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By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor

After navigating a pandemic for a year-and-a-half, I realize that I will never fully go back to normal. I don’t want to. 

I never want to go back to my pre-pandemic insecurities: feeling like I have to make the part of myself that’s a parent or spouse small in order to be taken seriously as a woman artist. I never want to tie my worth to how many grants or opportunities I receive. I never want to feel pressured to have to see the “It” choreographer’s show, or like my movement style needs to reflect a popular aesthetic. During lockdown, I experienced life removed from these pressures. I saw how my typical breakneck pace of life is not conducive for thriving. Making more time for rest, for unscheduled time—time to breathe—these are all things I want moving forward.

In renegotiating my relationship with dance, I know that I’m not alone.  

Many of us are embracing new outlooks, making choices that prioritize our mental and emotional health. Without the ability to perform for live audiences, many dancers have been confronted with what their lives could look like outside of, or in addition to their art. 

To see how members of my community are thinking about dance right now—how they are coping, rebuilding, and planning for the future—I reached out to four artists I admire. 

Alana O’Farrell Rogers. Photo by Danny Boulet.

Getting back into class    

The return to dance class might feel cathartic for some. But after months at home, it could be a shock to confront how one’s body has changed. It’s not reasonable to always feel “body positive.” Body neutrality instead asks people to focus on appreciating what their bodies can do instead of how they look. 

This appreciation is woven into Alana O’Farrell Rogers’ Friday morning class at Shift, the movement and healing center O’Farrell Rogers recently acquired from veteran dance artist Michele Miller. The two-hour experience is structured with a return-from-pandemic attitude that’s welcoming and supportive. 

“It might mean learning to accept a new body,” said the choreographer and physical therapist. “It might mean being patient as you rebuild your strength.”

Of course, having a body, including an “out-of-shape body”—is a gift. O’Farrell Rogers’ most recent work, a trio, presented at Seattle International Dance Festival, reflects gratitude for life, among other feelings. I’m Sorry or Thank You and Everything Else in Between was created as she was processing the pandemic, including guilt at having survived, and the pain of so many lives lost. 

Dominique See. Photo by Devin Marie Muñoz.

Finding joyful movement in other ways 

Of course, not everyone wants to be in dance class. (Unpopular opinion: that’s OK). 

Despite that old-school pressure to constantly be in class, the only one who knows what’s best for a dancer’s physical, emotional, and artistic upkeep, is, well—the dancer themself. For many contemporary dancers, whose art varies in its physical requirements, there may be space for an individual to forge their own movement practice in place of or in addition to class. 

Exploring other types of moving such as yoga, running, swimming, Pilates, weight lifting and more can help create a more balanced relationship with dance. During the pandemic, Dominique See discovered her love of boxing.

“Boxing really helped me,” said See, who’s performed with MALACARNE and Pat Graney Dance company. “It’s been a new thing for my body to try and to learn. There’s a technique to it. It’s been great for dealing with stress and caring for my mental health.” 

During quarantine, she also re-connected with her love of dance outside of performing. Currently a teacher at All That Dance, See begins a Master’s Program in Dance Education at the University of Northern Colorado in fall 2022. 

Ella Mahler. Photo by Miles Fortune.

Who are you outside of dance? 

While transitioning back into dance after months of lockdown, Ella Mahler encourages artists to move at their own pace. Get clear on one’s own purpose and goals with dance—let those be a guide.

“If folks are feeling a whiff of that internalized, You better get to class, you better be making stuff happen and getting opportunities—that’s capitalism,” said Mahler, choreographer of the duet Here. (2019) with dancers David Rue and Anna Krupp. 

For Mahler, listening to her inner voice means allowing herself to be a complete human being: a friend, an aunt, a fundraiser, a person who takes action, to name only a few. As a white artist, she chose not to make art this last year and to focus on the ways she can support Black folks, Indigenous folks, and other PoC through other capacities—in her workplace, for example. 

“Dance hasn’t abandoned me, and I haven’t abandoned dance,” Mahler said. “It can rest over there, as I show up for my community in other ways. My art is not my whole identity and I don’t want it to be. It’s taken me a long time to know and embrace that.” 

Return to your love for the art 

On the eve of COVID-19 shutdowns in March 2020, Elise Marie Beers (who uses her name Aachix̂Qağaduug, pronounced  a-ch-EE-H-Ka-GathooHg, with friends, family, and those she’s in community with) was preparing a piece with contemporary and Indigenous styles for Tint Dance Festival. But the performance never happened.  

Elise Marie Beers Aachix̂Qağaduug self portrait.

“I was thinking, What a waste of time. Now I don’t remember the dance. The dancers are all dispersed. I put so much energy into this dance.”

Amid her feelings of loss, Aachix̂Qağaduug took time to pursue a goal with her father and brothers to climb and summit Mount Tahoma (“Mt. Rainier”). At the summit, Aachix̂Qağaduug sang the Aleut song which would have been a part of her Tint piece. Her father beamed with pride. While the uncertainty and grief of the pandemic were still there, Aachix̂Qağaduug’s ancestors and the humbling beauty of Coast Salish land were present as well. She describes the moment as a reminder of what guides her in dance: connection to the people and natural forces she comes from. These connections keep her path through life well-lit and clear. 

As venues begin to open again and audiences return to enjoying live performance, Aachix̂Qağaduug will not be among those rushing to jump in to a new project. 

“I’ll focus more on that slow start, just trying to stay rooted in my own happiness, healing—and connection to community.”

Throughout the pandemic, many dancers have been  struggling with a disconnection to a major part of themselves. Dance has sometimes needed to take a backburner to dealing with anxiety—or showing up for community in other ways. And now, cutting oneself some slack might not come naturally. Dancers have been trained to not only be in class, but to attend all the important shows and auditions, create work, be “seen,” stand out as “relevant”— and somehow also have time for a job to make money. 

For my fellow dancers: it’s OK to not have a project on the horizon right now. It’s OK to feel disconnected to the body that’s been in survival mode. Cultivating appreciation and care for your body—especially if it’s a new shape or has different physical capabilities now—is an ongoing practice. 

You can be away from dance for a long time and still be a dancer. You can not create anything for years and still be an artist. You can have many other interests and goals and still belong to the dance world.

Trust in yourself and your own process.  

Special thanks to Alana O’Farrell Rogers, Dominique See, Ella Mahler, and Elise Marie Beers (Aachix̂Qağaduug) for sharing their experiences and wisdom.