One of my jobs is college admissions essay coach. The most popular platform for college admissions is called the Common Application. Over 900 colleges and universities use the Common App as their gateway for admission. The Common App requires the usual stuff: personal data, standardized test scores, classes and grades, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay. Students are asked to answer one of seven prompts; they include questions about background, identity, interests, obstacles faced and overcome, beliefs challenged, problems solved, feats accomplished, the sort of things most 17-to-18-year-olds have never spent a moment reflecting on.
In 2020, the Common App added a special, optional COVID-19 essay question (250 words):
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
When I am advising students on how best to answer this prompt, there’s no time to deconstruct the notion that “colleges,” like “states” and “corporations,” have feelings. Instead I get straight to the point: unless you or someone close to you has gotten sick, or you’ve lost someone, or a parent has lost a job or a home, or you lack the space and resources necessary for a successful remote learning experience, you don’t have to answer the question. No one wants to hear you whine about having had your internship at a startup, or Mathletes competition, or summer STEM camp canceled. Everything important to everyone has been canceled.
But some students really want to answer the question because they have been terrorized by the well-known fact that most if not all other optional supplemental essay questions posed by specific, usually “elite” colleges, are not actually optional. If you have nothing to say about how you single-handedly saved your local park, or made it into the Olympic trials for curling, or invented an app that cures diabetes, why are you applying to Harvard, chump? These students can’t let a prompt remain unanswered; it would be blasphemy.
In those cases, I tell my students to write about how they pivoted in the face of shelter-in-place. One student, a competitive gymnast, designed an online training program that didn’t require rings, parallel bars, and 40-square-foot sprung floor. Another went grocery shopping for the most at-risk members in their community. A third offered free online tutoring in Calculus. These are good stories, important stories, sometimes inspiring stories about making lemonade out of lemons.
I am getting to the point, I promise.
I have been living through the pandemic so far mostly unscathed: roof over head, food in the fridge, self and family healthy and safe, jobs retained and even expanded, access to stable internet. For the slings and arrows of my particular experience, I have my TinyLetter to vent. So if I were one of my students, I’m not sure I’d answer the COVID-19 Common App prompt.
And yet, I’ve given myself a version of it for dance. How has dance been affected by COVID-19? How does one even talk about the year dance had? And what do I even mean by “dance”? Dance as concept? Dance as practice? Dance as community? If it were a multiple choice exam rather than an essay question, I’d choose all of the above.
Like an obituary for a famous person, I’m writing this before 2020 is dead. It’s early December. The rains have finally come to the Bay Area. My kids and I have been marveling at cloud formations and hunting rainbows. Biden won the election and there has been dancing in the streets. T**** has yet to concede. Republicans are claiming voter fraud where convenient for them to do so. Over 72 million people thought T**** was great or good enough or the best choice, revealing the tentacular reach of ignorance and hatred and fear and capitalism run amok. The pandemic is enjoying a resurgence, ravaging populations across the nation and the world, hitting BIPOC communities hardest. Nearly 300 thousand Americans dead; over 1.5 million globally. Still, people gallivant masklessly and have in-person holiday parties. The concept of freedom has been reframed in the most ridiculous ways. Antiblack racism—the foundational ideology of our nation—rages on. No justice for Breonna.
In the midst of all this, how did dance fare?
Studio closures, staff layoffs, classes canceled, performances canceled. Dance communities retraumatized by another government failure to address a lethal virus. Dancers’ Group has tried to keep the dance community abreast of resources to ensure personal and institutional survival but the bungled federal response to the virus has meant real, permanent loss on an unprecedented scale.
And yet, I’ve never felt more surrounded by dance. It seems like the practice of dancing has only grown during COVID. Dance classes and performances got online and outside in what felt like mere hours into lockdown. Dancers have doubled down on their commitment to movement, disseminating dance content on YouTube, Vimeo, TikTok, Zoom, Twitch, Twitter, Facebook—name a digital platform and you will find dance there, recorded or streamed live. And dancers have taken to the streets—in parades and protests, in playground classes and shoreline performances. And terrible dance movies continue to be made and consumed on all the streaming services. Dance is everywhere.
The pandemic has reminded me that dance’s “problem” is neither its ephemerality nor its liveness. It has reminded me that dance doesn’t have a problem. In fact, dance writ large has never been under threat. Dance will survive.
Which is not to say individual dancers and dance organizations will. Just as it has exposed deep inequities across the social order, COVID has further amplified the precarity of any life in dance; even in the best of circumstances, we lose dancers to pregnancy, motherhood, impossibly high costs of living, injury, illness, and death. The Bay Area continues to reel and keen over the death of the legendary Kathleen Hermesdorf as Portland mourns the loss of Mary Oslund. And then there are the dancers we never got a chance to know because of deeply entrenched ableism: the fact that some of the studios many of us long to return to remain inaccessible to wheelchair users speaks to the continued threat of that particular virus.
The collective hand-wringing over the future of dance has been mainly about those brands of dance that rely on particular structures and spaces like the studio, the theater, the company. Dance that depends on gathering in groups indoors to train, rehearse, and perform. Studio dance. Theater dance. Dance companies, theaters, and schools are in trouble. As dancers we know dance is essential. As believers in science we know that had we locked down for real in March we could have been dancing together today.
As a (semi-retired?) concert dancer, I miss some things and not others. I miss dance class in large groups without masks. Though I love dancing outside, as a modern dancer I miss the barefoot part. It’s hard to roll through your tootsies when they’re ensconced in dance sneakers. And I miss the time when I felt okay missing shows because I could only be in one place at a time. Now I feel like if I miss something, I have no excuse. It’s all right there online—no Bay Bridge traffic or BART delay to blame.
And is it my imagination, or has there been more dance coverage in The New York Times than ever before?
If we were lucky enough to have our health and our wits during this time, the pandemic has been and continues to be an opportunity to reflect on the past as we lay the groundwork for a better future, in dance and beyond. My hope for post-pandemic dance is that we continue to question everything so when we go back to stuff, we go back to the stuff we really need. For example: The Bessies decided to forego giving awards to individuals this year and are honoring (and giving cash to) all nominees instead. Heather Robles, managing director and producer of the Bessies said, “It did not seem appropriate to continue with business as usual.” If we learn nothing else from this year, it should be crystal clear that so much of the usual business was bad business. Let’s continue to question the value of dance awards.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I kept a social distancing diary. I had planned to write something every day until the pandemic was over. I stopped at day 100 due to burnout. My first entry (March 14) reveals a mother unable to imagine being stuck at home with kids for a month. Post number two—first positive COVID case at UC Berkeley. Reading through the hundred posts, I see how much I had gained from early quarantine—the space to write freely, the impulse to cook creatively, the time to spend happily with family, the clarity to face my racism. And I see how quickly I have lost those gains—I’m back to academia-induced imposter syndrome, boxed mac-n-cheese, wanting to smack my kids, and painful reckoning with the white supremacy lodged in my tissue. Though I continue to work toward an antiracist future through groups like ODC’s Equity Working Group and my own self-study, all the new recipes and online Gaga classes and art projects just lost their shine over time. Now, looking back on the past nine months with promising vaccines on the horizon, I fear forgetting—the fires because the air is currently clear, the children in cages because they’re no longer making front page news, the dozens of Black men and women murdered by the police because we’ve said their names.
At this very moment it is December 12, night three of Chanukah, the festival of lights. I don’t like to pit light against darkness. There is beauty and richness in darkness. So, to call this past year a dark time and leave it at that feels irresponsible and inaccurate.
On this cold, dark evening, after lighting the menorah, I stood with Chris Evans, Ernest Jolly, Yvette Aldama, and a few neighborhood passersby in front of the Idora Park Project Space Gallery on the corner of Shattuck and 56th Street in Oakland to take in Gathering at a Distance: Ritual and Memory. The exhibit, curated by Jolly, featured magnificent costumes from the New Orleans African American Carnival and Mardi Gras Masking Indian masking traditions by Cherice Harrison-Nelson and Fahamu Pecou, as well as a design by Dana Kawano. Three dynamic examples hung in the display windows, flanking a video collage of footage from House/Full of Black Women, Carnival events in Cuba and New Orleans, and the New Orleans-based Roots of Music youth marching band projected on the wall inside the space. Chris and I hadn’t seen each other since just before lockdown so we talked and talked as the 15-minute video looped over and over again, straining to hear each other through our masks and over the sound of Saturday evening traffic.
We talked about the themes of the exhibit: history, memory, ritual, and tradition. Chris told me about her training in the Talawa Technique with Thomas Talawa Prestø, founder and artistic director of Tabanka African & Caribbean Peoples Dance Ensemble in Oslo, Norway. She talked about the technique as a decolonizing practice as she undulated her torso and marched softly in place.
Chris got me wondering about decolonizing as a practice of inviting our tissue to remember those ideas and experiences the colonizer wants us to forget. It seems to me that fundamental to white supremacy is a persistent pressure to forget. Perhaps the first step to purging white supremacy is remembering it’s there in the first place, always in first place. The white supremacist concept of memory is linear, which means it leaves what it remembers behind—we remember to forget. Though the concept of muscle memory seems to have reached beyond the dance universe, the idea of memory in bone, fascia, and breath remains on the fringe.
I’m terrified of forgetting so I practice remembering, usually in writing, sometimes in dancing. I repeatedly write down what I already know because I’m afraid to forget how to remember. And I don’t want to remember only to forget.
All year we’ve been surrounded by darkness and light. Some of the light is too bright. Some things that seem to have come out of the shadows and into the light have always been standing there in plain sight. We need to keep shining a light on white supremacy but it doesn’t deserve the warmth that light brings. Thankfully, warmth is not exclusive to light. Caves are cold and dark, but wombs are dark and warm. When my babies came out of the darkness into the light they made it clear they weren’t happy and that they needed time to adjust. It seems we are all still adjusting.
I used to love the heat of the summer sun on my skin when I was a teenager but we had some ozone layer then. Winter, our so-called dark time, brings the best form of light—not too hot, not too bright, just right. The sun warms our faces as the wind chills our bones.
Dark and light, warm and cold. Our theaters have been dark. When they open into the light again, I hope we remember the dark and all it helped us see.
 Peter Libbey, “Bessies to Forgo Individual Awards This Year,” The New York Times, November 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/19/arts/dance/bessies-to-forgo-individual-awards-this-year.html