My shoulder hurts. I climb the escalator from Macy’s to Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. My purse is weighed down with notebooks, a portable speaker, a water bottle and, of course, snacks.
It is March 2020. I teach in the “Club WISE” program for seniors. I am greeted warmly by a group of six women, most of whom I guess are over 65. I’m told the group may be a little smaller than the one that signed up: “The virus is keeping some people at home.
We decided to co-create a dance on Ravel’s “Bolero”. A woman enthusiastically pulls the album out of her purse. We listen to it and do a dance of surrender. Then I want to hug everyone, but we know it’s better not to touch. I get back in my car. It’s raining a little – that typical Southern California March “rain” – as I head to a dance studio in Santa Monica to teach 12 and 13 year olds.
I’m busy, maybe too busy. But that’s the life of a dancer; it is a treadmill without a stop switch. But I like the treadmill. Dancing was my lifeline growing up in a dangerous alcoholic household where I didn’t feel heard. Performing “shows” in my parents’ backyard on the Grease soundtrack with my sister kept me alive. I need to dance, so I keep dancing.
Yet the continuing turmoil weighs on me. That week I ended up teaching 12 classes all over Los Angeles County, I danced with folxes ranging from professional dancers to elementary school kids to 90s in a dance studio, center memory loss center, a center for the elderly and a dining hall for the homeless. To top it off, I submitted my fifth grant application of the year, in addition to 15 hours of rehearsal, Pilates clients, and preparation for the premiere of a new show.
Then came the confinement. Scholarships, concerts, rehearsals, everything has disappeared. My show was postponed temporarily, then, indefinitely. These grants, what would I do without them? Probably nothing, because I couldn’t even buy toilet paper. The commotion was gone, except for one thing: the dance for the veterans.
In 2010, I was invited to co-create a dance program for veterans of mental health programs. My first thought was: me? We? Dance? Some of the veterans groups shared my initial skepticism. I am often asked: “When do the ‘girls’ arrive? My response is usually something like, “Well I’m the girl and we’re all going to dance together. ”
Our classes combine breathing, meditation, yoga, games, somatic exercises, group check-ins, and sometimes, writing and drawing. I draw from my training as a modern / contemporary dancer as well as various social dances like salsa, bachata, disco and waltzes. We improvise, play with coordination and, above all, do collaborative dances inspired by a moment of joy, what we see in the room, our names and places of birth. We perform these dances for ourselves. Focusing on the process rather than the product has become a departure for me as a choreographer which is often measured by what I get on stage.[N]Now I know that the transformative power of dancing and creating together can occur in people who have never met, on a broken telehealth system.
Cut to confinement …
“You have to wake up,” I reminded the class.
So far today’s session has gone quite well. I had only frozen once, my music wasn’t slipping at all, and my cats were staying under the bed. Now we have reached my favorite point: doing a dance together. Before class, one of the vets talked about all the sofas she had seen for garbage collection; she assumed that people were buying new sofas since they were at home all the time and wanted to be more comfortable. “I think we should do a dance about it today,” she suggests for our guest. “What comforts us? A veteran, while telling us about her new grandchild, pretends to rock the baby in her arms. We all make her move towards her. The 10 students perform a comfort dance in 10 movements on “September” from Earth Wind & Fire.
When we first switched to the virtual classroom after a few months of waiting, I was eager to reconnect but also doubtful: can I really reach seniors and super seniors – some of whom were born before the advent from television – on the Internet? Many did not even have computers or smartphones. The online education I had done before the pandemic had been fruitless and tedious. But despite my concerns, veterans showed up every week, men and women, of various ages and backgrounds.
In many ways, it was more intimate than our face-to-face classes. On camera, we saw each other’s pets, children, and grandchildren. We performed dances inspired by precious objects found in our kitchens and living rooms. We have shared birthdays and vacations together. The week before Christmas we danced to what we were headed for in the New Year. A vet jumped on his body shouting “free speech” with his arms outstretched. Another stood up, walked slowly to his monitor, and bowed, saying, “I am going to be healed. ”
My definition of the art form has always been broad and inclusive. But now I know that the transformative power of dancing and creating together can occur in people who have never met, on a broken telehealth system. It sounds like a revelation: we can dance when we are angry, sad, happy, alone and tired. Our dances can be from our chairs and sofas with our children and pets. We can dance without touching each other, without being close and breathing the same air. And yet we create, we are vulnerable and we thrive.
I was moved by the micro-communities that have settled in my virtual classes. We have collectively built resilience and found moments of celebration and social closeness. We embodied elements of resistance – resisting what a “dancer” looks like, what a dance “should” be like. And perhaps more importantly, we have resisted the isolation and fear of this pandemic.
Right before I got my second COVID shot, I invited a class asking ‘what do we want to give up’. Worry, pain, and judgment were some of the things we wanted to release in the dance.
Now, as we carefully re-enter “public” life here in Los Angeles, I wonder what my life is going to be like, and I realize that I want to let go so badly: I don’t want my life to go back to normal. what he was. I don’t want to go back to the endless hustle and bustle just to make a living. And I don’t want to go back to the little airless container in which we often put the dance.
This bodily mistrust, I believe, brings about social change. If dancing is so powerful, how can we each now reinvent and advance form? What could the dancer / dance designer / dance educator be? Can we continue to reframe the process on the product? And dance boldly for ourselves?
My colleague and friend Kai Hazel recently wrote an article on why she was “Break with dance”, that has marked me so deeply at the moment. She writes there “that transformation is the path to liberation”.
A thousand times yes to that. I do not yet have the answers to these larger questions myself and others have arisen around the dance. But I think having questions right now is much more important.
One thing has become increasingly clear: I know that I want my life and the lives of others to be different, to evolve. I also have an unwavering faith that dancing and creating with others will get us there.