When the theaters closed, the dancers moved online
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, the artistic community was rattled. Ballet performances and the remainder of company seasons were canceled. Dancers who have been preparing for performances all season long were now unable to have the chance to perform on stage. Dance companies who once had established seasons are suffering the loss of ticket sales due to canceled programs.
And yet, artists everywhere are displaying their resiliency, tenacity, and creativity by turning their craft online. The internet now hosts videos of orchestra members rehearsing from their homes, Broadway singers singing in unison from their homes, and dancers practicing their daily class at home. As it turns out, even the most physically demanding performances can be moved to the virtual world.
Professional dancers are teaching free classes online
As a former dancer with Ballet West, I have watched as dancers worldwide became banned from their studios and unable to maintain their rigorous schedule of class and rehearsals.
For dancers, class is an essential daily practice, and when unable to attend in-person, dancers innovated, turning kitchen counters, chairs, or window ledges into their own personal ballet barres. Then they started streaming those classes online, offering many of them for free.
Katherine Disenhof, for one, quickly created an invaluable resource for dancers to stay in shape. A furloughed dancer with NW Dance Project, her Dancing Alone Together movement quickly racked up more than 37,100 Instagram followers and publishes 40-90 mostly free virtual class options per day in repertoires including ballet, tap, hip hop, West African Dance, Gaga Technique, and contemporary.
Instagram has become the unwitting host of many of these classes. Famous dancers who already had accounts took to their platforms to host free workouts and live classes. American Ballet Theatre (ABT) principal dancers Isabella Boylston (@isabellaboylston) and James Whiteside (@jamesbwhiteside), nicknamed “the Cindies,” are especially entertaining, offering themed classes such as 90s jazz and 80s workouts accompanied by hashtags #JimFondaPartyPump and #TheCindiesBalletClass. Their classes have amassed over 15,000 virtual attendees.
Studios have moved online as well. Allison DeBona and Rex Tilton are the cofounders of artÉmotion, a performing arts program committed to developing artists and dancers. They host annual summer programs for students and adults in Salt Lake City and Cleveland and are deeply committed to providing people of all ages the opportunity to dance. So when COVID-19 struck, artÉmotion quickly pivoted, offering free ballet classes through Instagram Live.
Professional dancers worldwide from Ballet West, the Joffrey Ballet, New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet (London), Netherlands Dans Theater, Scottish National Ballet, and Norwegian National Ballet have collaborated with artÉmotion to teach ballet classes online, and, as a former dancer, I was delighted to have the opportunity to take free dance classes from some of my favorite dancers.
I’m not alone, as DeBona shared on her personal Instagram page: “For many years now, the arts have suffered. In some cases, ballet companies have had to layoff dancers, cut repertoire, and even worse, close their doors. The amazing thing about going through this together is we are seeing more and more people turn to our art, dance, to get them through these hard times. People need the arts to distract them from the stress in their lives, and this whole ordeal has made them realize that even more. I predict that when this is over, people, more than ever, will be rushing to see our live performances. Our art will be restored!”
I hope so.
Studios are offering virtual dance classes online
Some artists are voicing concern that these services are being provided for free. After all, one wouldn’t expect other professionals to offer their services free of charge. Dancers and artists are accomplished and hardworking individuals who have bills, rent payments, mortgages, and families, and they deserve to be paid for their services.
These are legitimate concerns. The arts tend to be the first funding cut when times are tough. As a result, some studios have remained open for business, albeit online. Ballet West, for one, continued to offer classes online to a paying audience through their Virtual Academy. “The arts are businesses and cannot survive without income,” says Christopher Sellars, former first soloist with Ballet West and current principal faculty for the academy, “but online classes cannot replace in-person classes so charging less is reasonable.”
Eventually artÉmotion pivoted to paid classes, offering them online at their drop-in rates and partnering with Ballet West partnered to coordinate schedules, ensuring classes would not overlap and thereby compete for business. “For artÉmotion, the transition from in-person to virtual classes and intensives has been a lot of work, but very rewarding!” DeBona says. “We are seeing an increase in enrollment because of our efforts. We will continue our Virtual Assembly even after things get back to normal. We are able to reach people who otherwise are unable to join us in person.”
I hope DeBona is correct that the arts will be restored at the end of all this. It is clear people are turning to the arts for entertainment and to find moments of peace and hope amidst the chaos of the world. Proving once again that the arts are invaluable, even if the services are free. As Disenhof expresses: “maybe it’ll bring more people to the studios.”
We look to artists in times of struggle for their resiliency and creativity. And artists are delivering. Boylston and Whiteside are using their platforms to give back to their communities. San Francisco Ballet, in partnership with San Francisco Marin Food Bank, will be hosting a weekly pop-up food pantry where dancers are volunteering to help get groceries to people in need in the community.
Misty Copeland, a principal with American Ballet Theater organized a fundraising effort in collaboration with dancers worldwide performing: Swans for Relief, to raise money for dancers whose income has been affected by COVID-19. American Ballet Theater and other companies have now announced virtual season offerings coordinated with their previously planned in-person seasons.
Dancers are contributing what they can, while also paying tribute to those working the frontlines of the pandemic. Tiler Peck, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet brought dancers together to honor healthcare workers with a virtual applause on her Instagram page (@tilerpeck). Ballet West artist Lillian Casscells along with Principal dancer’s Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell also created a stunning Instagram video tribute dedicated to healthcare workers.
If we are learning anything from this pandemic, perhaps it’s the importance of our connection to one another, and the value of art as an integral aspect of our humanity. Artists are offering their skills and talents to care for the community, we can only hope that in return the community will care for our artists.