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  • Jennifer Milner

What Comes Next?

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

As COVID-19 continues to grip the world at large, the dance community struggles with not just the future, but the present. Some studios are tentatively re-opening, while others stay online only. Companies are trying to figure out if they have a budget - ANY budget - for a season this year, a place to dance, and even an audience to come see them. Nutcrackers have been canceled, or re-imagined for a pay-to-stream audience. Dancers are still fighting to find space for a dance class, problem-solving and thinking outside the box (like we do!) while trying desperately to cling to some comforts and traditions.

Everything feels up in the air. Nothing is the same. So here’s my question for you:

What if that’s a good thing?

Hear me out here - I’m not trying to be some Pollyanna “it’s not lemons, it’s lemonade, you’re just not looking at it right!” pretender. There’s a lot about our collective situation that stinks. Mightily. But as I look at how much the entire dance world has been blown up, knocked on its ear, turned inside-out, insert other metaphor here, I can’t help but notice that these upheavals are leaving a bit of a void - a place to be filled.

Who’s to say we have to fill it with the exact same thing?

I’ve been having some deep chats with friends in the dance medicine community, and several times recently the talk has turned to the Big Hard Conversations happening in the dance world. Equality and inclusion, mental health, emotional safety in dance, abusive teachers and practices: lots of discussions are not just starting but building up steam. People are stepping away and looking at things and going, “Huh. Well, that doesn’t seem right. Maybe we shouldn’t let that happen moving forward? Maybe?”

As a member of various dance-related groups - ballet teachers, dance scientists, dance medicine, and more - I’m seeing EVERYTHING up for discussion. People hotly debate the traditional structure of ballet class, and whether it’s outdated and should be changed to reflect our new knowledge of the body and its needs (I’m not picking sides here so don’t start flooding my inbox!). Or whether or not companies should allow dancers to wear tights and pointe shoes that match their skin tone instead of a uniform pink (the answer to that one, by the way, is yes. It just is). Any ancillary topic has been touched on and fiercely debated.

And that’s a good thing.

NOW is the time to discuss the power teachers and company directors have over impressionable dancers. A young professional dancer put together an online survey on dancer’s mental health - and had nearly a THOUSAND replies. Her numbers will shock you, but not surprise you, when she talks about verbal abuse, low self-esteem, body image issues, and more. A well-known ballet studio shut down recently after a dancer came forward to complain about the director grooming young girls sexually - and revealing he had been for years. The world is a different place than it was a year ago, and these Hard Conversations are happening in what’s become a de facto incubator for New Possibilities.

What can studios and companies do about supporting a dancer’s mental health? The pandemic is shining a light on mental health in general, so let’s take advantage! Minding the Gap is an excellent program can help owners and directors figure out how to create a healthier environment in the studio, as well as connect dancers with resources to find the help they need.*

Or how about this one: can we bring in dietitians and talk about fueling instead of dieting? Can we shape the conversation around needs that are athletic instead of achieving an aesthetic? And while we’re at it, can we change the language we use? Because words? Really matter.

Dance medicine has taken to the internet in unprecedented ways and now dancers have access to a wealth of knowledge and even practitioners. I train dancers from Israel to the UK and across the US, which would never have happened pre-COVID. If we can get telehealth going, why can’t we keep it that way and bring in the experts small studios and companies need, but haven’t been able to afford because of travel costs?

These are just some of the questions we can explore - and act on now. As the dance world cautiously emerges from its mandatory cocoon, who’s to say it has to look the way we thought it would six months ago? COVID-19 completely blew up the typical dance company model - let’s piece it back together in a thoughtful, healthy way, taking advantage of the lessons we’ve learned. Let’s go so far outside the box we can’t even see the box.

Has the pandemic been hard? Absolutely. Has it been life-changing? Yep. For sure. But let’s turn this obstacle into an opportunity. An opportunity for good, deep, meaningful change that makes the dancers happier, healthier, and dancing longer.

What comes next? That’s up to us.

*Minding the Gap is a partner in a current research project entitled Experiences of Psychological Wellbeing and Mental Health in Dance. If you're a student or professional dancer over 18, they'd love your input; click here to go to the survey. Much thanks!

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