They danced in their kitchens, in their tiny bedrooms, on their porches with the dog running around their feet. Amid a pandemic, Humboldt County's dancers kept dancing, even though their studios were closed and performances were canceled. "Dance is our heartbeat," says Humboldt State University Dance Program Leader Linda Maxwell. "There's movement ingrained within us ... It's a part of who we are that just will not be erased."
Dancers have adjusted differently to the challenges the pandemic has brought. For some, COVID-19 restrictions have caused them to feel crushed to the point that they went into creative hibernation. Others have found COVID-19 to be a time of self examination, bringing dancers back to the "core of what it means to be a dancer," as Cleo DeOrio, a dancer and dance teacher at Dream Athletics, puts it.
For much of the last year, dance studios in Humboldt and across the world could not hold in-person dance classes, so many teachers held classes on Zoom. According to Maxwell, "Teaching on Zoom is horrible ... If I'm facing my camera and I lift my right arm to the students it looks like it's my left arm," it's very confusing. Students learning dance at home also don't always have the right flooring to dance on or room to learn all the aspects of training like leaps. Because of the difficulties that distance learning brought, some dancers are giddy with excitement to be back in the studio.
As COVID-19 restrictions lift, the readjustment of coming back to dance class is just as exciting as it is difficult. Stepping in the door of class, many dancers have their temperatures taken and hands lathered in sanitizer. For ventilation, a dance studio may need to open all the windows and doors, a precaution that can be a chilly one, especially during winter. Teachers are "being more gracious as students come back to class," says DeOrio. Frankly speaking, dancers are human — almost everyone's out of shape and to get back and get strong takes time. Capoeira dancer Jose Moreno says the transition back to class feels like "starting from zero again."
In-person dancing brought the difficulty of social distancing, a COVID-19 restriction that has greatly affected partner dances like ballroom dancing. Partner dance went completely dark for the better part of the year. "Also social dancing isn't happening," says DeOrio. Line dancing, for example, requires groups of people coming in close contact. Another challenge has been dancing with a mask or clunky face shield. When a dancer's face is covered, they are no longer able to fully use facial expressions to convey emotion. In a mask, they are pushed to use their bodies to "grow emotional movement," says Jonny Wisan, an instructor at Trinity Ballet Academy and North Coast Dance as well as a dancer with Ballet Emmaus.
Canceling live dance performances disappointed audiences as much as dancers. Still, some dancers have been able to build togetherness by working on video projects. Moreno and DeOrio created a video project called "MALINALI," in which 16 local dancers were filmed separately in front of a mural in Eureka. The segments were then edited together to create a stunning video performance. According to Moreno, this unconventional project "would have never happened without COVID-19."
Whether it's watching filmed dance performances uploaded on Vevo or taking a ballet class on Zoom, COVID-19 brought technology and the dance world together like never before. Since everyone has been grappling with its effects and restrictions globally, lockdowns served as groundbreaking equalizers for the often competitive dance world. Rachel Noel, presenter of the Only Skin Deep dance production, explained that there has been some cool informality once people saw dance classes by "internationally awarded teachers were free" and could be accessed by dancers all over the world.
It seems everyone at one point or another has asked themselves if things will ever go back to normal, if they'll be the way they were before the pandemic. For many in the local dance community the general feeling is, Yes, it will go back to normal but not quite. Maxwell compares the future of dance in relation to COVID-19 to the way 9/11 affected air travel: "It tweaked after 9/11, out of fear of another bomb situation, but it didn't slow down air travel." In the same way, the dancing hasn't stopped, just proceeded with caution. Even with most restrictions officially lifted around the state since June 15, dancers and venues will need to navigate masking policies and vaccination and testing requirements for "mega events" like festivals. The road ahead will likely be filled with trial and error. And lots of practice.
Julia Sheppard (she/her) is a freelance writer in Humboldt County.