Dancing Together Apart

Earlier this month, my book about the way dance practices have circulated on the Internet since the mid-1990s was published. In Perpetual Motion: Dance, Digital Cultures, and the Common (which you can find online open access here and pdf or epub here), I explored many different aspects of how dance and other embodied practices live on the internet, particularly as it exploded with social media in the mid-2000s. Changes in the dance-mediascape have continued as choreographers and dance teachers have adjusted to building a clientele in a digital economy, as music artists determine how to engage or not with the dance community, as entrepreneurs build platforms and apps for the distribution of movement practice content, and so on. What interested me in Perpetual Motion was how popular media put pressure on assumptions about dance—about who could do it, about the central importance of ‘liveness,’ and about how dancers might craft a bodily community and sense of belonging from the circulation of timely but asynchronous gestures (and the politics of sharing embodied content). What movements do our bodies hold in common? Through what corporeal practices and gestures do we articulate our being-together when we are also at a distance online?

What a difference a few days makes. Within the past several weeks, new considerations have emerged with the novel coronavirus. This time, it is the space-hungry, stage-based, group-oriented dance practices that are moving online en masse. Not only have professional dance artists watched their tours and performances get canceled, dance educators have had to cancel classes, and the adjacent spaces that support dance practice—gyms, clubs, yoga and Pilates studios, community centers, church groups—the places that people gather to be in community—have been shuttered all at once. For those in the performing arts profession as dance makers, dance performers, dance educators, and others, this moment is devastating. Live streaming and video conferencing through platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, or even more intimate video chats through WhatsApp and FaceTime offer a lifeline.

Across the country, from dancers with the New York City ballet, to Debbie Allen Dance Academy, to local studios in small towns, dancers and dance teachers whose usual platform is the face-to-face interaction of physical practice, are live streaming dance classes on an unprecedented scale. Katherine Diesnhof created the website Dancing Alone Together to collate these class offerings, which for Sunday, March 22nd alone included multiple levels of ballet and contemporary dance, West African, hip hop, somatics, improvisation, jazz, Gaga, waving, and even the ring shout. Dancers all over the country and even the world-over are determining how to sustain physical practices built on embodied co-presence by pivoting toward digital intimacy in a time of social—which is to say physical—distancing.

Such action of supporting each other in our practices despite extraordinary world events reminds me of the film Into the Forest. Holed away in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, Eva, played by Evan Rachel Wood, continues to rehearse her dance solo for an upcoming competition despite a global power-outage that throws everything into chaos. She returns daily to her luxurious private dance studio while the world basically falls apart around her, leaving her sister Nell, played by Ellen Page, to pick up the pieces. I’m not suggesting that streaming dance classes right now is an example of negligence toward the world, especially since many of us literally can’t go outdoors. But what it does assume is that things will go back to ‘normal,’ and that in a couple of weeks, we’ll all be back in our studios with our dance buddies. We must therefore be prepared for things to go back to normal by sustaining our physical practices now. Surely, some will insist that there is no return to normalcy, and will therefore set about discovering new ways of dancing at home and online that will change how we dance in studios and onstage in the future.

Today, my state went on lockdown. As a dance practitioner and educator, I’m buoyed by the ways movers and makers are sustaining local, national, and international movement communities. As a scholar of dance onscreen, I’m also eager to see what new practices emerge as artists grapple with the reality of living and working in conditions of a pandemic. Because we’re going to need all of them to get through this time of dancing together apart.