(Content warning: COVID-19)
“Can we dance keeping a distance?” I said to the person whose hand was awkwardly waiting in midair for mine. They accepted my request, and we started moving our bodies to the music. All of sudden, I realized that we were not wearing masks. Neither were any of the other dancers in the dance hall, small and snuggly filled. I panicked. I must be infected already. I can’t go back home now. How am I going to see my parents? Should I quarantine myself for two weeks? Then I woke up. The lock screen on my cell phone read 12:44 am.
One way that I benefited from my mother’s obsession with losing weight (hers and mine) is that I was exposured to dancing at an early age. In 4th grade, I started attending ballet and traditional Korean dance classes. My dance teacher, who unfortunately lived in my neighborhood, recruited me for her daily jog to help my diet. In the following years, I tagged along with my mother to aerobic classes at the crack of dawn. 100 percent of attendees were middle-aged women. (Some of them were veterans who got all the routines down meticulously.) I was impressed by the high energy these women brought to the room. I was also amazed by how much they sweat in each song although some thought it was not enough and wrapped their tummies and thighs with clear cellophane.
Three years ago, I fell in love with swing dance. I joined local groups for weekly practice and social. Sometimes I traveled for weekend-long festivals, full of workshops and nightly parties with live bands. Last year, I started exploring blues dance and in January 2020, I participated in my first blues dance conference in Chicago. It was a blast. I got much more comfortable with my body in connection with others’. Blues dance worked as an effective antidote to the shame over my body, the stigma of physical contact, and the guilt over pleasure.
When the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in March, I went into the quarantine hopeful for the return to normalcy in a few months, except for the dance. The future looked bleak for the dance community because the close contact in dancing would certainly spread the virus. However, the traits you can find in this community include positivity and resilience. Members had a strong desire to stay connected; moreover, instructors and musicians were violently thrown into a financial need due to the cancellation of classes and events. The response was quick. A Facebook group was formed where members shared information on online classes and performances along with PayPal and Venmo accounts for donation (virtual tip jars). Small classes with less than 10 attendees were low-key and intimate, like Ogemdi Ude’s contemporary lesson in her Harlem apartment or Rob’s solo jazz routine from Leeds, UK. Gaga classes were by far the biggest ones I had witnessed, with the number of its worldwide attendees reaching hundreds.
I joined these Zoom meetings a few times a week. Yoga, pilates, barre, and Zumba were relatively simple; I watched the instructor and followed along. However, swing dance was tricky. One time, I brought my stuffed bunny as my partner. It was fun, but she didn’t pull or push. Partner dancing relies on connection through tension, which the bunny couldn’t deliver; it hung over my arm plopping back and forth. I also tried a couple of large dance parties with live-streaming bands. Seeing all the dancers in their own boxes on the Zoom screen evoked a deep yearning. I couldn’t help but feel sad, not knowing when we can get back together on a dance floor.
The contemporary dance class I went to last Saturday didn’t take place on a dance floor but on a large lawn. It was the first time I danced with others in person since March. Our energy flowed between branches and clouds. We could not be closer than six feet, let alone touch each other; nonetheless, my body acquired what it had been craving last six months: feeling three-dimensional movements of human bodies.
Outdoor classes are rare though, so I try to utilize live-stream classes as often as possible. The feeling of doing something together in real-time is irreplaceable. I actively communicate with the instructors and other participants through the chat. Such organic interactions are what my brain thirst for every day.
I recently saw a swing dance studio reopening with COVID-19 protocols. In addition to CDC’s recommendations of wearing face masks and distancing, participants must sign agreements on opting out in case of illness or travel. The studio also instituted a clever system with traffic light stickers. Green means you are open to dancing with others, and red means you are not. In the former case, you must use hand sanitizer between switching partners. In the latter case, you either dance with the partner you came with or dance alone. This seems like the safest way to go about partner dancing in the current time; however, I still have qualms about putting myself in such an environment. So, I instead scroll through today’s list of live classes while I dream of the day we can dance together together.