Stories From The Dance Front Lines

By Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

When I first started working on this article, I had a well thought out set of questions I was going to pose to several randomly selected dancers in our community as to how they were financially surviving during this pandemic. I was offering anonymity in exchange for their providing me with real numbers and budgets for analysis. I wanted to check in and really get a cross-section of just how we were surviving in what appears to be a long haul until things open up fully allowing us to produce shows and teach live classes again. What I got from these brief telephone interviews was something entirely different, a collection of stories from the front lines of our our dance community. While many freely offered the use of their names, companies and studios, I have decided to simply keep their anonymity throughout this article.

“Thanks for checking in. This has been extremely hard and I have been feeling more and more isolated as this drags on. Dance was never my primary form of support. I have always had a number of side gigs since college to support myself. The problem is that all of these other jobs I have had are now gone. I have been a waitress, hostess, worked in retail and have even been a messenger – well you know where all that is at now. I am what they keep calling the gig economy and for the first time find myself applying for unemployment. I know everyone else has had to do it as well, but it is a bit embarrassing. I mean not being able to support yourself. And to make things even worse, I am still waiting on that money after spending more frustrating hours on the website and phone. It is depressing. I have never had a lavish lifestyle and any extra money I was able to put aside went in to taking more dance classes or trying to develop my own shows. I have enough to get me through the end of the month (May), but after that, I am not sure. I want to keep dancing, it is just something that I have to do, it is who I am but I also now need to rethink things. At 26, I never thought I might have to ask my parents for help but it just may come to that.”

“As a dancer of color, I guess I am used to having to fight for everything all the time. But as so many other POCs, I am tired. Just plain tired. I am tired of having to fight for every position as a dancer in what has been a predominantly white-controlled system. The arts and dance are no exceptions! But you already knew that.  I am tired of trying to get grants and funding that seems to go to the same group of people, white people, white companies, all the time. I am tired of having to worry not only about my survival as an artist but just my survival as a black man. I make no apologies if this offends, it is truth.  Frankly, if it was not for some POC organizations like IABD and their emergency relief funds, I am not sure where things would be at right now.  I had some engagements to perform and even a contract for one company, but that’s all gone. I will do what I got to do to get by. Always have. But real change needs to happen and now! I am just f**king tired.”

“So I am a dancer and a mother of two. Well, you knew that. We are all quarantined at home and that poses a whole other set of factors with time management.  My husband still has his job, works remotely and his check is enough for us to get by on for now. I am teaching some Zoom classes when the kids allow me to break away. Occasionally you may spot them in the background … actually a lot. It is what it is. I also try to use this time to keep up with my own dance routines and stretching, moving when I can. I miss being in the studio. I miss the closeness of our community. It hurts, it really hurts. There is something about working with other dancers, well our creativity feeds each other. So, for now, we are getting by ok, but I know there are a lot of others in our community that are not. I do what I can and hopefully things will return soon. I try to stay positive. Well, I try anyway.”

” I am the trifecta – black, trans, and queer. I have always had to deal but now more than ever. The dance community, well arts community, has had its own issues but through creating and sharing my creativity I guess I found a way to transcend things. I mean I know there are issues, there will always be issues. But for a few moments when I perform, well it is different. People see me, they see me, not the labels. I can be me. I am who I am and I have struggled personally but I am proud of what I have accomplished. No one and no Covid is going to take that away from me. I have worked too hard and have come too far. Oh, finances. You did ask about that. Well, things are tight I won’t lie to you. I have made some money as a dancer but also a bunch of other side jobs – all but one gone now. I did get a stimulus check finally but that paid rent and for some food, didn’t last long. Never does. Should be seeing unemployment soon so that will help a bit. My community is strong and I have a lot of really close friends. We’re tight so we help each other out. I dance when I can, never give it up. I have had some great ideas for new work. just want to get back to it. Guess we will all need to find new ways of doing shows but that is what Philly dance has always been about. Right? I always appreciate your support. I can do this.”

“So I just graduated with my BFA in dance. Never saw any of this coming. I knew it was going to be hard to find work as a dancer. I guess I was a bit naive but thought I could definitely make a go of it. I am lucky as I have had strong family support for my dance career, well career in the making. Now I just don’t know. I live alone – small apartment. I keep things simple. Try to take classes online when I can. It’s just not the same. I try to read and watch videos of dance performances but there is only so much of that you can do. Filling time has never been this hard. Even face-timing friends gets old after a while. I miss taking classes and doing shows, especially doing shows. I miss being on stage. Thanks, now you have made me more depressed. My parents have offered for me to come back home if I need. I don’t want to leave Philly, plus it will feel like I have failed. I mean I know I haven’t but it just feels that way. I just want to work again and perform. Sorry, I need to stop now.”

“As you know, I have my own dance company. We are not very big but we have been around now for a while and we hold our own. We do several annual gigs here in Philly and have also done some touring. I pay my dancers, probably not what they are really worth, but I do the best I can. I rely on donations and also some grants. If they kill arts funding and PCF (Philadelphia Cultural Fund), I am not sure what I will do. Somehow we always manage. I think dancers instinctively know how to do more with less. Sometimes it can be exhausting though. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Right now most of my dancers are trying to get unemployment. Some have gotten through the f**ked up system, others are still waiting. I try to help when I can. It is hard to see my dancers that I care about so much go through this. They are my family. We will get through it. No politics right? That’s what you said. Hard not too. But things need to change. People need to support the arts and artists. We are the ones getting you through this social distancing. The arts should be a part of everyone and for everyone.”

“I know you want to talk about my personal finances during this time, but I think you really should be talking about the inequities we are seeing. This whole Rona thing has shown us who the haves and have nots are. I am angry plain and simple. I may be a dancer but I am a person first. Dance is what I do, being is what I am. Too many people are getting rich while the rest of us, well, we are just discarded, expendable, acceptable losses. I am just tired of this sh*t. $1200 stimulus is a joke. Who can pay rent, utilities and food for three months on $1200. Unemployment – UC, PUA, whatever is a joke. The website never works, the questions are designed to trip you up, anything to keep from paying you. Next the money will run out. They are opening things back up just so they don’t have to pay us. Ok, back to dancing, sorry. You got me started. I have been dancing since I was four. Never thought about doing anything else. It is just something in me. It is something I freely share with others. It is who I am. I will always dance and this whole Rona thing will not stop me. I am already working on some stuff, wait and see!”

” I am a CIS female and a choreographer. Funny how we identify ourselves. I have always been a dancer but for the last three years feel more aligned as a choreographer. In college, they always spoke of the glass ceiling, I just never thought it applied to the dance world. Being a female choreographer is, well this gender inequity is simply infuriating. Our work and the funding available is not the same as for our male counterparts. Getting main stage commissions is next to impossible even in this day and age. This pandemic has only shown this divide to be even greater than what I thought. We have a long way to go before there will be parity in the field. Outsiders may not think this is true because of how many women are in dance, but this has been a non-stop fight to present work. So how am I doing? I have had a full time job in the business world that supports my work as a choreographer. Not sure I would make it otherwise because of the issues I just raised. I have to watch my money a bit more now, but I guess I am in a bit better position than most in dance and the arts. I wish I could choreograph full time, but until women are recognized, supported, funded and this misogyny is a thing of the past, I just do not have it in me to keep battling for my art.”

” I am a dance studio owner but you knew that. I have had my studio for more years than I care to remember. We are a small studio but I have had a loyal and supportive group of dancers and parents. They are all like family. I can not imagine doing anything else. But the reality is my lease comes due July 1. I am not sure I can afford to pay the rent for 6-9 months if I can not re-open the studio. I never thought I might be faced with giving things up. I have tried some virtual classes. I am not great at technology but one of the parents has been helping. It just is not the same and I can not generate the income I would need to keep things afloat. There are no competitions or student showcases, which is the lifeblood of a studio, whether you like it or not. I applied for PPP but of course never heard anything. Even though I have banked at the same place for over 20 years, they had nothing to offer. I am trying to see what others are doing but honestly, I am not sure what will happen as July comes closer. I have never felt so depressed and helpless. It is not just about me but all of my students, they have have always been first in my heart. I have lost a lot of sleep worrying about all this. Please don’t use my name or the studio’s. I don’t want to panic anyone until i figure this all out.”

“Lately I have been fighting with everybody about everything. I have been fighting with my landlord who keeps wanting his money. Fighting with creditors and student loan people. Fighting with my parents, even friends. I guess I am fighting for my survival. It is hard to think about dancing when you are just trying to survive. It’s lonely and I admit I am not in the best of places at the moment. I mean it’s serious but I will be ok. I’m OK Steve. But how can I create and do what I do best in all this? And honestly, its hard when we are so undervalued, even by our fellow artists. If I see one more Tik Tok video I may have to scream. Everyone is posting dance to get through this. I think it is great that we are all dancing. I mean that is what it should be. But when we need to support dance and dance artists, all of these folks will be running the other way. Sorry, it is just what I feel.”

” I am at home like everyone else. It is lonely. I live alone. My big social outing of the week is going to Trader Joes to try to stock up. I get to talk and nod at passerbys from six feet, and if I am lucky chat briefly with someone at the register, who most likely prefers that I don’t. I have tried to keep a daily routine, stay fit, eat right, attend virtual dance classes – lots of free ones and good ones, read, binge on Netflix to get through the night and then start all over again. I don’t think I could tell you what day of the week it is – Tuesday? right? I really miss my fellow dancers, I miss being in class with them, I miss doing new routines, I miss performing … God, I miss performing, I miss the audience. I just miss being able to dance full out like nothing else matters. It will happen again, right? Is it really just Tuesday?”

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One reply on “Stories From The Dance Front Lines”

  1. Thank you for reaching out to these dancers and presenting their personal stories. Their voices are raw and real. Hopefully they can hang on and come out the other side of this mess with their souls and creativity intact.

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