Katherine Disenjof, a professional dancer temporarily laid off due to COVID-19, has created the website Dancing Alone Together as a resource for dancers who want to see, study, and create in this time of social distancing.
These dancers are not simply keeping busy. The current explosion of opportunities to see and practice dance is part of a long tradition of calling upon dance as a resource for dealing with hardship, persecution, and even pandemic. From the Spanish tarantella to the medieval Dance of Death (that arose in response to the Black Plague), from the all-night healing dance of the Kalahari Bushman to the Native American Ghost Dance, humans throughout history have engaged practices of rhythmic bodily movement to resist oppression and promote healing of themselves and the Earth.
Explaining why Native Americans today created the Social Distance Powwow to share videos of themselves performing traditional dances, Liz Salway of Wind River Reservation in Wyoming confirms: "We're not only doing this for ourselves, but we're doing this for the world because we need to be able to fight this sickness together and our native ways are the best ways to fight it."
Can dance help fight this sickness?
An answer depends on a thorough understanding of the particular challenges posed by the coronavirus. The illness itself can kill. It is also terrifying in its spread and destruction. The isolation imposed by social distancing can mean that people are lonely and/or overwhelmed by the constant presence of family. The need to work and learn from home through virtual media requires hours of sitting in front of screens. The uncertainty of the economic situation can breed hardship and suffocating anxiety.
Further, once this virus is contained, there will be no going back. As societies, communities, families, and individuals, we will have created new habits and desires, new relationships to the Earth and one another, new heroes and new villains. How we respond to the challenges posed by COVID 19 will shape the world we have when it is over.
As wide-ranging as these challenges are, they collectively form a hole that is dance-shaped. For dance is not just one response to the coronavirus, it is an activity that strengthens our ability to respond to the coronavirus.
Whether we feel liberated from carpooling or burdened by a full house, happy at home or cut off from the community, the current moment requires three skills that dancers across traditions and techniques cultivate: creativity, flexibility, and resilience.
It's a new world. It calls for new movements. And while commentators across social media may argue back and forth about whether you should tackle a project you have put off for years or drop any grand plans and be present in the moment, the real question is how to stay open to receive the answers that are right for you. Everyone's situation is different. And it is difficult to be creative when you are sick, tired, or smothered in anxiety and fear.
Reality is in flux. Even when you settle on a plan or a schedule, it is likely that in the next week or day or hour, something or someone will interrupt your best intentions. Flexibility is a willingness to move in a new direction—again—when the original plan doesn't work.
When so much around you provokes fear, frustration, and anxiety, regular jolts of joy are necessary to stay open to new ideas and solutions. Our human organisms need experiences of joy that are not virtual but actual: experiences of being and moving as bodily selves. They also need exercise to maintain the vitality of their immune systems.
In each of these cases, the action of dancing is a vital asset. We can push back the furniture and open up some space in whatever room we choose. We can take a class offered through the internet, or we can turn on our favorite song and move spontaneously on our own.
However we do it, a similar transformation frequently occurs.
The movements we make stir our sensory awareness to life. We feel what we are feeling—the pain and the pleasure. We know more about what is working for us and what isn't.
We are aware of our bodily selves as moving, and in that experience, we reconnect with our capacity to act. We are not powerless. We can move. We can choose to move in one direction and not another. And we can choose to move in patterns that release suffering and generate joy.
When we play with our own movement potential, new possibilities arise. We sense them. We move with them. We play with them. And the freedom we feel helps us let go of the anxiety and frustration that would otherwise clog our creativity. We are better able to sense our connections to one another and to the Earth and to make choices that honor what will sustain our lives.
The movements we make do not have to be large or sophisticated. They don't have to be technically perfect. We can dance in a chair or lying down on the floor. We can dance with people of all ages—including and especially young ones. Dance party! We can dance to any music or none at all. The point is that we do it, and let our dancing serve as a strategic intervention in this emerging moment, guiding us to participate in creating realities that support the well-being of human bodies and the Earth.
It may be that it has never been easier to dance—to learn to dance, to try out a new kind of dance, or to be inspired by the work that dancers have created.
And never more necessary.
Eherenreich, Barbara. 2006. Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. New York: Holt.
Gotman, Kelina. 2018. Choreomania: Dance and Disorder. Oxford University Press.
McNeill, William H. 1995. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Simpson, Richard J., John P Campbell, Maree Gleeson, Karsten Krüger, David C Nieman, David B Pyne, James E Turner, Neil P Walsh. Can Exercise Affect Immune Function to Increase Susceptibility to Infection? Exerc Immunol Rev, 2020