With more Americans getting vaccinated every day, the pandemic finally (!) feels like it might be drawing to a close in the near future. Of course, this can't come soon enough for dancers across the world who never stopped looking forward to the return of dance as we knew it. For dancers with compromised immune systems, though, returning to "normal" just won't happen that easily, or that soon.
While there are no exact figures on the proportion of dancers who cope with impaired immune systems, we do know that 10 million people (in the U.S. alone) are immunocompromised. According to Dr. Lauren Smith, an immunologist at the Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, VA, who specializes in primary immune deficiencies and recurrent infections, a dancer's immune system can be compromised for any number of reasons.
"There are certain necessary medications that suppress the immune system," she says. "Other examples include dancers who have chronic health conditions like asthma, who had cancer in the past, or were born with immune deficiency." In other words, even if you're blessed with a healthy immune system, you've definitely danced beside a dancer who's immunocompromised.
Safer (but Sadder) at Home<p>Remember the quarantine blues? Many dancers with compromised immune systems were there before other dancers, and many are <em>still </em>feeling all of those feels. "My world shut down in the beginning of March, when my mom pulled me out of work halfway through the day," recalls Lauren Luteran, who you may remember from "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 16. "Since then, I've only left the house a few times."</p><p>Because she has a serious chronic lung disease called cystic fibrosis, Luteran has always been considered significantly immunocompromised. But thanks to a new "miracle drug" called Trikafta, her lung function—and quality of life—had skyrocketed before the pandemic. "I've been waiting my whole life to live and to dance the way I want to, and now I can't, because of the pandemic," she says.</p><p>Contemporary choreographer Marinda Davis ("World of Dance," and two-time Capezio A.C.E. Awards finalist) occasionally finds herself overcome by frustration with people who aren't taking COVID-19 as seriously as she herself is forced to. "There are days when I feel almost like I'm hallucinating the pandemic, because people on social media are out living their lives normally," she says. </p><p>Davis, who has several life-threatening autoimmune disorders, including lupus, Sjögren's syndrome, Hashimoto's disease, mastocytosis, POTS, Cushing's syndrome, IST and vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, has been leaning on friends like Carrie Ann Inaba of "Dancing with the Stars" for virtual support. "Carrie has lupus and Sjögren's syndrome, so she gets it," Davis says. Davis also recommends that immunocompromised dancers join whatever virtual support groups are available during this time, even if they're not specifically for dancers.</p>
Obstacles/Opportunities<p>Luteran, who just turned 21, should be out there doing what she was doing before <em>all this</em> happened: teaching at studios around her hometown of Orlando, FL, and pursuing her own professional performing career. Instead, she's found her love of dance faltering somewhat in the virtual environment. "Starting in June, I took a break from dance because I'd started to hate Zoom and Instagram Live," she says. "It's just not my thing."</p><p> While she's recently begun dancing in studio on occasion by taking extra precautions, Luteran wants other immunocompromised dancers to know that it's fine to take a temporary step away from dance during this time. "The younger dancers I mentor would tell me, 'I don't want to dance! What's wrong with me?,' " she recalls. "If your spark has gone out, it's OK to take a break for now and wait to get to a point where you miss dancing again." </p><p> Davis also resisted the move to all-virtual-everything at first. She instead used the initial months of the pandemic to take care of medical procedures and surgeries she'd been putting off. As she's adapted to choreographing virtually, her methods have adapted too. "I usually come into the studio with a very loose blueprint and model the movement on dancers' strengths and weaknesses," she says. "Now I pre-choreograph everything, which often means I stick closer to fulfilling my original vision." </p><p> Thanks to frequent COVID-19 testing made possible by film and TV's generous budgets, Davis has even been able to work with IRL dancers on set a few times in recent months. "I've found my rhythm virtually—and have even found that I can choreograph sitting down with my foot in a cast—but obviously I'd rather be there in person," she says.</p>
A Brighter Future?<p>Dr. Smith points out that the challenges and negative feelings that all dancers are experiencing during this pandemic are close cousins of what immunocompromised dancers go through <em>all the time</em>. "Even when the vaccine is released, immunocompromised dancers may have to wait for herd immunity before they can go back to the studio," she says. "I'm hopeful that these times will lead people to be more aware, understanding and supportive of immunocompromised dancers in the future."</p><p> Teaching on the convention circuit, Davis always felt uncomfortable about the personal health consequences of hugging every single dancer after every single class. "I think that the pandemic will change a lot of little things like that," she says, which could make life easier in the future for immunocompromised dancers.</p><p>Before 2020 wreaked its havoc, Luteran sometimes felt self-conscious talking about how cystic fibrosis affects her dancing and her life. "Now, I'm very open about it and a big advocate," she says. "Wear a mask, people! It's not that hard to be considerate of the immunocompromised people in our dance community."</p>
Social justice has a been a prominent theme in many Black American dancemakers' repertoires. Today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—and in the midst of ongoing social and political turmoil in America—this theme carries new resonance.
Dr. King's legacy has spurred the creation of many dance works, with many creators using his words to respond to the social issues of the moment. So, today, in celebration of MLK, Jr. Day, here are four of those dances which honor the legacy of the late civil rights leader.
"r-Evolution, Dream." by Hope Boykin
Set to a soundscape that includes music by jazz musician Ali Jackson, narration by Tony Award-winner Leslie Odom, Jr., "r-Evolution, Dream.," performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, debuted in 2017. Choreographer—and Ailey vet—Hope Boykin was inspired to create the piece on a visit to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. "I got a chance to listen to Dr. King's voice and watch the footage of his funeral with the casket running through the city," Boykin said in an interview with the L.A. Times. Boykin says she was especially stirred by the cadence and sound of his voice.
Moved by the timeliness of Dr. King's teachings (over a half century after he first orated them), Boykin set out to create a ballet that, in effect, translated some of his most famous sermons and teachings into movement. The ensemble piece, which also features solos and sets of pas de deuxs, is a powerful reminder of the long fight ahead for racial equality in America.
"Bodies as a Site of Faith and Protest" by Tommie-Waheed Evans
First performed by Dallas Black Dance Theatre in 2018, "Bodies as Site of Faith and Protest" also transcribes Dr. King's words into dance—only this work zeroes in one particular speech: Dr. King's "We Shall Overcome."
The most resounding imagery in choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans's work is the clump of dancers at center-center, who march and march with searing purpose oozing from their eyes—yet seem to arrive nowhere. It's as if Evans puts on display the historical, present, and future conditions of the Black American: That the battle for equal protection under the law will be ongoing.
"Dougla" by Geoffrey Holder
In response to the assassination of Dr. King on April 4, 1968, Arthur Mitchell, then a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, felt compelled to take action. His efforts would culminate in the formation of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
The ballet troupe performs everything from classical rep to new works—one of the most iconic is Geoffrey Holder's "Dougla," with movement that depicts the wedding of a Dougla couple, in which one partner is of African descent and the other of Indian descent. The ballet features a spectacle of costume, with a thumping, grounding pulsation of drums beneath movement that, in of itself, is bold and unafraid of making a statement.
Perhaps most memorable about this piece are the moments done in unison, when everything is "working together at once," as Carmen de Lavallade, who helped restage the piece for DTH in 2018, said to theNew York Times. The power in these moments of togetherness conjures scenes of Americans marching in unity for social justice, echoing the very reasons Dr. King worked to lead change before his death.
"Deep Blue Sea" by Bill T. Jones
In an interview with our sister publication Dance Magazine, Jones says the work deals with one overarching question in particular: "Are we really still this beacon, this light on a hill, this conglomerate of disparate groups and stakeholders that we call American democracy?" As a young child, he believed that the Black community could overcome the effects of systematic racism, said Jones to DM. Now, he has less faith—and "Deep Blue Sea" dives into the reasons why.
Intended to be performed at the Park Avenue Armory, the cast included not only the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, but also nearly 100 members of the New York City community.
Each and every month in 2020, we Dance Spirit editors selected a 2021 Cover Model Search semifinalist. And as 2020 came to a close (and we truly thought it never would), we selected our December winner, rounding out our 12 fabulous 2021 Cover Model Search semifinalists.
Here's the exciting part: That means that one of the 12 gorgeous, ultra-talented dancers below will be our next Cover Model Search winner, and our first-ever CMS all-digital cover star!
But we need your help to pick our 2021 CMS winner. Which of the 12 semifinalists do *you* think should make our top three? Check out the videos below, and let us know your pick. (And then be sure to kickstart your own Cover Model Search dreams by entering next year's contest—which is already underway!)
January: Mya Gomez, "Ms. Brown To You"
February: Bella Klassen, "Have Mercy"
March: Britain Feeny, "Grief Point Solo"
April: Nyoka Wotorson, "Horton Technique Solo"
May: Reed Henry, "Rattle"
June: Jocelyn Wynn, "Egos Are Detached"
July: Iyanna Jackson, "Have Mercy"
August: Joshua Dawson, "Slow Up"
September: Gabi Allen, "Listen to the Music"
October: Kayla Mak, "Weeping Willow"
November: Madison Burkhart, "Goodbye"
December: Charlee Fagan, "Valis"
Few things are as nerve-racking as partnering class, especially when you're a newbie. No matter the genre, the stakes feel high—and the potential for awkwardness feels unlimited. How do you avoid smacking your partner in the face? How do you communicate a problem without causing a major conflict? Dance Spirit spoke with some partnering pros to bring you answers to those questions and more.
Common Partnering Pitfalls
1. Deflecting Responsibility
None of us will be perfect partners at all times, especially when we're first learning. When we begin working with a teammate, it can be tempting to deflect responsibility for our weaknesses onto them. Resist the temptation!
"None of us likes to be wrong, so it can feel like a necessity to interpret your actions as correct, and your partner's actions as wrong," says L.A.-based choreographer Phillip Chbeeb. "That can be one of the most damaging dynamics in a partnership. Instead, assume that you have the power to adjust and assuage the problem. If you both maintain this mindset, you will always be able to move forward together."
One of the primary ways partners who are being supported can take responsibility is by simply holding their weight. "A common misconception is that the person doing the lifting is doing all the work, but a good partner is in complete control of their body even when it looks like they're surrendering," says choreographer Stacey Tookey. "You have to be solid on your own," says Houston Ballet principal Karina González. "You can't expect your partner to save you. You have to be comfortable on your supporting leg, whether your partner is there or not."
2. Lacking Spatial Awareness
Worried about smacking your partner in the face? First, just accept that it's going to happen from time to time. "It's the nature of the beast," Tookey says. Then, put in the work to become aware of the space around and between the two of you.
Assess your height difference, if there is one, and how it affects the choreography. Can you identify predictable points of impact that can be avoided with slight shifts in positioning? This dynamic will vary from partnership to partnership, so be patient as you work through the kinks.
To improve your spatial awareness while partnering, "Dancing with the Stars" pro Emma Slater recommends trying dance styles that require you to switch partners often. "Go to social dance events, or to dance classes that have an uneven number of men and women," Slater says. "Doing so will help you get comfortable dancing with a range of artists."
3. Discounting Differences
Just as no two people are the same, no two partnerships will be the same, either. But don't think of the differences between you and your partner as obstacles to overcome. Instead, reframe them as opportunities to make the most of.
Whenever Chbeeb sets choreography on pairs, he reminds himself not to get married to any of the work, because it will likely need to be altered to allow the different bodies to mesh well together. "I embrace the variety in body types and strengths," Chbeeb says. "I look to see what unique things these two specific bodies can create together."
When creating a duo with a partner, Chbeeb likes to discover those possibilities by working with his counterpart—without music. "That way, we don't have limitations to the timing of the shapes we create," he says. "If we stumble across something that works well for our two bodies, we can record it, making a collection of phrases to pull from. Then we can turn on the music and see what translates over."
(From left) Tyler Gledhill, Chelsea Thedinga, and Corey John Snide rehearsing a work by Stacey Tookey (Anna Marchiscello, courtesy Stacey Tookey)
Partnering Best Practices
1. Communicating Productively
Being able to communicate respectfully and effectively with a partner is something that, like any dance skill, takes practice. But it's critical to any partnership's success.
González has found that taking the extra time to think through the phrasing of a correction or question makes all the difference. "Be careful about how you speak," she says. "Take blame out of the conversation altogether, and respectfully communicate your concerns while being open to listening to a different perspective." Chbeeb recommends asking your partner what things they feel you could improve on. Doing so might encourage them to ask the same of you, allowing the two of you to approach corrections on an even footing.
Spending some time with your partner in a nondance setting, if possible, can help the two of you figure out a successful communication style. "During 'So You Think You Can Dance,' the dancers often only get to work together for a handful of hours before they perform," Tookey says. "I recommend they meet outside of the studio and get to know each other so conversation comes more naturally. The more you know each other, the better things will go."
What about the opposite problem, when you and your BFF get paired together and can't stop chatting? "Remind yourself that you have to be focused," González says, because the stakes are high: There's potential for injury if you aren't. "You can even schedule time to talk later, outside of the studio, so that when you're in rehearsal or class, you can keep things professional," González says.
2. Establishing and Respecting Physical Boundaries
It's important to state your boundaries outright. Partnering is inevitably intimate, but it should never cross hard lines set by you, your partner, and your teacher or choreographer. "If something doesn't feel right, you should communicate that to your partner and teacher," González says. "It could be that they didn't realize what was happening in the tangle of partnering. Or, it could be that they did cross a line, and that needs to be addressed immediately." Remember that boundary-setting goes both ways, so be ready to listen and adjust when your partner shares concerns.
It's also common to implicitly associate physical touch with romantic feelings, which can complicate partnering situations. "Many who're new to partnering immediately associate touch with something that isn't dance," Chbeeb says. "This can make professionalism difficult, and hold you back artistically. Try to reframe your perspective, so that you're not interpreting movement as anything other than art."
3. Being Thoughtful About Clothing and Hygiene
Look, dance is inevitably sweaty and messy—that's part of what makes it beautiful! But to be a considerate partner, it's worth thinking about your clothing and hygiene choices.
Chbeeb points out that it's important to choose clothes that won't inadvertently hurt your partner. For example, avoid wearing items with zippers, since they can scratch skin. Going shirtless? Sweaty skin can be dangerously slippery, so keep a towel handy. If you have longer hair, and it's not involved in the choreography, consider pinning it back so it doesn't whip your partner in the face.
Breath and body odor questions are complicated—opinions differ widely when it comes to bodily hygiene. But Chbeeb recommends showering or taking a breath mint before partnering if you know that you'll feel self-conscious otherwise. "You don't want to end up wasting mental space thinking about how you smell rather than the choreography," he says.
González and Walsh rehearsing Sylvia (Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet)
Partnering During a Pandemic
In our new #SocialDisDancing reality, IRL partnering is often impossible. But there are steps you can take to get ready for the moment when we can all be together again.
Chbeeb recommends practicing by using items from around the house as partnering props. "I have always found that working with props stimulates a very similar portion of the brain as partner work," he says. "You get used to the idea of creating visuals that extend beyond your own body. Pick up anything portable—a frying pan!—and use it in a way you had never considered before. Then, apply the discoveries you make with your partner when you come together in person."
González recommends cross-training to develop the strength you'll need to be an effective partner. "Focus on leg and upper-body strength, which will help with lifting," she says. And core exercises will help you support your own weight during complicated partnering work.
You can also use this time alone to get inspired by other great partnerships. Watch YouTube videos of partners in different dance genres and styles, thinking about what it is that makes their collaboration work—mechanically, and also on an intellectual level. "Look to the amazing dancers who have been partnering for years, and apply the strengths you see in them to your own dancing when you return," González says.
Dance Spirit has highlighted college dance programs committed to dismantling white supremacy. But what if you arrive at your dream dance school to find that Western dance forms are at the center of every core requirement, or that your reading list doesn't feature a single nonwhite academic? We spoke with Alex Christmas, a doctoral student and member of the Anti-Racist Working Group at Ohio State University, about how college dance students can most effectively advocate for change within their dance departments.
When It's Time to Catalyze Change
In recent months, many members of the dance community have recognized the racism and implicit bias that permeate both our history and our present. In light of this, more conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion have begun—but not everywhere.
If your college dance department hasn't taken steps towards tangible, antiracist change, that's a problem. While the labor of creating and advocating for these changes shouldn't be placed on college students, if you see (or experience) harm being done, it's likely you're going to want to make a difference.
"I think change often starts with, sadly, people getting fed up," Christmas says. "It's not students' responsibility to fix the dance department—it's the department's responsibility to create environments that don't cause students harm. If students are mad, and if they're wanting change, it's for a reason."
Where to Look
Oftentimes, departments continue racist and white-centrist practices under the guise of "tradition." Take, for example, the ballet class that's mandated by the typical college dance department. We're often told that "Ballet is the basis of everything," and that returning to the barre each day is "tradition." But it isn't coincidence that this thinking applies to a Western dance genre.
"The dance department has to not just see things as 'following tradition,' and allow necessary change," Christmas says. "If we want to be a dance department that supports our students and supports dance, we have to be able to adapt and grow with where dance is going."
At OSU, they've hired more teachers trained in African dance styles, and undergraduates are now required to train in ballet, contemporary, and African.
"Ballet is no longer seen as the default, or inherently valued over other styles," Christmas says. "Which makes sense—it's not a program that's only training ballet dancers."
Look at your college dance department through a critical, antiracist lens. Does the program primarily hire, retain and tenure white faculty? Does your curriculum center primarily (or exclusively) on traditionally white, Western dance forms? Are most of your assignments and discussions informed by white dance scholars? Does your program fail to provide antiracism training for its students?
While these questions are by no means comprehensive, they can be a good place to start. If you're looking for a further resource, the Dance Studies Association's "Departmental Call-to-Anti-Racist-Action" delineates many practices that can help a college dance department move forward. The Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance department also released a comprehensive "Anti-Racism Action Plan" online. Documents like these can be a good place to start looking.
"One of the best things you can do is organize," says Christmas. "Find allies and get on board with other people—even other student groups who are trying to push for similar changes and developments in their own departments."
Organization and coalition building can be crucial to the success of a movement. While you can, of course, impact change as an individual, joining other dancers can amplify your voice. And other antiracism groups on campus can serve as a useful resource—ask fellow students what strategies have been successful, and introduce them to your own organization. Working with others will also remind you that you're not alone in the fight.
"Go back to your department and say, 'They're doing this in another department—why haven't we?'" Christmas says. "Be explicit and clear about what you want, and provide examples. Then, down the line, leadership can't say they didn't understand your demands. They'll know they made the conscious decision to say no."
Don't allow department leadership (or others) to suggest that the work you're doing isn't important. "There's often devaluing," Christmas says. "Devaluing of the work, of the labor, of the time."
Christmas shared an experience of devaluation: She had set a meeting with a member of leadership. But when the meeting time arrived, the person canceled, saying that they were too busy, but they would leave her and her fellow organizers to 'do all the fun stuff.'
"Talking about racism is not fun," Christmas says. "Addressing issues within the department is not fun, and it's also not my job. It's so demeaning to devalue our work like that."
Recognize that this work is demanding and can be emotionally exhausting. As dancers, we often value physical labor over emotional—but remember that your emotional labor is valuable too.
"Don't burn yourself out," says Christmas. "You don't work for the institution. You can fight for change within it, but you need to practice self-preservation. Know when to step back."