Look Down to Unlock

Thomas F. DeFrantz and Al Evangelista

In an unending pandemic, six-foot distancing fades, sometimes literally as distance markers peel away ignored and forgotten. Proximity continues to be compounded with technology—Zoom meetings, digital protests, even the way phones grant access to emails, dating apps, and tik tok dance tutorials simply with a masked look. With a mask on, one only needs to do as the technology asks to receive access, “look down to unlock.” 

This proximity, the distance of the hand, head, phone, and pocket, especially with a body in motion, is highlighted through phrases often used with technology. “Bumping this to the top of your inbox” or “here’s the link for easy reference.” But is “here” the digital pixel on the screen or the proximity to the hand? Here, in this introduction, we call attention to the ease with which work and labor fit into the pocket. The phone is typically and perpetually close to the body. Are we in a constant digital “here?”

Before we can consider movement and presence in a digital space, we have to consider the movement present in our every day. “The U.S. is averaging about 300 deaths a day, compared to 3,000 last winter,” reported NPR’s The Morning Edition on July 11, 2022.[1] The everyday negotiations of moving safely (did I forget a mask?), securely (is this person following me?), and caringly (do they need a care package?) continue. The past three years took away so much, not to mention the missing years of childhood growth, dance parties, and in-person drag shows. One of the few things the continuing pandemic contributes are connective digital tools: Zoom memorials and funerals, online reunions, and Zoom dance classes. But where are our bodies in these digital spaces? Why did this technology only become more common during the pandemic when disabled bodies had asked for this technology for so long? As folks start to resent Zoom and online classes, what does it mean when these technologies begin to be pushed to the side? To think about social choreography in a digital space is to consider multiple identities as more than their most popular stereotypes, as Michael Roy Hames-Garcia explains.[2] Individuals on the digital sphere act on a mutually constitutive and deeply layered existence. Digital identities that are nuanced, yet condensed or as Garcia terms, “restricted.” Garcia explains restriction through the example of a world map. Borders are inconsistently scaled towards countries with the most power. The same is true for identities. Those with less power, are given not only less room but also less recognition. This is the digital landscape in which we still negotiate our bodies. This is where we find ourselves asking: in the age of digital land acknowledgments, connections, and memorials, how do we consider the choreography for those at the edges? Or as Angela Davis says in Abolition. Feminism. Now: What is the other question in these spaces? For example two questions these authors come back to are: If the host offered a land acknowledgment, are there any sign interpreters? Or are guest speakers being paid an appropriate wage if the Zoom is live streamed publicly? To put this in dance terms, are we including artists we promised commitments to in June 2020 while also considering the continued lack of resources for indigenous artists? Some might say this is too far-reaching, that maybe these goals are asking for too much. But consider the too-muchness of Spring 2020: the too-muchness of not knowing how COVID was spread, who was getting infected, and the best way to protect oneself. There’s a lot we don’t know. What we do know is that folks have been asking for change for a very long time. 

While little digital content is made through a lens of multiplicity, there are many digital spaces based on values embedded in the non-digital ableist, racist, and homophobic practices. It took two years for iPhones to unlock with masks. It took less than a week for some of us to start work from home. Disability studies scholars have been urging us to consider these physical and mental needs, including the access to work from home, for much, much longer. 

Bernice Johnson Reagon’s Coalitional Politics: Turning the Century emphasizes choreographing space intentionally, especially between coalitional work in the streets versus the space of home. What happens when both lines are blurred? Where are our bodies in digital spaces? What spaces are dance homes? With apologies to Reagon, how do we “feed” coalitional work in digital spaces and how do we imagine continuing this work for our chosen families, ancestors, and future kin? 

Our digital practices ask us to contend with where our bodies are in digital space. Are we in the time of recording or the time of our bodies watching performance? We are on stolen land—in the server farms that feed Zoom—and we are still coherent only because we decide we must be even within digital capitalism. On Zoom calls are we still on stolen land and in a space of digital capitalism? 

The discussion of being “zoomed out” is prevalent, despite the technology providing the most inclusive and accessible option for the global majority. Disability scholar Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha highlights this issue in the keynote of the Society for Disability Studies 2020 conference. How do digital dance spaces imagine inclusion? Complicating this, “zoomed out” reifies the need for rest and care while resisting continual productivity and positivism. How and why does this value of continual productivity become reified in digital dance spaces?

A recent Social Text issue asks us to consider the international responses and contexts as they relate to the pandemic. Our inaugural Chats takes inspiration from this issue to consider the digital content of the pandemic from a choreographic lens. 

We also owe this issue to the range of innovative digital care that the pandemic finally made widely available: auntie sewing squaddance equity gatheringsresource sharing, or broadly shared commitments to solidarity. But when and where are these commitments now? What factors lead to us turning away from the generosity of care as we all tried to find our way, as we still are right now? 

Care work can be unassuming.[3] It acknowledges that most grievances occur unseen.[4] For some, this might be too ambiguous of a place of responsibility. When instead, this is exactly the place of generosity and thoughtfulness we should be working from most of the time. Other times, it’s not so nice. The care work is difficult or we need to rest and generosity is not possible. This is ok. We need to make room for disappointment and growth. Or as dance scholar SanSan Kwan calls it, a way to “integrate loss,” especially for those we love.[5] This is where we understand our limits and how we can grow in our capacity. 

This short inaugural Chats helps ground us in the digital as artists and scholars of bodies and movement. We center our questions on forms of digital care. In the 2023 Dance Studies Association’s Conversations issue, one of our co-editors writes about free Bystander Intervention training available and popularized during the pandemic thanks to the prevalence of Zoom. We also look at initiatives of connection in digital dance initiatives. Lastly, we connect to the question of accessibility of digital dance work.

This digital issue considers our movement in digital spaces from before we arrive at our screens, then to our interactions online, and finally where we find ourselves after. Our movements are not so easily delineated and so this issue considers this complexity and multitude. We hope this considers the many ways we experience and move that does not assume it is the same way another might or should experience and move. With that in mind, our first roundtable of responses comes from the movement artists involved with Daring Dances: Surviving and Thriving at Home, an online dance tutorial series. We then move to hip-hop artist Pat Cruz and Ethnic Studies professor Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales as they navigate diasporic identities and care in hip-hop dance digital initiatives. Lastly, we end with a conversation between Melanie Greene and J. Bouey, the duo that comprise The Dance Union Podcast

Social choreography in the digital investigates how our bodies are an essential and often neglected part of technology. Coders and engineers assume a type of body when they construct the way users interact with their app, software, or hardware.[6] Users on social media chose intentional ways to ask followers to move in digital spaces and these actions construct or reflect online community-making with a critical lens, and to who or what labels different types of community.[7]

There are two main components to this inaugural Chats. First, is content shared in the form of writing and/or videos. The second is an augmented reality interface based on each contribution. With the link provided, you will be able to place digitally-altered worlds right on your phone. There are many reasons for this experiment but the most pressing are to highlight two flaws in digital choreography: (1) potential exclusivity in technology (How do we think about what is there digitally but not there physically?) and (2) assumptions of a digital world that is universal (What spaces do we feel comfortable moving through? How do we make others feel comfortable to move?) We are trying to literally move with our technology and what we see through this technological lens.

There are many choreographic and digital factors here, more than we can cover in a short special issue. This is our first step. 

[1] Aubrey, Allison., and Rachel. Treisman. 2022. A New Dominant Omicron Strain in the U.S. is Driving Up Cases — and Reinfections. In Morning Edition: NPR.

[2] Hames-Garcia, Michael Roy. 2011. Identity Complex: Making the Case for Multiplicity. University of Minnesota Press.

[3] Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. 2018. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press.

[4] Cheng, Anne Anlin. 2000. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Oxford University Press.

[5] Kwan, SanSan. 2021. Love Dances: Loss and Mourning in Intercultural Collaboration. Oxford University Press: 5.

[6] Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. 2021. Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition. MIT Press.

[7] Joseph, Miranda. 2002. Against the Romance of Community. University of Minnesota Press.