Dance Has Reached a Turning Point

Freed from the Studio, an Art Form Finds the Space to Transform

Dance Has Reached a Turning Point | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Illustration by Be Boggs.

My shoulder is aching. I’m going up the escalator at the Macy’s in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. My purse is weighed down with notebooks, a portable speaker, water bottle, and of course, snacks. 

It’s March 2020. I’m teaching at the “Club WISE” program for older adults. I’m greeted warmly by a group of six women who, I’d guess, are mostly over 65. I’m told the group may be a little smaller than who registered, “The virus is keeping some people home.”

We set out to co-create a dance to Ravel’s “Boléro.” One woman excitedly pulls the album out of her purse. We listen to it and make a dance about surrender. Afterward, I want to hug everybody—but we know it’s best not to touch. I get back in my car. It’s drizzling a little bit—that typical Southern California March “rain”—as I head to a Santa Monica dance studio to teach 12- and 13-year-olds. 

I’m busy—maybe too busy. But this is life as a dancer; it is a treadmill without an off switch. But I love the treadmill. Dancing was my lifeline growing up in an unsafe alcoholic home where I did not feel heard. Putting on “shows” in my parents’ backyard to the Grease soundtrack with my sister kept me alive. I need to dance—so I keep on dancing. 

Still, the continuous hustle weighs on me. That week, I ended up teaching 12 classes all over Los Angeles County, I danced with folx ranging from professional dancers to elementary school kids to elders in their 90s in a dance studio, memory loss facility, senior center, and the lunchroom at a facility for unhoused people. To top it off, I turned in my fifth grant submission of the year, in addition to 15 hours of rehearsal, Pilates clients, and prep for the premiere of a new performance.

Then came the lockdown. Grants, gigs, rehearsals—all of it disappeared. My show was postponed temporarily, and then, indefinitely. Those grants—what would I do without them? Nothing probably, because I couldn’t even buy toilet paper. The hustle had disappeared, except for one thing: Dance for Veterans.

In 2010, I was invited to co-create a dance program for veterans in mental health programs. My first thought was: Me? Us? Dance? Some of the veteran groups shared my initial skepticism. I’m often asked, “When are the ‘girls’ coming?” My reply is usually something like, “Well, I’m the girl, and we are all going to dance together.”

Our classes intertwine breathing, meditation, yoga, games, somatic exercises, group check-ins, and sometimes, writing and drawing. I pull from my training as a modern/contemporary dancer along with various social dances like salsa, bachata, disco, and waltzes. We improvise, play with coordination, and most importantly, collaboratively make dances inspired by a moment of joy, what we see in the room, our names and birthplaces. We perform these dances for ourselves. Emphasizing process over product became a departure for me as a choreographer who is often measured by what I get onstage.

[N]ow I know that the transformative power of dancing and creating together can happen among people who have never met, over a glitchy telehealth system.

Cut to lockdown…

“You need to unmute yourself,” I reminded the class.

So far today’s session was going pretty smoothly. I had only frozen once, my music didn’t glitch at all, and my cats stayed under the bed. Now we’ve reached my favorite point—making a dance together. Before class, one of the vets talked about all the couches she’d been seeing out for trash pickup; she guessed people were buying new couches since they were home all the time and wanted to be more comfortable. “I think we should make a dance about that today,” she suggests for our prompt. “What gives us comfort?” One veteran, while telling us about her new grandchild, pretends to rock the baby in her arms. We all do her movement back to her. The 10 students make a 10-movement comfort dance to Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.”

When we first transitioned to virtual class after a few months on hold, I was eager to reconnect but also dubious: Can I really reach seniors and superseniors—some of whom were born before the advent of television—on the internet? Many didn’t even have computers or smartphones. The online teaching I had done before the pandemic had been sterile and tedious. But despite my concerns, veterans showed up every week, men and women, ranging in ages and backgrounds.

In many ways it’s been more intimate than our in-person classes. On camera, we have seen each other’s pets, children, and grandchildren. We have made dances inspired by the precious objects spotted in our kitchens and living rooms. We’ve shared birthdays and holidays together. The week before Christmas, we made a dance about what we were moving toward in the new year. One vet jumped across his frame shouting “freedom of expression” with his arms out wide. Another stood up, walked slowly to his monitor, and bowed, saying, “I’m moving toward healing.”

My definition of the art form has always been broad and inclusive. But now I know that the transformative power of dancing and creating together can happen among people who have never met, over a glitchy telehealth system. It feels like a revelation: We can dance when we are angry, sad, happy, lonely, and tired. Our dances can be from our chairs and couches with our kids and pets. We can dance without touching, without being close and breathing the same air. And yet we create, we are vulnerable and we thrive.

I have been moved by the micro-communities that have taken hold in my virtual classes. We have collectively built resilience and found moments of celebration and social closeness. We have embodied elements of resistance—resisting what a “dancer” looks like, what a dance “should” look like. And perhaps most importantly, we have resisted the isolation and fear of this pandemic.

Just before I got my second COVID vaccine, I prompted a class by asking “what we want to let go of.” Worry, pain, and judgment were a few of the things we wanted to release in the dance.

Now, as we gingerly re-enter “public” life here in Los Angeles, I’m asking myself what is my life going to look like, and I realize I want to let go of so much: I do not want my life to go back to what it is was. I do not want to go back to the relentless hustle to barely make a living. And I don’t want to go back to the tiny, airless container that dance is often put in.

This corporeal defiance, I believe, brings about social change. If dance is this powerful—how can we now each reimagine and advance the form? What could the dancer/dance-maker/dance educator be? Can we continue to reframe the process over the product? And boldly dance for ourselves?

My colleague and friend Kai Hazelwood recently wrote an article about why she was “breaking up with dance,” which has so deeply resonated with me in this moment. In it, she writes “that transformation is the way to liberation.”

A thousand times yes to that. I don’t have the answers yet to these larger questions myself and others have been asking around dance. But I think to have questions in this moment is much more important.

One thing has become increasingly clear: I know I want my life and the lives of others to be different—to evolve. I also have an unshakeable faith that dancing and creating with others will get us there.

Christine Suarez is a Los Angeles-based choreographer, performer, dance educator and activist. She lives with her husband and son in Santa Monica.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Jackie Mansky | SECONDARY EDITOR: Sarah Rothbard


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