The Beautiful Demise of The Dance Industry
by Katrena Cohea
What would you do if I told you that all the struggles and challenges dance studio owners, teachers, and dancers have encountered over the past several months was for the best? What if the breakdown of our dance habits, rituals and traditions is actually a beautiful thing? What if the demise of dance studios, schools, and programs around the world is actually an invitation? What if I told you the dance community was being invited to pull gems from the rubble, and diamonds from the ashes?
I suspect most of you would (or are, at this very moment) furrowing your brow, scoffing at my words, and maybe getting downright angry.
We’re all still in various stages of grief; the losses we’ve all experienced, and are still experiencing have left us feeling empty, angry and exhausted. I’m by no means trying to take those feelings away from you. Sitting with those feelings is an important part of healing and processing.
And I’m also offering a new perspective for all of us in the dance industry and community.
I’ve been a dancer, and dance teacher, for a long time, and one thing I know for certain is that dance teaches us to be pushers. We push for the extra pirouette. We push to hold the balance a second longer. We push each other to do our best (or maybe we push to one-up each other). We push for the role, the part, the audition. We push to be the best version of ourselves.
Think back for a moment to dance life before COVID, and recall all the ways you pushed. Think back to the long hours of training and working. Remember the feeling of striving, reaching, all the concentrated efforts. Remember the smell of the studio after being there 12+ hours. Summon the ache of tired muscles and brains. Put your finger on the feeling in your stomach before performance, competition, or audition. These are all examples of pushing.
Now, I wouldn’t trade the ways dance has taught me to push for anything. That quality has landed me lead roles, dream jobs, and taught me to fight for what’s important to me. And yet, there’s a dark side to being a pusher, and living in a community that glorifies the push. We push dancers to the point of injury, we push performances to be groundbreaking, and innovative, but sometimes without a purpose. We push technique through tricks, push for the ‘wow’ factor, and push dancers younger and younger to compete, go full out, and to believe there is a version of perfection they should be held to. These are all common practices in the dance industry.
And suddenly, we can’t push in the same ways we were used to. The normal systems and structures we used and relied upon were abruptly gone. Everything changed. And overnight, some things actually got better, because we could no longer push.
Dancers took class at home, and for many of them, the absence of mirrors and comparisons to fellow dancers vanished. They were able to become deeply re-acquainted with the art of technique rather than feeling pushed by technique. They were able to cut out distractions of comparison. Even eventually (after getting over how weird it felt), dancers, students and teachers stopped pushing themselves to be "on" all day, and allowed themselves some time and space for R&R.
We’ve gotten so used to pushing, that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to focus on dance as an art form - without the push to compete, to improve, to sell, to perform. We’ve gotten so caught up in equating our value as teachers and dancers with the recital, the performance, the competition, the extensions, the turns and jumps, that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to tune into ourselves, trust our inner teachers, and simply, just enjoy dance for the sake of dance.
COVID has given us a reminder that we are more than our recitals. We are more than our performances and competition results. Take all the "fluff" of recitals, performances, touring, and galas away, and what’s left? Just a bunch of people learning about, and loving dance.
Who we are as dancers, teachers, and studio owners, is not defined by how many classes we take, our roles in performances, or the accolades we win. Who you are is defined by your impact on your students, on your community, and your generosity. I’d rather be remembered for the care and kindness I shared with my students and community over how many lead roles I performed.
What do you want to be remembered for?
How will you define your impact from here on out?
What legacy do you want to instill in your dancing, your studio, your students?
What will you embrace to make dance more inclusive, diverse, and accessible?
These are the invitations COVID has presented us with. This pandemic is heavy with loss, but like with any crisis, it has sifted and sieved to show us the strong and beautiful remains. We’re left with art, community, passion, and now, we’re fueled by the desire to rebuild with what’s right, sustainable, and meaningful.
Demise is from the Latin and Old French for "dismiss"; I like to think that COVID has offered us an invitation to dismiss the pushing and the constant striving. This is our reminder that dancers - humans, come before the technique. They are the most important investment, not the gala, the ticket sales or enrollment numbers. Push comes to shove, humans first, dancers second.
Demise, dismissing that which no longer serves us to rebuild stronger, more compassionate, and more mindful, will be a beautiful thing. Will you RSVP YES to the invitation?
Katrena Cohea is the CEO of Different Drummer Dance, a studio and online community dedicated to building body-positive dancers and educators. Katrena is a California native and danced professionally in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years before moving to upstate New York with her husband. She teaches body positivity online courses for dance educators and when she’s not dancing or teaching enjoys hiking, cooking, baking and brewing the perfect cup of coffee.