Let it be known that even in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, we did not stop dancing. The less internally embarrassed ripped into solo dance parties at home. Installs of TikTok soared, according to an app analytics firm, and healthcare workers used 2021’s most downloaded app to share videos of morale-boosting #NursesDancing routines. And as with just about everything else, dance classes migrated to Zoom.
But something was missing. Namely: an in-person connection with others. Dance is an ancient activity, a social rite that didn’t evolve for nothing. One study speculates it helped us assess a potential mate’s qualities via body movements, which strengthened group cohesion. Another posits a genetic link between creative dancing and social communication. Meanwhile, a recent report from the University of California, Berkeley, has described communal dance as the release of a perfect, happy, neurochemical storm: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.
And perhaps we’ve missed the oxytocin most. This “love hormone” fosters a sense of connectedness when we lock eyes, touch, or play off each other’s rhythmic jiving. At the University of Minnesota’s Northrop venue this past fall, a social experiment reintroduced that spark to lovers of swing. The performance, SW!NG OUT, featured tap dancers and Lindy Hoppers. An afterparty cajoled audience members into the aisles for a chance to mirror these loose-limbed moves, which trace back to Harlem in the early 20th century, around the time of the 1918 pandemic. But the turnout of a few hundred dwindled even further. It appeared we just weren’t ready to resume face-to-face (albeit masked) interactions.
Still, since vaccines and boosters rolled out, studios in the Twin Cities have been trying to bounce back. Dance instructors want to rekindle the primal joy of group grooving, to exercise caution amid an ongoing pandemic, and, of course, to make enough money to stay open.
“In this class, we work a lot on groundedness,” Twin Cities choreographer and dance instructor Erinn Liebhard says, crouched beside a laptop on her basement floor. This moment, preserved in an Instagram post, has Liebhard addressing students onscreen. It’s December 10, 2020, the day before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency-use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. “Sometimes, when a space size is limited, you’re limited in how grounded you can feel,” she continues. “That’s OK! Explore how this movement may feel different in a confined space, and accept it for what it is.”
By now, Liebhard is good at accepting it for what it is. She is skilled, for instance, at not hitting her hands on her basement track lights. “My interests haven’t changed,” she says almost a year later, “but I’ve gone in and out of feeling like a full-body dancer.”
Zoom has kept employment fairly steady. Liebhard is co-founder and executive director of the Rhythmically Speaking dance company, which specializes in the playful, often ebullient forms that grew up in public spaces. She also teaches through Minneapolis’ Zenon Dance School. “Part of why people, I think, were seeking dance classes right away at the onset of the pandemic was they wanted to interact with people,” she says. (As a disclaimer, she adds that an initial uptick in enrollees online later leveled out, and cites “screen fatigue.”)
Part of what made Zoom work is that she practices social forms, such as jazz, tap, and hip-hop, with special focus on the African diasporic roots of jazz. Scholars call these styles “apart play,” she says, meaning they don’t require partners—unlike the tango, waltz, or rumba. This means her in-person classes can maintain social distancing with relative ease.
“I like the closeness of European dance forms because you create a connection with one person. But with the dance forms of the African diaspora … being able to dance apart from other people [yet] with them means you get to use more of your arms, you get to be closer to the ground. There’s this concept of ‘democracy of body parts,’” as put forward by historian and choreographer Brenda Dixon Gottschild, she notes.
But not all who deal in “apart play” have found remote instruction feasible. Jake Riley, who teaches hip-hop at House of Dance Twin Cities, says Zoom never stuck. Although hip-hop can work without much space—“I mean, I started breaking in my mom’s basement on carpet”—he says he lost roughly 75% of his clients overnight when the pandemic first hit. Most of them are kids. “Around dinnertime, trying to force an 8-year-old to do a live class [online] didn’t work,” he says.
When gyms reopened that summer, so did House of Dance—at 50% capacity, with masks and social distancing. About 50 to 75 “ride-or-die” families kept him going, he says.
When the next year rolled around, Riley retaliated against 2020 by taking a big risk: With a small-business loan and his own money, he moved into a larger, 4,000-square-foot building in Edina. It opened under 15-foot ceilings in April, “and the circulation of the air … has been much better all throughout the classes,” he says.
Since then, Riley’s students, who still wore masks at press time, have returned to forming cyphers at the end of class. In these freestyle circles, 10 or so dancers take turns filling the center with whatever moves them. “You can’t replicate that on Zoom,” he says.
For Tricia Schwietz, owner of Dance and Entertainment Studios in Stillwater, that sentiment proved almost disastrously true. She says she had to cash in her retirement savings to keep her studio alive.
“We tried to do online lessons, but our clientele are older people that have no interest in looking at a video online,” she says. Schwietz opened her studio in 2008, with classes covering more than 20 styles of ballroom, swing, Latin, and country. “A lot of our students are singles, and they rely on the social aspect of being able to go out and dance with different partners.”
At press time, Schwietz encouraged vaccinations but didn’t require cards or masks (for breathability issues), and she estimated 80% of dancers had returned. “We still get negative messages, like, ‘How can you be open? There’s a pandemic still going on,’” she says. “And my response is, ‘You don’t have to come, but this is what I do for a living, and I’ve got bills to pay.’”
Back in Minneapolis, Ann Mosey oversees Tapestry Folkdance Center, a bastion of worldwide dance forms. As the executive director, she can relate to the pressure. Before COVID-19, the nearly 40-year-old nonprofit in southeast Minneapolis held social dances nightly. Each week, 700 people would come through to experience styles from around the globe. “We went from almost 40 events a week to four or five Zoomed once a week [or] twice a month,” Mosey says.
Online, participation quickly plummeted from 100 people to six. “They’re social dances where you grab somebody’s hand,” she says of Tapestry’s programming. An English country line dance called contra, for example, not only translates poorly to Zoom; it also sounds like a COVID-19 nightmare: “You’re constantly weaving in and out and changing partners and moving up and down the line by physical contact with someone else.”
In July 2021, Tapestry reopened, requiring proof of vaccination and recommending masks in the lobby. As of this month, Tapestry requires N95, KN95, or surgical masks under cloth masks. All seven of its weekly dance classes are running, and more than 20 renters lead group dances per week. Still, participation is down by more than 50%, Mosey says. The center remains open thanks to the State Arts Board, a PPP loan, and donors (who contributed $60,000 to Tapestry’s end-of-year campaign), according to Mosey.
Going forward, she anticipates “radical changes” to programming. “But will things settle?” she poses. “Well, let me brush off my muddy crystal ball. I mean, who knows?”
Liebhard continues to teach both online and in person. While performing outdoor pop-up concerts throughout the pandemic as part of Rhythmically Speaking, she also has tapped into the world of “screendance.”
About a year ago, Liebhard led a team to a friend’s stark, frozen farmland in Lino Lakes to film a striking outdoor dance concert set to original jazz renditions of Radiohead songs. She hired a cinematographer and edited it herself. “It’s the choreography of the body and the choreography of the camera, which I had to let go to someone else, even though I made an intensive shot list,” she says.
Although rewarding, Liebhard—along with seemingly everyone else—says the onscreen option simply cannot compare.
“Your physical proximity to another moving human body enables you to actually feel what they’re doing,” she says, crediting New York Times dance critic John Martin for this idea. Possibly, Zoom misses out on this “kinesthetic empathy.” The 2D plane lacks what Liebhard calls the “visceral spark of a 3D body.” (It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that while Liebhard joined TikTok at the start of the pandemic, she soon logged off, finding the feed of dance videos too time-consuming.)
Still, one of Liebhard’s students appears to have cracked it. Ridgely Trufant, 69, loves dancing with her classmates onscreen. In fact, she doesn’t want to go to a studio at all.
Earlier in the pandemic, Trufant jettisoned a desk from her 600-square-foot West Village apartment in New York City. This enlarged a 3-by-5-foot nook into a 5-by-10-foot run, the better to dance “full, open, broad” in front of her iPad. After 10 months of admiring her fellow students in tiny Zoom squares and riffing off their moves, a new PC felt like “pretty much a miracle.”
Although based on the East Coast, Trufant found Zenon Dance School (and the classes taught by Liebhard and another instructor, Karla Grotting, who danced “a slower sort of [jazz] style that I did in New York,” Trufant says) by following the trail of an old dance mentor. Trufant had left jazz dance as a serious hobby in her 40s. Life got in the way (a full-time job, a husband). It was the pandemic, strangely, that brought her back to it. “I thought, you know, it’s a pandemic. I gotta get something done, because I didn’t come out for 90 days. I stayed in. I thought, ‘No footprint—let me just stay in and out of trouble and just do dance classes all day.’ So, that’s what I did.”
And thus, Trufant found a way to love virtual dance. It has to do with an age-related stigma and a nonjudgmental space. “The truth is, you lose your self-consciousness,” she says, “because it’s not like you’re just sitting up on the screen and everybody’s looking at your face. Everybody’s moving, everybody’s there. Nobody has time to look at anybody else.” Physically, Trufant also cannot act on an urge to “stand in the background and hope to not be noticed too much … creaking around.”
For now, Liebhard is waiting to see whether online classes will stretch beyond pandemic times.
“I know they talk about feeling like they’re dancing into the void,” Trufant says, of dance instructors. “But believe me—and I try and say this to the teachers who struggle with this: I’m there. I’m connected.”