When theaters closed their doors for COVID-19 in March, it looked like curtains for performing artists. With distancing guidelines in place for a virus with no cure in sight, an industry based on contact and physical presence was forced to retreat behind a screen—to video, video calls, and livestreams—where dimension and shared space is reduced at best to the illusion of shared time. In the absence of spaces verified by the lives of others, never has time seemed so fictional (“What is time?” we all ask). And yet dancing has never ceased.
In the shock of sheltering in place and as the city has begun to reopen, dancers and dance companies have found ways to come together in person, rediscovering ways to make contact at a safe distance. Their methods favor the small, the nimble, and the improvisational—and create more community than cash.
After the May 25 passing of George Floyd, at the rallies, marches, and vigils that have proceeded since, people are coming together again, driven by the need to take space and express what can only be experienced in the fragility and resilience of the body.
There is risk to dance, but also passion, power, beauty, and love. Bodies are continuing to speak.
May 24: In a parking lot in Bridgeport, 12 cars gathered beneath a blazing sun at high noon. For 30 minutes, in a city that had been under lockdown for ten weeks, with theaters worldwide abruptly and indefinitely shuttered, humans gathered for live performance. Three masked dancers (full disclosure: I was one of them) on cracked concrete, surrounded by a canyon of industrial edifices. Beyond them, quiet streets and closed doors—a city hibernating through its loveliest season. And yet, for a moment, alive and beating.
“We had a show March 14 on Navy Pier, for the Holi celebration for the arrival of spring, that got canceled,” recalls Kinnari Vora, codirector of contemporary Indian dance collective Ishti. It was a moment every performer has by now experienced: “We realized, this is real. Getting together, moving, and sharing what we have is not happening and doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.”
“We had been trying to do Zoom classes and rehearse together, but physically we hadn’t seen each other since February,” says codirector Preeti Veerlapati. An Instagram post of a diagram by set designer Emanuele Sinisi showing cars arranged in a circle with headlights shining inwards to light a performance space set Ishti into motion. With parks and the lakefront closed, parking lots could serve as a space for people to gather safely in the shelter of their own cars.
“We have done pop-ups before,” says Vora. “You don’t need a stage, you don’t need a tech. You just take your speakers, set up in the middle of a square, and start performing there. And drive-in concerts exist all over the world.”
They began to envision an array of cars at night tasked with lighting cues to create a theatrical experience. Composer and collaborator Bob Garrett, who assisted at the event, intervened. “He said, ‘Guys, 16 cars is too much. Don’t worry about the formation,’” remembers Vora. They queried an artist friend about the parking lot at the Zhou B Art Center. “He said, ‘When?’ I said, ‘This weekend?’ We talked on Wednesday night, and we performed Sunday.”
Ultimately, keeping the event small and simple was essential for safety and success. They decided an even dozen cars would allow for ease of distancing and direction by just two volunteers. To limit the size of the gathering, Ishti announced the location two hours before the start time to a restricted list of guests, who had agreed to their own costume and choreography: arrive on time, park where directed, wear a mask, and remain in or near your vehicle.
The program opened with Sparsh, developed by Vora and collaborator Tuli Bera in 2019. “Kinnari and Tuli were exploring touch last year in the Bharatanatyam space, which has an absence of touch and physical contact. It was an opportunity to say, ‘We built this on touching and sensing, how do we continue to do that today in this new world?’” says Veerlapati. The experiment was conducted in real time: like the audience, the dancers came together for the first time that day to explore what was possible at a safe distance. “They talked about what they were going to do and did one rehearsal on Zoom. That day was like, ‘All right, what is this going to look like?’ We had to take the risk.”
Yet they entered new territory with little fear. “Let’s think of this as a family backyard gathering,” recalls Vora of an audience largely composed of artists. “The people who were there would be there with us even if we failed, to stand with us. The people who said, ‘Yes, we’ll come’—that was enough. That empowered us to be present. And being there and being together was the most important aspect. As soon as [dancer and choreographer Ayako Kato’s] car came in, with Ayako popping out of the top, I knew everything would be good—however it happened.”
“The drive-in performance was like returning home,” says Bera. “I was surrounded and witnessed by those I hold dearly in my soul. The sun was out. The ground was hot. It was a huge hotspot of energy and a performance where I truly felt alive!”
“We want to do many outdoor series, not just one,” says Vora. “We are thinking about organizing and cocurating with other artists. This platform can be shared with different people in different neighborhoods working in different media—dance, music, painting, sculpture.”
“After the first one, we were thinking, ‘Why can’t we take over United Center’s parking lot?’” laughs Veerlapati. “But we also need to be mindful of our capacity in this moment: keeping it intimate, connecting, and expanding a network by including other curators and other forms of art. At the end of the day, I want to be sharing space with you.”
June 12, 18, 22, ongoing: the Seldoms are bringing dance to residential neighborhoods in a privately commissioned series called Sidewalk Dances that brings live music and dance direct to your doorstep.
“Like everyone, I felt completely derailed [by the lockdown],” says artistic director Carrie Hanson. Following the Wisconsin premiere of FLOE, a dance theater piece on climate change, the Seldoms were on the cusp of bringing the work to the Art Institute of Chicago and touring it to Cincinnati. “It wasn’t as if I was in a process where I could keep steadily working, and it would come out in a different form. We were ready to do shows!”
In contrast to many companies that shifted work online, Hanson says, “I felt no attraction to figuring out how to do things online or virtually.” Instead, she focused on a different project, GRASS, currently scheduled to premiere in March 2021, and turned to analog modes of connecting: storytelling and house calls: “I wanted to invite people to talk about their relationships to turf grass and cannabis. And maybe folks will want to have a small dance ensemble perform outside their house or apartment building.”
Three commissions in the month of June affirmed the desire for live performance. “I think people have been almost relieved to have a live event. It’s energetically, visually, and sonically revitalizing after so much time in the same four walls and probably too much time on a screen.” In contrast, Sidewalk Dances is “totally low tech. We take along a live musician, Bob Garrett, who has worked with us for 15 years. We show up 30-40 minutes ahead of time to look at the lay of the land. In Hyde Park, it was a one-way residential street, so we moved into the street, with 25 to 30 people standing in masks on their front yards. In Edgewater, it began to pour, Bob played his instruments from his hatchback, and the dancers went on for 15 minutes in solid rain. We’re all a little bit numb right now. To have this opportunity to be in a small crowd, with a group of people and a musician creating something outside your home, a really familiar space on this street you see all the time, it changes how you see that space.”
Sidewalk Dances has also given Hanson the opportunity for on-the-ground research, allowing her to test movement phrases for GRASS with the dancers and meet people at their homes to discuss lawns and weed. “My past work has explored the environment and political power, and GRASS [inspired by Paul Robbins’s 2007 book Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are] bridges both,” she says. “The American lawn is a green space but also a white space, hand in hand with the American suburb. Monoculture is a key word: how do we look at biodiversity and what is gained there in terms of resiliency, and how do we think about social diversity?” Robbins considers lawns in conjunction with cannabis, the legal status and licensing of which has transformed an illegal drug into a profitable business—for some. Says Hanson, “The people able to access those licenses and gain profits are white, to the detriment to Black and Brown communities decimated by war on drugs—in other words, a plant is upholding white capitalist culture.”
The performances, which have lasted 15 to 20 minutes, have been commissioned to celebrate events including graduation and retirement. They have also required more logistical work by Hanson. “I’ve never worked in this model,” she says. “It feels really direct. Usually I work through a venue, and they’re selling the tickets.” Practical matters dominate the conversation: “What is the street like? How wide is the sidewalk? Is there a place for the musician? Can we go to the bathroom? How long would you like us to perform?”
Yet the work has been “invigorating for the dancers,” she says. “And I’m able to give 20 percent of our fees to Forward Momentum Chicago, an organization committed to increasing access to dance, founded by former Joffrey dancer Pierre Lockett. That feels good.”
July 10, 19: “A tap jam is a gathering of tap dancers, a cypher, or ‘trading,’ as musicians call it. It’s all about dancers getting together, motivating one another, inspiring one another, stealing from one another—that’s how the original tap dancers created the art form,” says Bril Barrett, founder of tap company M.A.D.D. Rhythms. “We honor that tradition of stealing from each other by holding tap jams twice a month. It’s all levels. Some people come and watch and get motivated to try it, some people just come dance, some people just come watch. It’s really whatever you want it to be. We have fun sharing each other’s energies, rhythms, and steps.”
For almost 20 years, Barrett has upheld a practice that dates back to the early development of the dance in the nineteenth century. Every second Friday and third Sunday of the month, he and other members of M.A.D.D. Rhythms can be found at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville in a circle of dance anyone can join. “The last one we had in person was the third Sunday in March, which was literally when the stay-at-home order went into effect. In April, May, and June, we did them virtually. I was determined to not let the virus or the circumstances take that joy away. It was cool because people joined us from all over the world, but in terms of sharing energy with each other, it wasn’t the same.”
In July, as the city moved into new phases of reopening, the tap jam reconvened outside—which both observes guidelines for safe gathering during a pandemic and carries the jam closer to its origins. “From Master Juba to Chuck Green, Hoofers would create, practice and perfect this artform….OUTSIDE!” Barrett wrote in a letter explaining tap jams last January. “In those times, the United States still had a long way to go when it came to black people and their treatment. Many dance schools didn’t allow African Americans, so the streets became our studios and the dance became our resistance & perseverance at the same time.”
“Art forms based in choreography are privileged over art forms based in improvisation,” notes Barrett. “It follows the hierarchy of the white supremacist power structure that is of this country. This society is used to privileging documented forms. But [in improvised forms] you have to take the years of training and apply them in an instant. We don’t have the luxury of working through the thing. Our process is done in front of your eyes.”
“That’s why the jams are so important for us. M.A.D.D. Rhythms rehearsals are part improvisation, part choreography, part technique. The tap jam is a way for us to improvise with people whose style we don’t know, whose cadences we aren’t familiar with, and sometimes it gives you a new way to think about or approach something. A lot of times their level is not even important to that process. It is simply that I never would have thought to do that step in that way at that time!”
Beyond building community among dancers, the jam brings people from around the city to Bronzeville—and thus more awareness of the neighborhood and more economic opportunities for its residents. “Little by little, with jams and classes, we’ve broken down the barrier of the south side being unreachable. We used to think we couldn’t be an internationally renowned company based in our own neighborhood, because that’s what we were taught growing up.”
On July 10, tap dancers came together again for the jam on a wooden floor set up in the parking lot of the Harold Washington Cultural Center. “It was only supposed to last an hour, but we were so happy to be in the same space that we went almost two hours,” says Barrett. “Even though we were all out of breath, and our stamina was not the same because we haven’t been dancing as much, the joy of being together and having the opportunity to be in that space with each other was very different. We’ve all reexamined the value of being able to connect with other souls.”
“Jamming with a group of people is the most selfish and unselfish thing you can do at the same time,” he says. “When that one person is dancing, everybody else is holding time for them, i.e., supporting them. When you really get into it, some people ‘sing’ together—one person will be wrapping up, and another will start, and they’ll start dancing together. We have this conversation before we pass it on. But usually it’s about each person taking their turn to say what they want to say, and we all support, and we all listen. The jam is the perfect opportunity to be heard but also to hear.”
“No matter what we’re doing, we try to always have the jam,” he says. “We do them for ourselves, and if people come, it’s a bonus. We’re going to have them, and if nobody ever shows, it’s still going on, and we’ll have a great time.”
“I was a participant in Cairo during the 2013 occupation of the Ministry of Culture,” says social practice dance artist Shawn Lent. Though the Fulbright she had been awarded to teach at the state-run Higher Institute of Ballet had been suspended because of the Egyptian revolution, Lent, who first went to Egypt on a UN Alliance of Civilizations fellowship in 2010, stayed to stand by artists and activists against a regime that sought to ban dance and other forms of art and expression (“I was supposed to be there six months and stayed almost four years”). “Every night for 33 days, not only did activists occupy the complex, they did street performance. As it led up to June 30, the biggest political demonstration in modern history, I was realizing all the marches coming to the square were all led by artists—film artists, musicians. There were pop-up installations, ballet performances—it was so infused in the arts.”
When Lent moved to Chicago in 2016, she continued to support and participate in social movements. “One of the first things I did coming back to the U.S. after years abroad was join a Black Lives Matter march. I noticed that while there were witty signs, there wasn’t much artist leadership of the march or the movement. The morning after Trump was elected, there was a big rally in front of Trump Tower. I just felt it in my body. I couldn’t do the witty signs. I did a solo demonstration for about a half hour by myself at that rally and then decided to mobilize other dancers to join.”
These demonstrations, initially organized over Facebook, began to grow as Chicago dancers joined Lent in peaceful expression. “We had a pretty big one for Inauguration Day. We had a big one for President’s Day. People brought their babies and danced with their children. During the health-care crisis, dance movement therapists came. Sometimes they’ve been very planned, with choreography people rehearsed. Other times, like after Charlottesville, there was just one young woman who said, ‘I need to do something.’ And no one else came, so it was just the two of us.” Most demonstrations have taken place at the Heald Square Monument, a sculpture on Wacker Drive directly across from Trump Tower that depicts the Statue of Liberty on its base, reaching her arms out to all people, beneath George Washington and two financiers of the American Revolution (“It’s about diversity”).
Though initially organized by Lent, the dance demonstrations have frequently been collaborative in nature and led by others in the city, incorporating marching bands and entire dance companies, with Kristina Isabelle Dance Company joining for the 2017 March for Science.
In recent demonstrations, Lent says, “I’ve been reconsidering my role as a white woman. It was my time to listen and not lead. I’ve been joining others, following, supporting.” However, when word of the Black, Indigenous Solidarity Rally July 17 at Buckingham Fountain reached her, Lent was moved to act. “When I saw the theme and the 16 organizations that were putting this one on—and that it was a solidarity rally—I thought, ‘If I can get a few people there, I think it will mean a lot to them. I need to move. I need to be there. Solidarity for the Indigenous and Black community right now! I put the word out the night before.”
Five dancers joined Lent at 5 PM that day for a 20-minute demonstration. “The prompt was, ‘Do we all want to dance together? Yes.’ That was it. Solidarity. A circle. Twenty minutes of dancing together. There was no other agenda, plan, or structure.” As they finished, two more dancers arrived, and the crowd had begun to march. “It’s very common for a rally to turn into a march, and usually we try to dance as we march, and we try to collaborate with musicians in the crowd. We found some drummers who were interested in collaborating, but there was a lot going on, social distancing, and we didn’t know where the crowd was going.”
The march arrived at the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park. “Protesters were spray painting and throwing things at the statue. There were fireworks. One person was climbing and trying to put ropes around it. From Cairo I knew property damage is symbolic and important. I thought the police must be standing back and letting this happen.” Minutes later, however, riot police arrived. “They came in and beat two protesters heavily and started attacking a medic who had come to their aid. One of the cops was trying to push me to leave over the wall. I said, ‘Shame on you.’ He said, ‘This is city property! Trump 2020!’ and spat in my direction.” As violence intensified, the dancers decided to hold their ground. Finally, they were marched out, hands up, down Lake Shore Drive. “I’ve been through many large-scale rallies and demonstrations in Cairo, and never felt the fear I felt on Friday,” says Lent. “The cops had their batons ready to use on anybody, no matter where you were standing or what you were doing.”
“I do not use the word protester,” she says. “Within the movement, people say, ‘Are you here to demonstrate or to protest?’ There’s an inside language that a protester is there for action and ready to defend the other protesters. There’s a lot more risk involved. A demonstrator bears an undertone of peace. I felt uncomfortable asking dancers to choose that level of risk. If they want to protest and put their bodies at more risk, that window is open, but what I’m organizing is demonstration through the body. I’m now questioning if it is even possible to do a dance demonstration on city property even with a permit. By inviting people to join me, am I setting people up? Are they at risk? I think I will continue myself, but [do others] really know what they are signing up for if they come to dance?”
“In Cairo there were farmers doing installation art pieces, gestural or sculptural expressions in [Tahrir Square]. Not because they’re artists but because they’re fully expressing what they wanted to express. There were pop-up galleries. Murals. Anywhere there was destruction of property, there was some sort of art: original song, dances everywhere, a full expression of what the protester was trying to get out of their body or tell the world or realize for themselves. It’s a claiming of space: we are not leaving the square; we have built a whole gallery. It is important for the individual protester to realize what they’re trying to say, and to build a collective message and common ground for demands, [whether] in song, in artwork, or in the gut—in the body.”
“Here we march in a straight line. We hold comedic, witty, satirical signs, and we’re flanked by police on both sides who tell us what we can do. When I started dancing in demonstrations, I felt I was saying so much more from myself to the world. That’s the importance of the arts.”
Among those who have joined Lent in dance demonstrations is Kierah King, a 2020 graduate of Columbia College. “A lot of my work in dance and empowerment started in school,” says King, who majored in dance and minored in Black world studies. “I have worked with different communities and socioeconomic backgrounds, particularly kids dealing with traumatic experiences, bringing dance into programs and educational settings.” King and Lent first met working with Educare Chicago, teaching dance to children in Bronzeville. When she joined the dance demonstration Lent organized for the Women’s March in 2017, King says, “I began seeing how the power of dance could be used to change people’s perspectives.” She has since participated in several dance demonstrations, including the Black, Indigenous Solidarity Rally.
“I think all artists bring something beautiful to a space,” she says. “Especially at a protest, having dance in the space creates a certain energy, where you see not only the work that goes in but also the beauty that comes out of it. A dance demonstration is such a strong way to say something, be political, create community, and be empowering: this is what joy looks like. This is what freedom can look like. This is what it can be when we come together and create something beautiful. This is what a movement is, and this is what it’s supposed to be, because this is the natural movement of our body.”
During a march the weekend after George Floyd’s death, King recalls a particularly potent expression. “They were raising all the bridges. The last one was the one at Trump Tower, and [police] started getting really violent with protesters on that bridge. And this one girl started dancing at them. People started screaming, ‘Black Girl Magic!’ Everyone started running towards her and being in this moment and encouraging her. This is beautiful! This is what a woman is! She was twerking, doing African dance, jazz dance, ballet, high kicks, and ended up in a straddle on the ground and just stared at the cops. She just sat there for a good minute. It was a beautiful moment to witness.”
“At that protest, there were people dancing throughout. And I’ve noticed people starting to bring speakers to the protest to play music and dance along as they’re walking. So you see these little dance parties going on as protesters are walking down the streets, and in these little groups you see this joy and happiness and all these different moods and emotions depending on the music, as people are chanting. There are so many different energies going on. People are using it as a way to continue the movement and progress it forward.”
King is determined to continue the work, beginning with a dance demonstration she is organizing this August. “My ultimate goal is to create a really big dance demonstration in Chicago with social distancing, masks, being completely respectful. We did a similar one in Indiana with 25 dancers. It was beautiful and healing for people to connect in that way, even though we can’t touch right now. Right now people are gathering for protests in a state of rage—which is completely understandable—being up front with the cops and having them scream and yell and seeing the physical violence and feeling so upset and overwhelmed with emotion that you can’t feel anything other than that. Dance can bring a sense of calmness, joy, and connection while continuing the movement. It’s so important to maintain that connection when we’re coming together to protest in a way that can take so much out of you. It’s exhausting, being out there for hours all day, with everything in your face, tear gas, yelling, screaming. Remembering why we come together, why we connect, what is the purpose of it—dance has always been a way to express all of those things.
“That sense of community is the biggest thing, and art has been a huge catalyst. Right now, when the arts are standing at such a dire time, people are stepping into roles that have never been held before. It is going to affect the next years and generations to come.” v