After nearly an entire year of Zoom classes and masked rehearsals, it's easy to imagine that, post-pandemic, dancers will be eager to rush back onto the stage. And when searching for choreographic fodder for competitions and recitals, teachers may turn to the subject still on everyone's minds: COVID-19. But before making dances about the coronavirus, it's important to take a step back.
"This is a shared traumatic experience around the world, and it doesn't affect people the same way," says clinical and performance psychologist Jo-Anne La Flèche. "Each person has psychological vulnerabilities that you don't know about."
Follow these measures to ensure you're approaching this weighty topic—and your students—with the utmost sensitivity.
The first question that a teacher should reflect on when approaching a heavy topic like COVID-19 is why. "A person who wants to do this project must seriously self-reflect on their motivations," says La Flèche. "The main motivation should be to want to do some good." She urges choreographers approaching COVID-19 to step back from ego; rather than make a dance that you simply think will be good, make a dance that you think will help your dancers, and the audience, to process or reflect on the challenges of the past year.
Mae Haines, courtesy Bombshell Dance Project
Collaboration Is Key
Emily Bernet and Taylor Rodman, co-founders of the Dallas-based Bombshell Dance Project, believe that the key to creating nuanced and meaningful work is to include each dancer's voice. "One of our favorite phrases is 'There are as many perspectives of the piece as there are people in the room,'" says Rodman, who with Bernet runs a professional company and works in a second company with teenagers to create empowered, female-driven choreography.
La Flèche suggests opening the first rehearsal by giving each student the chance to share their experience. "Prepare open-ended questions, like 'What was the most difficult part of this year?,' 'What were you most scared about?,' 'What was the best thing?' or 'What did you learn?,'" she says.
Rashidi Omari, director of the Bay Area–based Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company, relies on a mix of talking and movement to pull dancers out of their shells. "Sometimes we say what the topic is, and then ask them to move in their bodies," he says. This can help students who are reluctant to share verbally, or who express themselves best through dance.
Creating a Safe Studio Environment
Your students may have been affected by COVID-19 in different ways, from losing a loved one, to battling the illness themselves, to watching a parent lose their job. And no matter how collaborative the process, working on a piece about the pandemic might bring up feelings of grief or trauma for them.
"Choreography can be a fantastic therapeutic tool, or it can re-traumatize people," says La Flèche, who urges teachers to work in a therapeutic mode by keeping their focus on each student's well-being and offering times to talk one-on-one. Omari, for instance, likes to start each rehearsal with meditation and intention-setting exercises related to the topic his dancers are working on.
Another part of creating a safe space is giving dancers the choice to opt out. "A project like this should never be imposed," says La Flèche, who suggests giving students the chance to work in behind-the-scenes roles, like costumes, if they're uncomfortable participating. Teachers should also keep an eye out for signs that a student may need external mental-health care, such as changes in appetite or weight, sleep disorders, depressive moods or self-rumination.
But too much time spent on students' emotional needs can overwhelm teachers, who need to make space for their own self-care. Omari ensures that he schedules time into his days to recalibrate after rehearsals. "I take a moment to breathe, or sometimes I'll dance alone to let it go," he says. "If there's a whole lot of intellectual thought, at some point you have to move it through by moving your body."
When approaching a topic, like the coronavirus, that's prone to cliché, it's important to be intentional. "We always try to go deeper than surface level," says Omari. "That's the only way we'll be able to work through these things."
Choreographer and teacher Dana Wilson urges choreographers to lean into the unexpected. "Often the thing that might be obvious plus something that's not obvious is what equals something that's memorable and impactful," she says. A frequent judge for competitions like New York City Dance Alliance, Wilson imagines that a solo about being stuck at home set to "One Is the Loneliest Number" is the kind of low-hanging fruit you should avoid. And when it comes to costuming, she suggests leaving masks behind as soon as it's safe to do so. "The symbol of the mask speaks very loudly, but what speaks more clearly are your facial expressions," she says. "Don't lose those."
Be Aware of Your Audience
The final piece of the equation is the audience. The individuals who come to see your dancers perform have been through their own sets of trials and tribulations in the wake of the pandemic, and it's important to make sure they feel safe as well. "People can be soothed but also re-traumatized by seeing certain moves," says Le Flèche, who recommends choreographers tend towards subtlety when portraying illness or death.
You can also give your audience a heads-up. "If you're sharing information about the show on social media, communicate in an honest way to the audience so that they're not blindsided," says Bernet. Omari suggests taking it a step further, sharing warnings with the audience before and during a performance. "We're all feeling beings," he says, "and sometimes we need that extra bit of warning."