COVID-19 from the eyes of a dancer 

Bharatanatyam dancer Sangeetha Koomar dressed in traditional attire for a Bharatanatyam performance. David Casas from Full Spectrum Photography/Courtesy.

From March 28 dance studios that were once filled with the hard sounds of feet beating the floor, the teacher reciting the counts, have now been replaced with silence. Instead of seeing faces in person, faces are now seen over computer screens. 

“It’s fluctuating in a way there are days where I’ll actually practice quite a bit,” said Ananya Badri, a junior competitive Bharatanatyam dancer at Shrishti Arts. “Then there are also days where I won’t because I’m like it’s COVID, I’m at home, I can practice another day. My practice regimen increased but I think I’m letting myself go.”

Professional dancers who were used to performances after performances, competition after competition, are now idle. They continue to search for even a sliver of opportunity.

“As an artist, it is not in our element to be virtual,” said Sriniti Siva, an adult Bharatanatyam dancer, by profession, at Shrishti Arts. “A lot of our songs may be group oriented, even solo pieces, you can’t match the quality of a live performance.”

As of April 24, according to DANCE magazine, more than 11,000 artists of all disciplines were surveyed. As a result, 95% have lost income due to COVID-19, 62% have become fully unemployed, 80% do not yet have a post pandemic plan and over 66% of respondents say they do not have access to the tools or resources necessary for their creative work. 

Dancers’ lives are mostly spent in spaces crowded with people. Rehearsals consisting of studios where it’s often uncomfortably warm and stuffy. Later, they go on stage to perform within various ranges of distance, in front of dozens of other people. 

“I feel so helpless, helpless because I was the breadwinner,” said Ananyaa Sundar, a Bharatanatyam dancer where dancing Bharatanatyam is the sole income for her family. “My husband was able to ease back on his work, I was taking care of everyone, now I am denied that.”

However, the future is not completely bleak for Sundar. Though dance opportunities are low, her family is still there regardless. 

 “We had no income for five months and one of my daughters has started applying for college.” Sundar said.  “So now it was up to my husband and still is, for him to be the provider until some opportunity arises for me.”

While her husband has been the provider, Sundar still tries to make the most of every day. 

“You know, I still am very thankful,” Sundar said. “There are many other dancers like me, who have lost their jobs but I was the lucky one who had a husband who was able to get back and provide a steady income.”

A dancer’s job poses multiple risks. They work in studio spaces with varying degrees of ventilation, they share dressing rooms, they touch, they are prone to heavy breathing. Identifying symptoms is subjective for artists; while one person might feel terrible, another might push through. By nature, dancers push through and they want to be dancing.

People may be willing to get a haircut or a drive-in movie, but may not be ready to sit in an enclosed theatre for hours among a number of people to watch a small group dance. Orchestra musicians may not be able to sit shoulder to shoulder and dancers may not be able to practice in a studio for hours and hours, as they normally do. The pandemic is an unexpected change that runs the risk of altering the lives of professional dancers.

Since COVID-19, practicing has been happening online, in kitchens and living rooms; rehearsals are on Zoom and outdoors. One thing the last few months have shown is that while Zoom is a useful tool, it’s not a vehicle to transform the art form or to take it to another place.

“The effort I put in is almost gone,” Sundar said. “I got into a state where I was just procrastinating my practice or not even doing it because what’s the point? Even for performances, I just stopped. How many people want to keep watching a screen for hours when a live performance is a different feeling that no screen can replace?”

Sundar is not the only artist who feels this way about the whole situation. 

“The new normal is now masks and social distancing but the main aspect of this whole art form was live shows and performances,” Siva said. “ All our performances are always done in a school or an auditorium with a live orchestra, you can’t bring that same effect over an Instagram live while dancing to recorded music. It is still amazing to continue dancing, don’t get me wrong, but the effect of a live dance can only happen with a live dance.”

However, this state of thinking was not permanent, each of the dancers were able to make light of this situation. 

“I may have lost my will to perform but I definitely learned one thing and that was love,” Sundar said. “Being cooped up and when I started dancing, I realized dancing in front of audiences was not the only reason why I love dancing. The main was for my love for our Gods and the love I have for myself doing the art.”

Now Sundar gives performances, but not just in front of an audience of people. 

“Now I get decked in the full costume and do performances in front of all the idols at my home temple.” Sundar said. “I still do live performances, but for charities, I still want to influence giving back and what better way to do so than during this time?”

A dancer’s life is filled with performances and training each week. There is very little time to think and just relax. However, being quarantined brought out a lot of time for self realizing. 

“You really learn about yourself when you’re at home all day, personally I realized that I just can’t stop dancing.” Badri said. “ I need to perform or practice, I need to do something, it’s like an addiction and the first few months I was going through withdrawal. I am at a point where I jump at any and all dance opportunities and do my best to ensure I am dancing and while being safe, no situation will stop me.”

As the dance world wrestles with the coronavirus, it must consider reality. Everyone wants to get back to the stage, but to open too quickly and have to retreat would be disastrous. It has to be safe for everyone, it might be a good time to slow down and look inward while simultaneously remembering: while it is tempting to want to be roaming across a stage in front of interested onlookers, empathy still has to play its role.

If there is one thing these dancers would want the world to take away from the current situation it is that: 

“You should cherish the time you have with your loved ones,” Sundar said. “You should do the things you love with the ones you love and just appreciate everything.”

“COVID-19 is letting you explore more things,” Badri said. “At the same time, understand that life will throw weird things at you but it’s ok.”

“You still are able to do what you love, like for dancers, we can still dance and perform,” Siva said. “Even when it’s a time where you think that’s not possible. Yes, it may not be ideal, but it still is possible and I don’t think I could be more grateful.”