I Wonder if My Neighbors Can Hear Me Singing

By Bhumi B. Patel

January 19, 2021, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
[Image description: A black and white image of Bhumi, a South Asian brown woman with short black hair, against a black background. She smiles softly at the camera. She wears a black v-neck t-shirt and stud earrings.]
Photo by Shinichi Iova-Koga
[Image description: A black and white image of Bhumi, a South Asian brown woman with short black hair, against a black background. She smiles softly at the camera. She wears a black v-neck t-shirt and stud earrings.]

In March, when we received the Stay at Home Order, I was burnt out. Most days, I was driving in circles around the Bay to keep up with my freelance gigs, eating peanut butter sandwiches in my car between jobs, and desperately in need of a break. I couldn’t have imagined when we received that first Stay at Home order on March 16 that we would be here now.

It’s January 2021 as you read this, but I’m writing to you on an early December morning of clear blue skies and crisp air, having just looked at a map that describes 99% of the population of California in places of widespread transmission, the highest tier. We are on the precipice of another sweeping Stay at Home Order, with hospitals nearing capacity. For some of us, this does not affect us – we have not been leaving our houses for nonessential purposes so we will continue to not leave our homes for nonessential purposes. For some, this may mean loss: of work or otherwise. For others, this could mean something else entirely.

A few days into the Stay at Home Order, I started writing. I thought it might be interesting to have a written account of what being at home was like, but it turned into a time capsule of sorts with notes from almost everything I’ve done this year: classes and workshops online, zoom happy hours, meetings. The desire to write has come and gone in waves – some days the notes are detailed and copious, others there is only a line or two – but it does give me a picture of how I’ve spent my time this year. I hope that you’ll go on this journey with me and perhaps even take stock of what you’ve done this year, and feel proud that despite it all, we have kept going.

March

The month started with live performances. I remember sitting in a theater. I remember hugging friends afterwards. I remember a friend sharing a piece where paper cascaded from a shredder that was suspended on a ledge above the stage space. And then we were told we had to stay at home. We were told there was a virus that was infecting people all over the globe. Infectious disease researchers told us this was their worst nightmare: a respiratory illness that spreads through vapor particles in the air.

I saw a mobilization in the dance community that I didn’t expect. Almost overnight, I could suddenly get on my computer and take classes with Movement Research in New York, with Gaga teachers in Tel Aviv and New York, with legends in our field like Debbie Allen in Los Angeles. I saw our Bay Area dance community pivot swiftly to continue classes and training online. Our dance homes, Shawl-Anderson, ODC, LINES, and many more, created free and accessible at home pre-recorded and live content. My dance educator friends cleared entire rooms in their apartments to take and teach class. And to tell you the truth: I didn’t do any of it.

The first days of the pandemic involved painting miniature watercolors on my couch and watching terrible sitcoms. Those days involved two hour walks around my neighborhood looking at chalk art and blooming flowers. They involved 7-minute yoga classes on an app that lifted their paywall because of the pandemic. But I didn’t dance. I couldn’t.

April

As March fluttered away into April, we thought that we would be back to teaching in person after Spring Break. We thought that we would finish the school year strong. We thought that our students would still get to participate in their graduation ceremonies. I hadn’t lost any of my work yet. My undergraduate Modern and Jazz class shifted to be online. We took a different approach to moving. We moved in the space we had available to us, we created tiny dances, we listened to music, took walks, and observed the natural world around us. The young students I taught got to see videos of my dog walking through the frame while I made lots of silly shapes with my body and asked them to do the same. And while I was teaching online, I still didn’t take class. Instead I took embodied singing classes. I participated in a series called “Empty and Full” which pretty accurately described what those early weeks in the pandemic felt like. I belted sounds and syllables and only half heartedly wondered if my neighbors could hear me singing. I wrote that I was starting to feel like I had space in my lungs again, like a tightness of worry was unwinding.

May

In hindsight, I’d like to call May: I will begrudgingly and selectively take class online, if I have to. And I’ll like it, dammit.

The unwinding led to a return of the desire to move. I took a virtual workshop and started rehearsing again for a performance that was moved to an online platform for June. It was bizarre to work on zoom. I found myself writing about the loss of my back space in an effort to lean toward the movement to see or understand it in ways that are just unknowable through my screen. I had virtual conversations with other movers about hierarchies and values, ambitions and curiosities, pedagogy and the pandemic. I facilitated a conversation about racial equity in dance. I was starting to feel momentum again.

June

The most prevalent feeling in June was this: flooded. After the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests for racial justice, nearly every presenter, institution, studio, and organization sent out an email notifying me that they were going to learn about equity and included unaccountable, non-tangible language about how they’re going to do better. When I reflect on this now I can’t help but wonder: are all those entities still doing the constant, necessary work of anti-racism? Or have they moved on and allowed it to fade away like the news cycle? Have they figured out what the ongoing work looks like? To whom are they practicing accountability?

In between the flooding, I felt angry. I told anyone who would listen that in 2019 there were 19 days when the killing of a Black person by the police wasn’t reported. Why weren’t they sending me emails that Black lives matter then? Why weren’t they launching granting programs for BIPOC artists then? What good is hiring BIPOC people if your toxic organizational environment remains? When will they understand that decolonization is not a metaphor?

I had hoped that these conversations would go deeper. I had hoped that there would be frank conversations about who is left out, who is being heard, and how to sustain this work. Perhaps there is a reason to still hope, but as I write this, months later, I’m still not sure.

July

Come July, I felt grateful to participate in the creation of an event through Women of Color in the Arts for non-Black women of color to come together and assess how we can act in solidarity with our Black colleagues at the institutions where we work as artists, arts administrators, curators, presenters, and a variety of other roles. To be in the company of others who are thinking deeply about the necessary work filled my cup. It fed that momentum. I was also in the process of generating virtual experiments for a summer residency. I was sort of lost and swimming around in the murky waters of trying to understand my role as an artist during a pandemic. I had finally gotten back into the groove of moving, so to speak, but to create still felt out of place and untethered against the state of the world.

August

At the very beginning of August, I had a virtual performance over zoom, partially live and partially pre-recorded. So many feelings came up in the process of it all and I think it’s led me to more questions about performance than answers. I was so grateful that friends from so many different times in my life were able to be there (though we live far apart). I was so grateful my family was there in the zoom room, too. I wasn’t sure what to expect and the nerves leading up to performance were so different from live performance: instead of worrying about the performers and the costumes, I was worried about my internet connection holding up for the performance duration and pressing the right buttons to screen share. After the performances ended, I was in my house and it was quiet. I sat on the couch and ate dinner. I texted the performers in their respective homes. I knew that it would be different, but I also knew that somehow I wanted to recreate the feeling of being in a theater with people. On zoom, you can’t watch the audience watch your work. You can’t sit and have a one-on-one conversation with someone. You can’t hug the performers and have a toast with them “backstage” before greeting friends and family. The feelings were different. Not bad, just different.

September and October

In September, I was taking a class over zoom and the instructor of that class said to us “be with the rigor that you have today.” Later in the month, in a different class, a different teacher said “perhaps the act of singing and moving can be an act of living in forgiveness?” I thought that if I tried to practice living in forgiveness I might forgive myself for all the things that I have worried about this year – that I’m not doing enough, that my work is going to become irrelevant, that I will be forgotten, that if I don’t push myself to get that grant application in my career is doomed, that the decimation of our live performing arts landscape means I’ll never be able to make the work I want again, and on and on and on. While I was practicing living in forgiveness, in October a friend said to me, “I don’t know how long it’ll last, but in the last four months, I’ve felt more heard as a Black woman than I have ever before in my life.” I hope that it lasts. I hope that she continues to be heard.

November

As I remember November, this most recent month, what I feel most deeply is what I’ll call an anxiety hangover which clouded the month. In March, I couldn’t dance at all. In November, I took a class almost every day. Despite it all, I’ve adapted.

December

Now it is December and I am here. As we close out the year and I reflect on what this year brought and took away, I am a mess of conflicting impulses. I am grateful for the classes I can take all over the world (with just a little bit of time zone math). I am deeply frustrated and heartbroken to see so much unnecessary suffering and death caused by the immense failures of our political and public health systems. I am comfortable with the routine that my partner, my dog, and I have each morning: yoga, dog walk, breakfast, work. I am stifled because no amount of rearranging furniture will give me the room to be as expansive as I feel in a dance studio. Like many of you, I am filled with worry and relief almost equally, almost simultaneously. And, as the 2020 calendar year ends, I am here, waiting as patiently as I can to feel the weight of a dance partner, the hug of a long-separated friend, the touch of a dance teacher to guide me toward the movement.


This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of In Dance.


Bhumi B Patel is a queer, desi artist/activist. Her work involves dancing, choreographing, curating, educating, writing, and scholarship as a pursuit for liberation, with the time and space to decolonize the body. She seeks to create movement outside of white models of dance through use of improvisational practices and tapping into kinesthetic processing. Patel’s work has been presented at SAFEhouse Arts, LEVYsalon, Shawl Salon, max10, Studio 200, Molissa Fenley and Friends, Summer Performance Festival, RAWdance's Concept Series, The San Francisco International Arts Festival, Berkeley Finnish Hall, PUSHfest, Shawl-Anderson’s Queering Dance Festival, and Studio 210 Residency. Bhumi was a 2017-2018 Emerging Arts Professionals Fellow and a 2019 Women of Color in the Arts Fellow. She is a member of Dancing Around Race and Cat Call Choir. She’s been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Life as a Modern Dancer, Contact Quarterly, and In Dance. www.pateldanceworks.org

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