After yet another day of being cooped up inside, communication studies senior Annie Margolis and her roommate went on a walk to the Cal Poly campus. They agreed on their destination and headed towards a place they both missed. They stood in front of the closed dance studio doors and thought about life before the global COVID-19 outbreak.
What was once a space of “dynamic activity and creative work” now only houses two occupants. Cal Poly’s Dance Program Director Diana Stanton and another faculty member are the only ones to use the dance studio this quarter.
“The studio has been dark all last spring quarter and summer,” Stanton wrote in an email.
Margolis, like many other dancers, said she misses being in the studio and having in-person dance classes. Due to COVID-19, only about 13% of Cal Poly’s classes are being offered in-person this quarter, according to the school’s coronavirus page. None of these in-person classes are from the Dance Program.
Not being able to practice in-person has left a lot of dancers reeling and coping in different ways, according to Stanton.
“The studio is [a dancer’s] home and it’s been taken away,” Stanton said.
Beginning of COVID-19 for the Dance Industry
When COVID-19 first shut down the country in March, the dance community, like many others, was shocked. The community adapted and provided virtual spaces for people to dance together.
“A lot of choreographers were offering virtual classes for free and there was a lot of access to industry,” biomedical engineering junior Tori Barrington said. “That’s really not normal.”
The prestigious American Ballet Theatre offered free ballet classes for the public through Instagram Live. The company began using the hashtag #AloneButTogether and posted messages encouraging connection on its website. Hollywood’s famous Millennium Dance Complex offered live dance classes on Instagram and Youtube.
Due to studios being closed, Barrington and her father turned their garage into a dance studio over the summer and utilized the free virtual classes. For Barrington, dance is a necessity. She started dance when she was 3-years-old, so joining Cal Poly’s Orchesis Dance Company was an obvious choice.
“Dance is as essential to me as breathing. It’s super cheesy, I feel like every dancer says that. It’s also how I work through things emotionally so I kind of need it to survive,” Barrington said.
While some dancers were able to take advantage of the virtual classes, for others it wasn’t feasible. Margolis lived in her parents’ house this summer and didn’t have the room to dance.
“I didn’t really want to take classes in my living room. My dad walks back and forth all day and there’s always people around,” Margolis said.
There was a three to four month period where she wasn’t dancing and looking back on this time, Margolis said she recalls frequently thinking, “this sucks.”
Now that some COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted across the country, the dance industry no longer offers the same sense of inclusivity, Barrington said.
“I find it interesting that when COVID hit and the dance community was in shock, everyone made a conscious effort to be super inclusive and try and bring those spaces back. Once we figured it out, everyone was like, ‘alright, that’s it,’” Barrington said.
The new reality of virtual dance meetings
Up until the end of August, there was a possibility, and hope, that some in-person dance classes would be available for the fall quarter. Stanton had planned to offer both of her Intermediate Modern Dance (DANC 232) classes in-person, but was told they weren’t approved due to high physical activity levels and worry of spreading the virus at the last minute.
Margolis, who is currently taking the class, said she was upset by the news. Margolis said that just two weeks before the quarter started, they were told they weren’t approved to be in the studio. The classes were capped at 12 people to follow social distancing protocol.
With the school year underway, dancers have realized the trials and tribulations of virtual meetings.
Some dancers in synchronous classes don’t have the room to dance from their homes.
“I just don’t have enough space,” Barrington said from her “tiny” bedroom in Cal Poly’s Poly Canyon Village apartments. She, like many dancers taking virtual classes, had to adapt and find unique ways to create her own studio space. Barrington recently started dancing at the Sports Complex Lower Fields on campus.
Biomedical engineering senior Audrey Johnson is enrolled in Intermediate Modern Dance (DANC 232) this quarter and goes to Cal Poly’s rugby fields for class. Johnson doesn’t have enough space in her house to dance so she, along with a few classmates, takes advantage of the open fields, setting up a hot spot and attending class from there.
Dancing separately also creates a disconnect among dancers, Johnson said. She said you can’t tell that dancers are in unison. Due to varying internet connection qualities, it’s hard for dancers to know if they are on beat. Stanton said that she can’t grade students on timing this quarter because video audio doesn’t always function properly.
Experience industry management senior Lilja Jelks has been dancing for 10 years and is the president of Cal Poly’s Ecstatic Dance Club. Contact dancing is improvised dancing that is explored with others. Jelks said getting students to attend virtual meetings has been a challenge this quarter.
“I think why people enjoy ecstatic dance is the space it offers and now that’s been taken away,” she said.
Another aspect of ecstatic dance is contact dancing and that can’t happen either. Jelks said she misses the connections that the club created among the members.
Dance is a community
Many dancers miss the sense of community associated with dance. Seeing each other almost every day, every week has made the dance program a close-knit group.
“It really was like a second home,” Johnson said.
“The hardest part is not being with other people,” Margolis said. “The dance community is so strong and relies on connection and interpersonal connection and that’s just not there with COVID and being over Zoom”
When comparing virtual classes to in-person, Barrington said, “It’s completely different when you’re in a dance studio with people because all of them contribute their own style, their own energy. It’s a whole vibe that you’re missing.”
Without being able to gather and dance, some dancers are finding it difficult to self-motivate. Johnson said the studio atmosphere motivated her. With the new virtual classes, “you definitely have to be intrinsically motivated to push yourself and go full-out with the movements and technique,” Johnson said.
A socially distanced dance company
“[Dance is] how I process emotions. It’s how I shake off stress from the day. So if I’m stuck in a rut and don’t have structured, scheduled classes, then I’ll just be stuck,” Johnson said.
She recently joined a new dance company started by a Cal Poly graduate that offers her this structure.
Evan Ricaurte founded Grid Dance Company to offer others in the community an opportunity to safely dance. He said he had been playing with the idea throughout summer, but the company really started rolling when he heard that Cal Poly wouldn’t be offering any in-person dance classes this quarter.
“Online dance doesn’t compare at all to actually dancing in a studio or dancing with people,” Ricaurte said.
Grid Dance Company allows dancers to connect in person again.
“It’s definitely very much a breath of fresh air and very emotional to be able to connect with these people again,” Ricaurte said.
The inspiration behind the company name comes from the idea that the dancers are socially distant and working in a six foot grid, Ricaurte said. Ricaurte said that the company strictly follows state and city health guidelines, all outlined in the company’s six page safety charter.
Despite the challenges of virtual meetings, more dancers are adapting. Dancers like Ricaurte need to adapt to the new normal because it’s their livelihood.
“Dance isn’t just a hobby or physical activity. If you are a dancer, it is something that you need to live. It’s something to keep your sanity,” Ricaurte said.
Some dancers are optimistic about the future.
“This would’ve been my last year to dance,” Johnson said. “I haven’t accepted it and I still want to push. I hope to dance in the spring.”