Clare Croft, Sophie Allen, and Al Evangelista
March 2020 brought many unexpected things; among them, emails nobody wants to send or receive. As COVID took hold, I (Clare) was one of many curators forced to write in the subject line, “We have to cancel,” with no real sense of when (or if) the just-canceled Daring Dances programming would ever actually happen.
Good curating revolves around building relationships among curator and artists, among all artists involved, and between artists and audiences. I have come to imagine curation as a form of weaving with many hands, creating a web that eventually manifests in a public event in which old and new interlocutors feel welcome and curious. What web were we in need of now when what constituted a “public event” was so unclear? How does one build networks of care and respect among different groups with so much uncertainty?
Daring Dances, the curatorial platform I founded in 2017, is driven by the question: How does dance–both making it and witnessing it–help us move into necessary, sometimes difficult conversations? Spring 2020 brought more difficult moments than anyone wanted. As I canceled events, I thought of all the dancing and choreography that would go unwitnessed, people’s labor lost (or at least deferred to an unknown future). I found myself full of grief. I was also awash in students’ grief. For those enrolled in programs predicated on access to studios and stages, what did a rush to familial homes and “lockdown” mean?
Like many white, middle-class women who grew up in the US being taken to a studio to dance every day as a child, I was initially flummoxed by the same question my students seemed to have: If dance space meant studio or stage, what were we to do? But another important aspect of curation is learning from others, seeing how artists solve problems. With the question about space in mind, I reached out to the network of dance artists in the Midwest that helped bring Daring Dances into the world with a proposal: Would they be interested in creating short movement tutorials intended to help people find (or remember) ways to dance at home?
A few yes-es–first from Minneapolis-based Palestinian American artist Leila Awadallah and Detroit-based Black queer dance artist bree gant–and I felt like we had a thing. Over the next fourteen months, twelve more Midwest-based artists–from Cleveland to Madison, Lansing to Chicago–would contribute to what became Daring Dances for Surviving and Thriving. A project that proposed: “We can keep dancing” because “dancing at home, with family and friends, has always been a tool of survival for many communities, especially communities of color.”
Just over two years later, seven of the artists of Daring Dances for Surviving and Thriving gathered over Zoom to discuss how the pandemic shaped our notions of where dancing can take place, how sharing dance online allowed us to experience care, and how we might envision future forms of digital dance and care as we continue to move through the pandemic. What follows is a transcript of those conversations with the artists, edited by Sophie Allen, Al Evangelista, and myself. The artists include,
T. Ayo Alston (Chicago, IL)
Leila Awadallah (Minneapolis, MN/Mni Sota Makoce [Dakota and Anishnaabe land]/Beirut, Lebanon)
Al Evangelista (Cleveland, OH/Oberlin, OH)
bree gant (Detroit, MI)
Nic Gareiss (Lansing, MI/Nikwejong [Anishinaabe land])
Queen Gabby (Detroit, MI)
The seventh dancer in the mix was me. One month into the Surviving and Thriving project, my teacher, dance historian Professor Chrystelle Trump Bond, passed away, inspiring me to make a tutorial about the polka–the dance she taught me many times over–in her honor. Dancing helped me move through (with?) grief.
Question: How did making your offering for Daring Dances for Surviving and Thriving help you find a sense of connection to yourself, other dancers, and other people even while stuck at home?
Leila Awadallah (Arab American Contemporary Dance, March 2020): I was the first [in the series]. [The pandemic] was very new. In February 2020, I was in this solo research residency. I [had been] oversaturated by so many projects and so many collaborations, and so many communal things; February was this gorgeous solitude. I went days where I didn’t talk to anyone, and I felt like, “Wow! I’m so, like, quiet,” and I felt so good. [But] then I was ready to come out, and then boom.
[When] I rewatched my video, [I could see that] I was really in a daze. I don’t see myself there really; I felt really out of touch. Something that brings me joy is Arabic dance forms and music. I went toward [joy].
bree gant: (dancing in bed, April 2020): We were [only] about a month into the official lockdown, and I was inspired by two things. One, I love doing nothing, so when the pandemic came I was like, “Guys, we get the chance to take care of ourselves, take care of our community by doing nothing, you know?” And it was also at a time when Big Gretch [Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer] said that everybody can get unemployment. You could be self-employed and get unemployment. So I was like, “You guys, we’re getting all the signs. You know, I’ve heard many of you say you want to stay in bed all day. You wish you could do that. So let’s just–let’s just do it right now. We can just stay in bed.”
There are ways to stay in bed. I do struggle with mental health, so sometimes it’s hard to get out of [bed]. But even if you just want to stay in bed, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re depressed. There are ways to just be in the bed, be in your space as a way of taking care. I know I don’t need permission, but it still helps, you know? And I wanted to share permission to stay in bed all day and give your body a little more attention in ways that maybe we weren’t thinking about before.
Clare Croft (polka dance, May 2020): I made my contribution to the series in a period [when] I was going to a lot of memorials online for people, including one for Professor Bond, my dance history professor from college. She taught me how to do the polka. That was her big thing. She taught us how to polka every year. To honor Professor Bond’s life by jump[ing] up and down and [doing the] polka on the deck of our tiny apartment was just a really joyous thing.
Al Evangelista (Electric Slide with family, September 2020): For my video, I wanted to do something where I wasn’t by myself. [I wanted to do] the thing that will actually make connections past this video. [So I invited family from] Chicago, California, British Columbia, North Carolina, and different provinces in the Philippines [to join me]. I was trying to think, “What kind of movement can I do with my family?” [The Electric Slide] was movement I already did in different spaces with my family. So that became the tutorial: a big Evangelista-clan dance video. It was literally all over the world.
T. Ayo Alston (West African Dance and Drum, July 2020): I wanted to think about how many different ways can I really include everyone in [a] household, from grandma to the baby that’s just gonna rock on their pamper–they can feel the vibration of a rhythm, whether you’re singing it, whether you’re playing it on an instrument, humming it, using spoons. For me, making that video was more about plugging into as many ways that I could think of at that moment–which I’m sure there’s still even [many] more ways that I might have targeted. [I wanted] anyone in the household [to] be a part [of it] and feel a part [of it].
Nic Gariess (First Footing December 2020): Across the global North, people have created happenings to beckon back the sun and beckon back the light, and to make merry and to keep warm during the cold, dark part of the year. I wanted to share something that was a Yule custom, First Footing, a Scottish tradition of inviting someone to be the first person to cross your threshold in the first moments of the New Year. I wanted to think about that as both dance and also as queer in some way, a non-binary blurring of crossing a threshold, which resonates with me. It’s a stepping in–not leaving the space of a closet–but entering a space of warmth, welcome, conviviality and connection.
Queen Gabby (jit, February 2021): That [winter] was genuinely a heavy time for me, and [jit] helped bring my spirits up. That’s what I wanted to translate to the people that were watching and participating. Like, “We’re going through a wild time and sometimes we need to be able to release and have fun, do things that’s lighthearted and not so heavy.” We don’t have to live in the heaviness. We know it’s there. We can’t erase it. It’s not gonna go away. But we don’t have to let that be what dictates our day. You know, that we don’t have to let that, like, define our day, or define that moment. Participating in this [dancing],we can get it moving. [Jit] was a release for me, and I just wanted to bring the same thing to the people.
I [also] really wanted to give the history of the dance. Everyone is not familiar with jit. I want [people] to be aware of the dance that was homegrown in Detroit. Not every city has a dance that purely belongs to them. Every move that was created in this style came from this city. The music came from this city. [But] you can’t just go to [Detroit] places like Marble Bar or TV Lounge, or The Russell–all these places that have access to these types of events because now we’re living in a different reality. Even if they’re open, you may not want to go for your personal safety. So, since you can’t have access to these spaces, I’ll bring that to you.
Question: How did you experience other people’s contributions to the series?
Al Evangelista: Anytime I watched any of the [Surviving and Thriving] videos, I couldn’t just watch them; I had to move.
Nic Gareiss: I loved watching Al’s family as they prepared the space, that moment in the video when the chairs get pushed back. Or when people are like, “Oh, I’m bumping into the furniture here.” There’s something really transformative about those moments.
bree gant: I also love when I learn a new dance or cultural form, and it’s just kind of tossed at me without explanation, because I feel like–especially [with] non-white Western practices are often like “supposed” to be explained, but otherwise it just gets to be thrown at you. So [when I was doing Leila’s Arab Contemporary dance video], I was like, “That’s cool. That’s what we’re doing.” I can look it up on my own so that she doesn’t have to do that work for me. I really appreciated that.
And then, Gabby I watched yours this morning–also a huge fan–I appreciate jit taught as a class and as a practice. I feel like some people think jit is like a magical thing that you can’t–like you’re either born with it or not. But I appreciate when there are jit classes, and, like your video, [you teach people], “No, you can learn how to do this. Like, this is a discipline.” It doesn’t even have to be codified. It’s not necessarily a codified technique. There is some innate and cultural access to it, but also you can learn how to do it.
Queen Gabby: That was a great point that you [bree] touched on, about saying that we shouldn’t have to explain these cultural dances–non-white dances. I agree with that because that’s a pain point for me a lot. I really hate to say that I have to explain this every time. Literally, every time I go teach it’s also a lecture that has to be attached to the movement that I’m teaching in the class. It’s kind of like, “No. You need to do the research on your own,” because if I go into any other style that’s a classical style, I’m supposed to already know what it is. I’m not going to get lectured on the history. So you have to do the research. If I made another video [for the series] I wouldn’t focus so much on the history.
Question: How did dancing at home (or other spaces that you don’t usually dance in) become part of your creative practice during the pandemic?
Nic Gareiss: I was not dancing at home very much in March of 2020. I was mostly dancing away from home before that. [But throughout the pandemic] I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a space where I had access to a floating wooden floor, so I was able to teach and perform. And I have very patient upstairs and sideways neighbors, [including] a drummer and two queer noise musicians.
I guess I’m interested in dance in domestic spaces because a lot of the forms that I grew up learning–Irish step dancing and Appalachian flatfooting, step dancing from what some folks call Canada–happen in people’s homes as a way of pleasure-making and pleasure-sharing. When neighbors visit one another’s homes, or if there’s a gathering of some kind, these kinds of dances often happen. I felt really fortunate during so much isolation of sheltering in place because the dances I research and practice have a precedent for domesticity.
T. Ayo Alston: Dancing at home [has always been] a thing for me. It’s very hard to find studio space here [in Chicago] as an artist–not only just to create, but performance spaces, etc. It’s been very difficult, so [my house] will usually be my lab.
bree gant: That question made me remember the days when I was like 11 years old trying to learn how to hip roll and twerk in the mirror at home. I had a committed practice. Every night I would be in the mirror doing some hip isolations, and then trying to figure out how to hip roll. I came back to that during the pandemic.
[As things opened up a bit], one of my best friends is a dancer and dance teacher, and she would teach some salsa choreography to me and her cousin and another homie at the park. It expanded my practice in a way. It didn’t really shrink it; it encouraged me to be in different spaces, and feel more at home in different spaces.
Queen Gabby: I just started a routine where I would dedicate some point in my day to dancing at whatever space in my house and have like a full on session just with myself. And, like how bree was saying, I would go outside, which I still do now. I never really was a dance-outside person, unless it was like a group session, and even [then] still I was like, “I’m not a dance outside person.” But I go outside now. I go, and I dance, and it’s actually a great feeling. It’s a free feeling. I feel good when I’m out there.
It’s good to be out in the elements of the world. You have to find what works for you. You ha[d] to find open space since we couldn’t go gather around people; since we couldn’t go to all these places, you had to make a space for yourself, and you had to make it feel comfortable, you know? You had to get comfortable in the uncomfortable.
Leila Awadallah: When I think back, there were days that were heavy, that I remember moving and if I had not done that then I think they would have been so much heavier. [Moving] was medicine and meditation. I learned during the pandemic to let go [of] a lot of seriousness, and to just follow myself and my intuition. I really struggled dancing inside the house, actually. The house felt depleting. When I tried to take a class, or when I tried to improvise in the home, if I couldn’t go outside, I struggled. I dropped the ability, the attention span to be at home and dance. But the home is my body, and if my body is moving, then I’m at home in dance, you know?
Question: The series revolved partially around how to teach people to dance from a distance, across the internet, across time zones, across pre-pandemic geographies. What role did teaching from home play in your last two years?
Nic Gareiss: There were weeks where I would teach one or two private dance lessons every day. So I was dancing a lot at home and teaching through the screen just one-to-one usually. It was a way for me to stay connected to the music and dance communities that I’m part of. I taught way more than I’ve ever taught in my entire life. I think it not only was a source of subsistence, but it actually was a source of connectivity and emotional buoying. I would have been in a much tougher place in terms of my health if I hadn’t been able to do that.
T. Ayo Alston: I had to record myself doing material to send to our company members, and it kept me in shape. It kept me fit. It was a routine or regimen, where every day I would get up, and had a lot of time to be able to dance–whether it was in my small cramped up room, or whether I opened up the garage, pulled the cars out, and just used that open space to record myself doing things to send out to community classes or to the company. It really did push and challenge me to upgrade my excellence of teaching and being able to get the material out there. And just trying out new things. It allowed me as an artist to heighten my creativity, in how to relay the work and be a better teacher.
Nic Gareiss: There were some things that I was not sure were going to work. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be possible to teach, or to share, or offer any instruction, and improvise through the screen. But actually, with communication and with an Ethernet cable, it was possible! And I have to say, those were some of the most pleasurable times of dancing that I’ve experienced over the last two years: improvising with students in the moment. Maybe it doesn’t feel exactly like being in the same room. But it was a virtual space where we could witness each other and respond to each other, and that felt like something really rare that wasn’t happening a lot in person.
Question: Some of what we learned from working primarily through digital formats is what we should leave behind. As some of us are able to return to in-person gatherings, what do you want to leave behind?
Nic Gareiss: Something has changed with the way we respond to depictions of faces. Now all the venues that I work for and with ask, “Please send us a video of yourself smiling and waving at the camera saying you’re ‘so excited to come to this gig.’” I thought we were going to be long done with that at this point; I was really hoping to be done with that, but that has remained. People are really looking for that neurological bump of seeing a face on camera. In the forms that I practice, there isn’t any choreography for the face, and it’s interesting to think about the way faces are maybe connected to affect–and possibly to queerness–and about a sort of eros of what’s happening with our faces, especially as they relate to screens and lenses.
T. Ayo Alston: There’s nothing like that intimacy of being in person. People can just see you, and you can speak with more than just your face. Because we’re dancers–like Nic was saying–the effect is different when you[‘re] just showing your feet or whatever. But when people can see everything as its total component–your face, your arms, your feet–the totality of movement and how it resonates differently on video than it does live in person, the experience feels complete.
Clare Croft: Some of my students had a chance to dance with [many of] you online, [sometimes before dancing with you in-person]. That’s something I want to hang onto–a way that the digital add[s] another iterative moment, but not to see that as, like, a replacement for the live. I am definitely coming out of these two years being like, “Yup, that live thing is really special and intense, and I want it all the more in a big way.”
Question: What’s an offering you’d like to make for Daring Dances: Surviving and Thriving at this point in the pandemic, the summer of 2022?
Queen Gabby: At this point in the pandemic, I would have focused more on the resting part. We need to be able to take rest. We’ve been in the pandemic for two years. There still needs to be a rest aspect. So I would add that layer to it for those who want to participate and who want to dance, but they still want to be rested. You know, because part of the reason that I even had a cast on my hand [in my Surviving and Thriving video] was because I wasn’t rested. I fell asleep when I was driving. Because I don’t know how to rest. I don’t know how to sit my ass down.
bree gant: How to keep going and keep resting, how to incorporate the things that we’ve learned through this pandemic to literally change the way we physically move. The pandemic–it just kind of forced us all to dance for ourselves, and not for a class, not for teaching, not for performance. I think that that’s a tough thing about care and especially concepts of self-care that we aren’t trying to commodify. It’s not about capitalism and going to book an appointment at the spa. Self-care is literally figuring out how you move with yourself in order to better show up for community; or just better be in community with people. You can’t really be in community with someone if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
Al Evangelista: The first thing is I would steal Ayo’s chair choreography. After watching Ayo’s video, I would definitely want to think about different accessibility models.
The second thing is I think I would wanna include a playlist. I felt like I did the thing; I taught the steps, I showed the video, and then I was done. I wanted the dancing to have a life after the video, too. Next time I would do a playlist that would be fun for different kinds of electric slides, or maybe everyone can say a song and we’ll just make a playlist.
Leila Awadallah: I think if I were to offer something new or offer something that actually helps me survive and thrive, it would be an audio track for someone to listen to–to just follow along with and move with. Or more open prompts to reflect and then move in, or something intimate and introspective, just to be soft and be internal rather than trying to show something. For me, that’s been more authentically how I’ve gotten through this.
bree gant: I would redo my audio: add in a little more music, a little more softness, so that the audio could stand alone. Like Leila said, if you just wanted to listen on your headphones as opposed to watching a video.
Question: What forms of care and movement do you, do we, need now?
Leila Awadallah: Just before the pandemic [the question was coming up] more, “Hey, we need to have consent.” We need more consent in dance. We need consent between power and between people. And now we need to check in with people, just in general. “How are you doing?” “How do you feel today?” Or the small checking in with those in class, looking them in the eyes and seeing, “How’s your health? How’s your body?” It feels like a new wave, and I feel like the people who’ve really felt this change are incorporating that a lot. And then there’s the old school mentality in a space that might still plow onward without pausing to greet and to see each person in the room. But I think there’s a new wave that’s way more loving and tender to the body as a being, not as a core commodity to be making moves. But also we have to remember to keep pushing. Like, also not to be so soft. We wanna remember that rigor.
Queen Gabby: This pandemic in general has been about surviving and thriving. I’ve seen a lot of people dive into spaces creatively that they normally wouldn’t have the time to do because–especially with the artists–it’s just about “go, go, go; create, create, create.” When we’re forced to sit back, it gives us time to really evaluate, “What are we trying to do?” I had to evaluate myself, like literally, “Do [I] want to do this? Do [I] want to push this? Is this what [I’m] really trying to do?”
A question [that] I present to people that I mentor, [that] I teach: “You have to really figure out what you want to do.” I’m not saying that that’s not a never-changing answer. And I’m not saying that you have the answer at a certain point in your life, but it’s very important to do that internal work.
I think that’s reflected in our work and I’ve seen some amazing work from artists within this time period because I think we had the actual time to really sit there and put time into our work and not need to make it about work, but make it about the art again. I’m excited to see what comes out on the other side of this. A lot of artists are refreshed from having this break per se. Even though we’ve suffered a lot of hardship within this, it also has been healing for a lot of people.