Resilience Embodied: Dance in the Time of COVID-19

At our first surreal Zoom meeting in mid-April, in my role as secretary of the Board of a local dance school, I furiously scribbled page after page of notes. While I observed from the distance of a narrator documenting a unique moment in history, Board members with roles of more immediate consequence than mine sprang into action, seemingly without pause. My bird’s eye view of the transformation process offered the luxury of reflection that they could not afford.

While that initial meeting concluded with a strategic plan simply for “survival,” fast forward to our second meeting in early July and no fewer than 22 weekly classes were being offered at a variety of locations. Youth and adults danced outdoors among the sculptures and gardens of two local arts organizations with whom we had rapidly developed collaboration. Funds received from the government sponsored payroll protection plan (PPP) had been received and funneled into the organization. New grants specific to the pandemic were applied for and pending. 

By our August meeting, as families and school districts began the agonizing process of decision-making regarding school reopening, the students continued to dance. Their ongoing graceful movement in settings of extraordinary natural beauty struck me as an embodiment of resilience.

Resilience is neither a trait we are born with nor one we develop in the face of catastrophe. Rather it emerges in a developmental process over time beginning in early infancy. As babies move in moment-to-moment interaction with their caregivers, without the capacity for language, being held through the inevitable moments of struggle and discomfort, they learn to manage themselves and make sense of the world around them.  Through this process individuals develop the capacity to regulate their bodies in an organized and coherent way. Surviving the inherent mismatches of human interaction, they develop agency- an internal sense of their ability to act on their world to make it better. This movement in relation to caring others forms the foundation of our sense of hope.

Dance offers a kind of parallel process to infant-parent interaction. As teachers and students together choreograph new dances, missteps inevitably occur on the journey to a coherent graceful performance. Each class offers participants the opportunity to build that hope and agency anew.

Over ten years ago my own daughter’s countless hours of classes, rehearsal, and performance with the dance program played a central role in her development as she navigated the tumultuous middle school years. The experience became part of her core resilience now revealed in fortitude and flexibility as a doctor-in-training on the front lines of the pandemic.

This arts organization, by not only surviving but thriving from the early days of the pandemic,  on a concrete level provides community members with opportunity to inhabit their bodies in relationship with others in a safe and containing environment. But from my perspective as narrator, I see so much more.

For most of us, COVID-19 is testing our resilience like nothing before in our lifetimes. Dancers continuing to move together in space against the backdrop of extraordinary discord and social upheaval offer a physical representation of what the pandemic is calling on each of us to do.

Like resilience, trust develops through countless messy moment-to-moment interactions over time. When the artistic director left our last Zoom meeting early to teach a class while we grappled with profound questions presented by the pandemic, she said, “I trust you completely.” Relationships among the Board members, nurtured through all sorts of challenges over years in our small community, allowed for the development of trust and a sense of safety critical to the organization’s ability to navigate this new and unprecedented challenge.

Our society as a whole can take cues from this story of resilience in the arts. We need to continue to “dance” together, focusing on in-the-moment, step-by-step human relationships without panicking or being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before us. In doing so we will preserve a sense of safety and trust, both in our minds and in our bodies. The calm and peace we gather and store in this process will give us the strength to not only survive, but to move forward to whatever comes next.

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