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
Remember the quarantine blues? Many dancers with compromised immune systems were there before other dancers, and many are still 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."
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.
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.
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.
Luteran, who just turned 21, should be out there doing what she was doing before all this 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."
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."
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."
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.
A Brighter Future?
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 all the time. "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."
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.
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."