“Nope. No way.” — My feelings about virtual dance class

I did not want to tune in for a digital dance class and I certainly did not want others to watch video footage of me fumbling through some at-home ‘ography in my tiny NYC studio apartment. It felt invasive, impersonal, and just not what dance is supposed to be. So, I figured if I just ignored the incessant feed of Instagram Live class offerings on my social media, pretty soon things would go back to normal and we’d all be dancing, auditioning, and performing together—in person—again.

A little rewind…I have been injured several times and, during each recovery, I refused to watch dance—whether class, live performances, or even videos online. It was a subconscious decision, but one that makes sense to me now…I didn’t want to feel sad. I didn’t want to grieve. I didn’t want to face the fact that I couldn’t do my thing: dance…dancing was my language, my stress-reliever, somehow both a great escape and the deepest connection I felt with others and within myself. I would not accept that reality, albeit temporary. So, instead, I dissociated.

If you’ve ever been seriously injured, maybe you’ll understand what I’m talking about…When you can’t dance, you get really really in your head. You question everything: your body’s capacity to pursue this crazy career, how much time you have left to make your childhood (and still very real) dreams a come true, what other skills or interests you have to “fall back on,” and…who you are without dance. It sounds dramatic, and it is. But it’s also honest—at least for me. The time I herniated a disc in my back and took a month leave from tour, the time I broke my foot and maneuvered the New York City subway on a pair of bedazzled crutches, and even the time I thought I was doing everything right until I landed myself in the hospital, I couldn’t call myself a dancer. I felt I didn’t deserve to. I felt numb. But (thankfully!) the trauma always healed, the numbness subsided, and I was back to dancing.

Over the past month of quarantine, that numbness has slowly and aggressively crept back in. Strangely, I never experienced panic or depression or overwhelming anxiety about COVID-19. My brain figured that there was nothing I could do to change the circumstances or predict the future, so, why feel anything at all?

I would go through the motions day after day…Wake up early, run along the river until my body was thoroughly exhausted, spend a few “productive” hours on schoolwork and writing, check-in on my friends via text (and funny memes), clean and organize every inch of my apartment, plaster on a smile for FaceTime with my parents back in California, zone out with a Netflix series I had watched a hundred times, and hurriedly crawl into bed, eager to turn off the day and slip out of this strange new “normal.” It quickly became the same “routine” day after day after day.

I am lucky and grateful that two of my part-time jobs have kept me working a little bit during this time. Both include managing social media for dance-related organizations. And there I was…setting up virtual dance classes, watching them live while sitting and working at my desk, and interacting with the shares and comments from enthusiastic and grateful participants…all while feeling comfortably numb.

When Broadway Dance Center—the place that literally made me realize that I not only wanted to but actually could pursue dance as a career—launched their online class series, I noticed my ballet teacher’s name first on the schedule. Wanting to support both the studio and my teacher during this difficult time, I paid online and signed myself up. On the morning of ballet class, I rearranged my apartment, logged in on Zoom, and took my place with my left hand on the back of my desk chair. Ugh, what am I doing? I thought to myself. Then, my teacher’s face appeared on the computer screen; “Hi dancers! Make sure to turn your camera on so I can see you!” Ha. Nope. No way. With my video camera deliberately off, I stumbled through the hour-long ballet class, slipping in my socks, leaning to reach my too-short “barre,” and feeling my body rebel against every proud, graceful, turned-out movement that had once felt so good and so (somewhat) natural. I kept eyeing the clock…My teacher couldn’t see me anyway. My hips creaked and my hamstrings tugged. I felt silly. I felt stupid. Standing in the center of my apartment with my chin high, my arms extended, and my chest open—though no one was watching me—I felt completely exposed.

The minute class ended I scurried my furniture back into place, made a strong cup of coffee, and sat down at my desk to get some work done, determined to quickly jump back into my dependable “quarantine routine.” But I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t even think. My nose started to tingle, my head ached, and my eyes began to well. I closed my laptop, stared straight ahead, and let out a breath I had been holding for who knows how long. Crack. My glass veneer shattered. The tears came pouring out and I couldn’t stop them. I pushed away from my desk, sprawled my back on the floor, and squeezed my eyes shut. More tears, more headache, more, more, more. All of the feelings that I had stuffed so far down inside were exploding out of me:

I am confused. I am sad.

More tears, more headache, more, more, more.

I am lonely. I am scared.

There’s no stopping them.

I am powerless. I am angry.

More, more, more.

And, umbrella-ing all of this, I am ashamed.

Eventually, though, the riptide of emotion subsided into a rhythmic—but manageable—wave.

With sore eyes and a stuffy nose, I plowed through the rest of my day. I checked in on my friends via text (and funny memes), cleaned and organized every inch of my apartment, plastered on a smile for FaceTime with my parents back in California, and zoned out with a Netflix series I had watched a hundred times. Before crawling into bed, I signed up for another ballet class. Then I went to sleep.

The next morning, I woke up early, ran until I felt like I was floating along the Hudson River bike path, and rearranged my tiny apartment once again. Day 2 was better…I reluctantly turned on the camera, stood with my left hand at my mantle, and made a vow to give myself just a little bit of grace. At 10 am sharp, the app launched and class began. My body still didn’t like the movement. I still felt a little silly and a lot exposed. But with each slippery tendu, low développé, and wobbly relevé, I also felt a little less numb.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been on lockdown for nearly a month. Sometimes during the day, I find myself staring at nothing, holding my breath, and listening to siren after siren interrupting the uncomfortable New York City silence. I’m incredibly grateful to be healthy, to be working a little, to feel safe in my tiny apartment, and to have friends and family checking in every day. I’m ashamed to feel the icky feelings—the fear, the sadness, the anger—and to grieve dancing at a time like this. But I do. I miss stretching in the antique hallways of Steps on Broadway. I miss sitting on my knees in the crowded dark studio awaiting Al Blackstone’s warm-up. I miss getting lots of “What is that?” notes from Deb Roshe. I miss the anxiety and excitement that rushes in when it’s time for Andrew Black’s “one-at-a-time” tap combos. I miss trying (unsuccessfully) to hide in the back corner of Jamie Salmon’s ballet class. I miss the weird aches and pains I feel the morning after a Fosse Master Class. I miss Sheila Barker greeting every student by name in the halls of Broadway Dance Center. I miss finally getting my chance to audition after waiting for hours at an overcrowded Pearl Studios. I miss dancing. It’s a part of who I am—whether I’m performing, injured, or feeling numb. And I have a funny feeling (or, maybe a hope) that I’m not the only one out there. To dance is to not only feel alive but also to share that emotion—joy, grief, anxiety, empathy—with each other.

Let’s not get anything confused—I am no ballerina. But each day I log on for virtual ballet class and stand in my socks at my makeshift barre, I feel a little silly and a lot exposed, but I also feel home.

#danceinjury #danceclass #BroadwayDanceCenter #dancer #balletclass #dance #virtualdanceclass #Instagram #Zoom #COVID19 #quarantine #balletbarre #InstagramLive

© 2020 by Mary Callahan