It has been exactly 38 days since I taught my last class at Broadway Dance Center and closed doors to my community in order to preserve my health and well-being. After teaching that day, I nervously entered the subway unknowingly on my way home to self-quarantine. Here in Queens, New York, it has been over a month of giving myself barre holding a doorknob, moments of inspiration, failed attempts at home-choreography, complacency about the future, learning how to use Zoom, and more. But I am still here, dancing and teaching in the epicenter of the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For me, 2020 got off to a great start. I crossed two major goals off my bucket list before the virus overtook our nation. I launched a professional troupe, Movement Headquarters Ballet Company, and began working as a judge and master teacher for Youth America Grand Prix. I was one of the lucky ones. While my peers mourned lost opportunities as our country systematically shut down, I could instead focus on the health and well-being of my family, friends, and extended network.
Thriving in the capital of the dance world means being social, networking, and showing up to class regularly. Daily, dancers congregate in master teacher’s classrooms at a variety of studios throughout the city. At barre, career professionals warm-up alongside recreational students while upcoming generations pour into our city thriving on its energy and possibilities. Our massive dance community doesn’t always feel tight-knit, but it is definitely tightly interwoven. So, news traveled fast when rumors started spreading about a Broadway artist in Moulin Rouge who tested positive for the coronavirus. Thursday, March 12th was the first day our dance community understood the reality of this situation. And it was also the day that Broadway would indefinitely go dark. Within four days, all performances in the city would be called off and every dance school would close its doors.
At the time, it was extremely difficult to quantify exactly what was happening here. For many who watched us on the news from afar, it probably looked anxiety-inducing. But to live through the shut down was confusing and frightening. It happened really fast! While cinematic doomsday scenes of crowds screaming down streets never happened, the city and its people were on edge in a way that is hard to explain. A simple cough on a subway car could cause anything from dirty looks to a mass evacuation. For years, I’ve jokingly used the phrase, “I avoided them like the plague.” But suddenly that saying made complete sense.
The week of the shutdown, I started creating checklists of dangerous interactions. Was that person who coughed behind me at the Scottish Ballet show infected with COVID? Was I safely distanced from that student who sneezed in my Beginner Ballet class at Broadway Dance Center? Is that headache and immense exhaustion I felt after canceling my class at Ballet Arts the onset of symptoms? As an artist, I have always turned to my art in times of stress. But that first week, I found myself frozen on the couch watching endless news streams while sifting through social media posts of dancers mourning lost performances, dream roles, training, and income. Even worse, friends and colleagues began posting they had fallen ill and were presumed positive. I eventually lost count of how many were sick.
As the pandemic became very real, I was grateful parts of my artistic drive started to kick back in. Dancers often rely on their art when life presents challenges. I have rarely experienced shock so great that this outlet became completely paralyzed like it did the first few days as we shutdown. This was not a situation where I could treat anything like I had before.
Once I released the pressure of expectation, I felt inspired to cautiously move forward. I started by making a week-long schedule, which I still regularly adjust based on my progress and emotional well-being. Then, I began developing online educational content to inspire dancers to stay in shape in small spaces. I developed 6 videos on Youtube (available for a recommended donation to supplement lost income); including Basic Ballet, Int/Adv Ballet, Basic Contemporary, and Int/Adv Contemporary. While I saw many livestream offerings, I recognized permanent videos give dancers the ability to return to content as needed. Beyond this, I reached out to share my experience and perspective with the dance world-at-large (Check out my articles for Dance Magazine & Dance Teacher). Writing helps me process my thoughts and gives me a positive emotional boost as I feel it helps others struggling through similar situations. I’ve found it necessary to seek out feel-good activities during this time.
While I have grown as an educator and writer, I have struggled in my work as a director and choreographer. Luckily, as a pick-up company, Movement Headquarters is well-positioned to weather this storm. My main challenge here is struggling to envision a future completely unlike the past. For this reason, I have given myself the OK to stop dreaming forward for just a little bit. The present feels like a good place to be right now. And as for my choreography, after trying to improvise the other day, the continuous wail of ambulance sirens drifting down my street brought too much darkness out of my movement. In that moment, I learned part of my practice is to know when not to practice. My emotional reaction to living in the epicenter of the pandemic overwhelmed my ability to benefit from this. So, much like our city, I allowed myself to pause.
As a New York resident, the past 5 weeks have been a rollercoaster. I’ll never forget the day my mother woke me with the text, “Queens is now the epicenter,” and I turned on national news to see my local hospital as the image of an overwhelmed healthcare system. I am so grateful to have my art during this time as an outlet, distraction, and anxiety reducer. But more importantly, I’ve learned a valuable life lesson here. While my art will always be there to turn to, I am in no way obligated to turn to it until I am ready to utilize all of the lessons it has taught me. Though, when I need it, it will always be there ready to help. And in my current circumstances as an artist living in the epicenter of this pandemic, I am so grateful for my art and the solace it brings me during this challenging time.
Barry Kerollis is the Artistic Director of Movement Headquarters Ballet Company, Judge & Master Teacher for Youth America Grand Prix, & Faculty at Broadway Dance Center