We encounter strangers in our home every day... on a two-dimensional, 13-inch-wide “device.” This is something we’ve been used to for a while, but the reasons and amount of time we’re tuned into these devices have changed. Over the past few months, online media have become the only way to access dance classes, schoolwork, workshops, hangouts, and yes, birthday parties. As careers chaotically attempted to transition into a virtual landscape, everything we knew had to be reimagined. Suddenly, all of the people I loved lived inside my screen and that was the only way we could be alive together and in relationship to each other.
Alive, dancing bodies in my room - hundreds maybe, but I can’t reach out to feel any one of their hands.
At first, it was adjusting to teaching online and making pre-recorded videos, the rush of live classes on Instagram--platforms being formed. Many of these lost steam, but that was to be expected. In chaos, we build--but we build with a short fuse, a temporary mindset, not expectant of the long haul. As I really dove into teaching virtually, I was desperately aware of everything the students were missing. There was no way for me to give fair individual feedback. Everyone was working in different spaces under different circumstances, all while a global pandemic was lingering and building. I also began to notice that we, student and teacher, were gaining a different kind of knowledge and awareness through this digital learning.
My initial reaction to the online dancing world: a hollow essence, a result of the extreme lack of intimacy in digital interactions. Where was this intimacy? What was it, really? And how could I create or cultivate this on Zoom?
After my first socially-distanced walk, I questioned the need for meaningful exchanges with people more deeply. With our proximity and face coverings, there was such a lack of flow between my two closest friends and myself. I am struck by the give and take of physical closeness and its entanglement with intimacy. How can I experience intimacy, allowing relationships to evolve without watching this person verbalize their experience-- without watching the words leave their mouth? It’s become a strange reality of being able to choose when and how you are being witnessed, and if you are not being witnessed fully, is it by choice? If it’s not your choice, who is choosing for you?
What’s happening to the air that I’m breathing out? Where is it getting stuck and how is it getting repurposed? Can the plants still inhale my exhale if the breath is stuck behind my mask? What else is trapped, unable to be released?
Photo by Lexi Dysart
Photo by Lory Lyon
Screens and masks have become a form of protection. Allowance, safety, comfort--I now take workshops with professionals in the same room I made my first choreography to Luther Vandross as a nine-year-old. The curation of entering a physical space has left us, which might just be a relief. You can come as you are and however you need to come. You’re no longer walking into a space with all its history and baggage. On another level, though, these are the very things that excite me during the act of excavating as an artist. Things are being lost in exchange for the relief of no longer having to shapeshift based on a space and the people it holds. I don’t become overwhelmed by specific people or energies, because when we sign off, we really sign off and maybe that person giving you bad vibes is from across the country and you will never see them again…
I wonder about the location-less experience, as location is constantly choreographing our thoughts and bodies. Location informs us subconsciously, but also provides an understanding of what’s available to us in the moment - maybe we’re dealing with a small stage, a concrete floor, a warehouse that used to house American workers. These factors often direct our way of thinking and moving through physical spaces. Digital-ness removes this altogether. In this way, and many others, aspects of this landscape may feel voyeuristic and manipulative. I’ve come to deal with this through protecting myself by only engaging with people I trust. I do believe that we hold space differently for each other when it’s virtual. I find a part of myself that is normally shed before entering a physical dance space has found a way through my webcam. There is beauty there.
Together when we are location-less, we are virtually everywhere
As I write this, I become distracted and scroll on my phone. The first story I come upon says “real intimacy requires conflict” - what is REAL intimacy, especially in these times? As a teenager, I experienced virtual intimacy by having in-depth conversations with my friends on AIM or Facebook Messenger. We’d exchange homework answers, hope for the future, reveal our feelings and gossip a little. I still wonder how we made those conversations so animated without emojis. Inside these screen interactions, there was an energetic exchange--but at half of this exchange, (or rather, more than half) was being shaped by my imagination. It’s that “lack-of” that can allow your mind to shape and reshape an experience that’s happening over a screen. (Or happening virtually? Or virtually happening?) What is “real intimacy,” anyway? And how do we even begin to define that?
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Some nights I fall asleep holding my phone and inside of that phone, somehow, somewhere lies my partner. She falls asleep on her pillow in Texas and I fall asleep on mine in Massachusetts, and yet we hear each other breathing. We see each other’s eyes close. There is an energetic exchange--but it’s barely an essence, acting as more of a necessary replacement. A friend of mine talks about the internet as an important temporary solution. But just how temporary is this? How many more nights until my pillow in Massachusetts finds hers in Texas?
Now, here we are in mid-July, and my relationship to digital intimacy has changed a lot over the course of the last few months. This is because of, first, acceptance, and second, because I now only get onto Zoom calls with artists that I trust will curate an inquisitive, realistic AND imaginative experience--even if it ultimately fails.
The ability to understand that none of us know what’s next and that we’re all figuring things out as they arrive has helped me find intimacy through a screen. There is intimacy in the acknowledgment of that limitation and even in the failure of attempting to make something virtual work.
What happens to the body when in solitude? What happens to the body when dancing with the energetics of human connection, space, objects, and with our own histories? What if we remove the human energetics from the equation? What happens when you imagine that energy?
I believe that the act of imagining is revolutionary.
This is something I have tried to work on in my teachings on Zoom. Can we use the imagination to create a together-space, seeing the feet and eyes and knowing the hands of those you’re taking class with? Can we take the time to use our voices to acknowledge each name, face, body and person in the virtual classroom, directing our collective energy toward them, in the hopes that they will feel it?
I say all of this. And then I also say …
I've felt more intimate in digital performance and workshops than any live experience NYC has granted me thus far. We are desperate for connection, and we are finally understanding our own deeply innate pull toward connection. I was part of a collaborative performance in March that premiered over Vimeo. I collaborated with a stranger. I have no idea who saw the work and how or if they were affected by the experience. There was no give and take. But, because I wasn’t being fully seen as myself while my work was being witnessed, I allowed a greater vulnerability to take over, and I felt much more engaged and intimate with the other performers, most of whom I did not know. We spent virtual time together and in turn, I received more of what I needed through the performance platform. It’s almost like we’re trying to hold onto any semblance of community, and in that holding on, we’ve become stronger.
As a result of the lower cost of workshops, I am able to finally afford, in time, in energy, in money, in effort, to attend programs that I never allowed myself before. I don’t have to leave my house, account for the excessive money or the hour of travel time. My efforts are directed in new places because the affordability and time spent have drastically shifted.
Though virtual education has raised my awareness of alternative teaching methods, I don’t think it is a viable replacement for physical dance education and performance--person to person, child to teacher, and mentor to mentee. There is no accurate replacement for being physically together, with touch, closeness, and those beautiful energetic exchanges. These times are begging us to prioritize community and kindness. It is necessary to move through these liminal, precarious and in-between moments by asking ourselves how we want to teach and lead, where we want to follow and how we will use our voices. Our dancing bodies may transcend words, but language is always available to us. My last few experiences on Zoom have been very uplifting, where I feel I’ve shared myself more fully than I normally would have. I released a bit of my shame for coming as I am that day and this is where I’m finding hope.