Overlaid text reads "Dancing Smaller and Thinking Bigger by Marissa Finkelstein"

As a 4’9”, curvy dancer and often the shortest in the room, I was always told to dance “bigger and longer.” I was often paired with taller dancers to go across the floor in an attempt to challenge how far I could travel or asked to stand next to someone taller than me when jumping so I could try to jump as high. These requests might have pushed me, but the reality is that it’s not always physically comfortable for me, nor possible, to try and travel as far spatially as someone whose legs are a foot longer than mine. I realize this when I watch those cute videos of small dogs trying to outrun big dogs. However, when it’s in dance class and about my own body and the way it compares to others in the room, I have often failed to recognize this fact as merely a difference in physical limitations. I would take the comparisons to heart as a measure of my talent and capability. When I was asked to move in direct comparison to someone else’s body, this just reinforced that there was an ideal physique in the room that I did not have. Some of the pressures I faced about my body in dance classes shrank my spirit and my confidence, which in hindsight are much more important than the size of my kinesphere.

 

Dancing in quarantine during the pandemic, I found joy in limited space and smaller movements; my four by five feet section of my room allowed me to experience the ways my body could move with less expectations. I was able to discover how I, personally, was inclined to move without comparing myself to other bodies in the room. This made me think about the ways that structures of in person dance classes often fall short when it comes to holding space for our identities. While I have felt it in my body type, the ways dance classes have historically emphasized conformity to specific aesthetics can make spaces feel unsafe or unwelcoming for members of marginalized communities. We need to examine the ways we make dance spaces inclusive to all races, abilities, gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, bodies, and all the parts that make up an individual. Students should never have to compromise who they are as a person or experience codified messaging in dance spaces that reinforce an ideal way of moving. For the sake of students’ mental and physical well being, we must continue to find ways to celebrate our individuality and what makes us human in class.

Virtual dance classes had to offer more individual modifications and student-driven decision making than in person classes due to space differences. As a student, I was being tasked with making constant on-the-spot decisions about what worked best for me. I was given options if inversions or jumps were not safe in my space, and I was even afforded the occasional option to turn my video off and experience what it was like to dance in class without being watched by others- a freedom from judgement and scrutiny that we are rarely afforded as dancers. Even the smallest moments of making my own decisions made me feel cared for and allowed me to prioritize my physical safety or how I was feeling mentally, despite only communicating through a screen.

 

As a teacher, I saw how shifts in decision making in remote classes became an outlet for expression. My young beginner students, who are normally more hesitant to create at first, became more open with certain adapted lesson plans at home. They were suddenly duetting and navigating spatial relationships with their favorite toys or stuffed animals; the ability to tie in parts of personal lives to physical movements in dance class was essential as we navigated a time of disconnection. Suddenly home and the studio were no longer separated, and more student-centered options were a way to cultivate spaces where no one was made to feel like they had to sever parts of their identities to succeed in class. Personally, moving with more agency had me celebrating my body rather than comparing it to an inexplicit standard. I was able to move with ease rather than straining to look like someone I am not, which I had been doing for so long. Though a lot of these modifications in the virtual landscape emerged because of differences in locations, we must forever recognize how it can shift the mental narrative in our students’ heads when the messaging in dance class is that there are various ways of executing movements rather than your approach is wrong.

Marissa Finkelstein dances on a wooden dock. She leans over her leg while looking to the sky wearing a black dress.

Beyond shifts in pedagogy, there was choice making that took place when it came to operations of hybrid and virtual dance classes; I hope these will be new standards for the dance industry. Sliding donation scales became popular models, flexibility of how and where we took class grew, the ability to learn from certain teachers without location or health risks being a barrier was a plus, and virtual classes featured certain accessibility features like closed captioning. As students return to schools and studios, and dance institutions cut back on their virtual offerings, we are met with the reality that these pandemic trends that emerged in the dance industry must be more than trends. Meeting students where they are at is important always. Financial struggles, location and accessibility barriers, and health risks for those who are immunocompromised have always existed and will continue to exist beyond the pandemic.

 

Being able to make decisions that worked best for us- whether it was about how to execute a movement, whether it felt safer to take class in-person or remotely, or what we could afford to pay for class- has shed a light on how we take responsibility for caring for ourselves and our communities going forward. The pandemic forced us to reckon with the fact that we are humans before we are dancers. In terms of continuing to prioritize humanity and dancers’ physical and mental health, the transition back to in person learning must be met with shifting expectations surrounding how students show up for class. Individual decision making must continue to be a huge component of classes as we navigate what students are comfortable with in a post-pandemic world. We must hold space for the trauma of being isolated for so long, think about consent when partnering or working with groups, and drop pressures that encourage students to push through physical or mental illness. Further involving students to help drive curriculum and make decisions during class is a way we can continue to prioritize community care going forward.

 

There are valuable lessons to be learned from trends in dance classes that emerged throughout the pandemic. It was a gift during this time to be able to honor my own way of moving- to finally find gratitude for all my body could do without feeling like I needed to conform to an ideal. With virtual and hybrid dance classes becoming less popular, we must think about how we can preserve what they were able to achieve in terms of celebrating individual choices as well as accessibility and flexibility. Our return to the studio must be met with the willingness to reform and rebuild. During the excitement of what seems like a return to normalcy, we must keep in mind all the ways in which normal fell short.

Marissa Finkelstein balances in forced arch against a wooden lattice privacy fence. She wears a black dress and looks up and back to the top of the fence.