March 2021 was the one-year anniversary of everything falling apart. In the performing arts world, we mourned the casualties of live performances, upcoming projects, and residency schedules. For college seniors in performing arts programs, the pandemic brought multiple deaths to thesis projects, final performances, and graduations. I’ve been wanting to put my experience of graduating in the pandemic with a BFA in Dance into writing for some time now. More than anything, I just need to shout out to my co-graduates and say, “Yeah, this really sucks. I see you and I feel you.”
In March 2020, I was working through my final semester at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in pursuit of my BFA in Dance. I am fortunate to have been a part of a program that prioritizes artistic and technical training while providing students with tangible skills needed to sustain a life as an artist. We learned how to build a website, write a grant, and budget a project between our daily pliés and X rolls. But nobody did (or could) prepare us for graduating with a dance degree in the middle of a pandemic.
The loss of my thesis project and graduation—the things that are supposed to serve as milestones of closure—left me feeling confused and unsure if I had actually finished
school or not. I had been working with a cast of five dancing superstars for nearly seven months to build a choreographic work that would premiere live in the beginning of May.
At the halfway point of my final semester, I felt like my thesis was finally coming together. My last undergraduate performances were around the corner and I was preparing to move to New York to begin the freelance artist career I had been looking forward to for four years. Very quickly, the pandemic threw all the tools I thought I would need for a career as an artist out the window.
I’d been preparing for four years for a dance field that, now, does not exist.
All of the losses from my senior year felt devastating and the mourning process was confusing. A year later, I still feel the ripple effects. These major losses—particularly, my thesis that never happened—have affected my entrance into the professional world as a dance-maker and performer. For those that are unfamiliar with the thesis process of most dance programs, this project was something I had been thinking about, training for, and looking forward to for four years. It would serve as both a culmination and celebration of my undergraduate training and mark the beginning of my professional career as an artist. I was relying on the fact that I’d have more performances and more choreographic work that would be professionally documented in my final semester of college that I could use to apply for residencies, shows, or auditions. Now I’m left with no professional footage of my performance or choreographic work from the past year and a half.
Aside from the tangible things I lost from my abbreviated senior year, I felt even greater loss from leaving my dance community without warning. Community is paramount in
dance—the idea of a dance family is real—and I didn’t get the closure I was counting on when I abruptly left my own dance family. That’s made it so much more difficult to feel
prepared to move on. Now, I’m in a weird in-between space—no longer a part of the community I never got to say goodbye to, and not yet a part of the community that
doesn’t yet care to acknowledge a freshly-graduated 22-year-old dancer who’s trying to stick her foot in the door. My entrance into a new dance community has felt even more difficult because of the pandemic that physically separates us and curbs our communal practices that are vital in the building of our “dance families.” So, this is where I am. The
combination of my lack of recent professional materials, the ageism complex of the professional dance field, and the ever-looming feeling of scarcity of resources and opportunities (thanks, capitalism!) has made my professional career feel like it’s taken 20 steps backwards.
This “20 steps behind everyone else” feeling has given me this constant and strange feeling of obligation to keep showing up to all the virtual classes, events, and performances, whether I want to or not. Because that’s how you make a career as a dance artist—you show up. But this ideology doesn’t really translate to a dance world in a pandemic, does it? Zoom burnout is real. Dancing in an apartment while trying not to bother your roommates and neighbors is difficult (and there’s really no space to do the phrase full-out, anyways). But I still need to show up if I want to “make it,” right? That’s what “dancers” do, right?
I was talking to a friend of mine who is nearly 15 years older than me and had a dance career pre-pandemic. She was saying how she has no interest in participating in the virtual dance world—she’ll just wait until things are live again. I felt frustrated to be reminded that some people had been able to experience a “normal” dance world before this and felt confident that their own dance communities would be there for them once we can be together safely again. Meanwhile, I feel like if I don’t show up to the umpteenth Zoom class I registered for, I’m just asking to be set back even further.
Another victim of this pandemic has been the care and upkeep of my body—my instrument. I was always told by my peers who graduated before me to be prepared for the change in my body when I left college, but this transition, coupled with the move to
fully virtual dance classes, has been pretty devastating for my identity as a dancer and my perception of my “dancing body.” For the class of 2020, this shift happened in a split
second. Let’s try to take it easy, y’all, and remind ourselves (myself) that it’s okay to not take Zoom class because we don’t have the room, we don’t have the attention span,
and simply...we really don’t want to.
Somehow, amongst all of this, I still feel hopeful. I feel hopeful that I’m entering a dance world that has had to take a lengthy and needed pause for reflection and re-evaluation
of traditions, standards, and values. I’m not hopeful for the dance world to “return back to normal” because we’ve got a lot more sh*t to figure out. But, I am excited about the
field re-building and re-investing, realigning its priorities and changing outdated structures—and I think the COVID graduates will be the ones to do that, because we are
some of the most resilient creatures I know.
When dance “comes back,” we’ll be there. And we’re ready.