In so many ways dance classes are the backbone of the dance community. They allow us to develop our craft, to share our passions, and to feel connected to others. They enable dance artists to collect income (yay!), which allows us to create more (double yay!).
So what happens if dance classes are banned by law because of a pandemic? Well, we have them anyway. Just differently.
As the crisis of COVID-19 spreads throughout our communities, closing dance studios and the communal spaces we love, Seattle dance artists are proving resilient and ready to offer the classes we need. And right now, dance classes are needed now more than ever: during quarantine, who isn’t looking for ways to exercise, feel connected, and support the local arts scene?
But the transition from in-person to virtual classes is difficult. How can we digitize something that is so intertwined with interpersonal joy? The answer is ultimately: imperfectly. Yet despite the glitches, virtual dance classes are breathing life into Seattle’s dance communities, offering so many people connectedness, creativity, and comfort during a distinctly detached, dreary, and distressing time.
To begin my own personal foray into virtual classes, I took the ever-popular Dance Church®, a part exercise, part dance party movement phenomenon, founded by Seattle’s Kate Wallich. Looking for a way to make a virtual experience hold the same community, spirit, and joy that folks look for in Dance Church®, Wallich, with the help of her partner’s design company, launched a brand new platform, Dance Church® Go, a live streaming website exclusively for Dance Church® classes.
“I wanted to be intentional,” Wallich told me. Dance Church® Go works to simulate as closely as possible the in-person class, complete with the cardio workout, moments for daydreaming, and good vibes everyone loves. The website also purposefully broadcasts the number of people tuning in live, a little number in the corner of the screen, built to show the community you’re a part of. When I was on, that number was 4,800, which Wallich tells me, is pretty typical of virtual Dance Church® right now. With the move to virtual classes, it almost seems like Dance Church® is flourishing; Wallich reported that Dance Church® gained 25,000 Instagram followers in just 2 weeks.
Thriving is rare these days however; surviving seems to be more the norm. Ian Howe, a Seattle-area choreographer, performer, and studio-owner, relays the difficulty brick and mortar studios are facing. Even beyond the move to digital dance, Howe worries what impact an economic recession will have: how can a studio exist without paying customers? But even as his studio, Pac West Performing Arts (donate here!) copes with the transition to Zoom classes and pre-recorded videos, Howe has found solace in offering free classes on his own time for the general public.
Howe’s taken to teaching “whatever people want” on Facebook and Instagram Live (you can follow him here and here), as open classes for anyone. He’s heard from people he hasn’t spoken to in years and from folks he didn’t even know followed him, thanking him for carving out a little space for fun during this hectic time.
In so many ways Howe epitomizes the marvelous strength of so many Seattle dancers right now: in times of struggle and uncertainty, we prove resilient and community-driven, re-focusing on what brings us joy, like sharing dance with others.
Founder and Artistic Director of PRICEarts, Noelle Price, also demonstrates the wondrous generosity and thoughtfulness that is possible during a pandemic. Price intentionally developed her online class system, PRICEarts Dance Series, a subscription package of 2 months worth of material, to address (as best as possible) the inequities in internet access. She found that Zoom just wasn’t working; without high-quality internet access, people would easily get lost in class. A short screen freeze could leave out huge chunks of a combination, disproportionately excluding people with less access to the internet, highlighting just one example of how privilege plays out during social distancing. Taking this into consideration, PRICEarts decided to offer pre-recorded videos, a lower lift for wifi, that come in 20-30 minute warm-up videos and 15 minute videos of phrase work.
Price also took care to offer the Dance Series at equitable pay intervals of $1, $10, $20, and $50, so that regardless of financial stability anyone can access the material, but at the same time also works to provide her company and dancers with some financial support. Even though the internet is overwhelmed by free content and PRICEarts only recently started offering family and company classes, Price felt a flush of community support, flooded with feedback about how necessary these classes were.
Though Price finds teaching to the camera a lonely experience, she tells me that she works to bring her whole self into virtual teaching, careful to create a space where people can feel safe and sane. “It’s a huge challenge,” Price adds. But she too is so grateful for the resilience she has seen.
In studios where our youngest movers are learning to dance, the shift to virtual classes brings some interesting challenges. Erika Jacobsen, a teacher of 7-18 year olds at All that Dance in the University District, shares that virtual classes have pushed her to think creatively about engaging her students. Some days she’ll ask them to share a dance video they like and discuss it, while on other days, she’ll ask for a video recording of them performing choreography full-out as a solo. Yes, virtual teaching is difficult, Jacobsen says, but at least she finally has a chance to quiet the chatty 8 year olds in her jazz class with the click of a mute button.
Jacobsen is not blind to the context around her. She notes that some kids won’t be able to access dance classes at all. She also knows that as kids become responsible for their own dance practice, some will grow while others will struggle. At the same time, Jacobsen feels immensely lucky to even still be getting paid to teach.
A real feeling of crisis underlies the experiences of so many in our community right now, and virtual dance classes can only bridge so much of the gap. Endlessly rehearsed performances, carefully thought out events, and regularly scheduled rehearsals have felt like they evaporated into thin air. Money is tight, and income for artists and studios are scarce. With so much uncertainty and fear, it amazes me to see Seattle dance communities so ready to keep teaching, learning, moving, and supporting each other. Virtual classes cannot replace the in-person connections we love, but for the time being, they are proving so important to keeping our communities strong and dancing.