Photos from a Hyp-Access class, before the pandemic. (Credit: Erin O’Brien)

With the COVID-19 lockdown, New York’s once thriving dance scene has ground to a halt. Broadway is shuttered, the Metropolitan Opera is closed, and the hundreds of community performance spaces throughout the city have indefinitely postponed their events. Many of the dancers and performers who live off of income from these events are now without jobs, funding, and, importantly, spaces in which to rehearse. Now, unions, institutions, and artists themselves are trying to figure out not just how to cope, but how to change the industry to ward off such devastation in the future.

“Everybody is in really dire straits,” said Len Egert, national director of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). “So what we’re trying to do is provide as much immediate relief as possible. People live from gig to gig, paycheck to paycheck, and it really quickly becomes a serious situation for people.”

According to a 2016 study by DanceNYC, 36 percent of paid dance workers are part- time, and 15 percent are independent contractors. These are the artists hit hardest by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; without full-time contracts, many saw a complete loss of income in a matter of days, once venues were closed.

AGMA—the labor union that represents the country’s opera, dance, and choral performers— has developed a multipart strategy for coping with the aftermath of the pandemic. For full-time workers, they’re bargaining with employers to extend pay and healthcare coverage over the course of the pandemic. For contract workers, they are pushing for legislation, like the CARES act, that would extend benefits to freelance and gig workers. They’ve also expanded the AGMA relief fund, which provides up to $2,000 for dancers and performers in need. 

“Freelance dancers are being hit hard by this,” said Griff Braun, AGMA’s Director of Organizing and Outreach. “All of their gigs are being canceled and, for the most part, many of them don’t have any security whatsoever.”

Further, in an industry that can be physically taxing, many of these artists will also not be able to access or afford healthcare – and that’s without taking into account the potential physical effects of the virus.

Many, now confined to their homes, are exploring different forms of performance. As reported by Bedford + Bowery, performers have turned to Instagram Live, Zoom, FaceTime and other virtual means of communication to connect with their fans and practice their crafts. While these performances have allowed the creative community to stay connected, some in the industry think that virtual dance is an inadequate alternative.

“As great and as innovative as virtual rehearsing can be, I don’t think it substitutes for in-person, direct dancing together,” said Egert. 

However, some within the dance community believe that embracing virtual forms of performance might provide long-sought access. As dancers explore how their practice can be translated digitally, the performance community might be better able to continue to integrate and encourage practices that better accommodate for disabled people and those who cannot, physically or otherwise, commit to a full-time, in-person rehearsal schedule.

“People are finally experiencing what so many of us have had to go through,” said Laura Tuthall, co-founder of Hyp-Access, an advocacy organization that promotes care and access in arts, somatics, and medicine for hyper-mobile and disabled people. 

Tuthall and her co-founder, Audre Wirtanen, believe that dancers who are currently adjusting to virtual interactions can gain wisdom from disabled and chronically ill performers. Due to their conditions, many have long had to deal with involuntary periods of isolation or quarantine, and have gained expertise in navigating remote and limited-access rehearsals and performances.

“I hope that arts communities shift focus to disability and sick communities and understand that [virtual] community programming like this provides inclusion of folks who are marginalized because of their lack of access,” said Wirtanen.

Physical contact and shared space has long been at the center of what Tuthall and Wirtanen do. They specialize in a new, accessible somatic practice, Awareness-Based Neuromuscular Re-patterning (ABNR), which aims to promote healing through movement and touch, and is aimed towards hypermobile and disabled people. At a typical rehearsal, their students lie on the floor of a studio, and the two artists either guide them in moving, encouraging them to interact with each other, or have students lie on mats while they work lightly on their muscles and joints. However, they have quickly adopted their work to meet the needs of their students during the COVID-19 outbreak; their accessibility-focused improv classes have moved online, and Wirtanen is holding sessions with her individual students via FaceTime and Zoom. Despite their ability to adapt, however, both Wirtanen and Tuthall fear the impact distancing will have on their clients. Many have gained long-sought-after support, access, and healing from their classes and sessions.

“There is a really interesting dimension with our work specifically, because it has to involve touch, and is designed for bodies that are not cared for in mainstream institutions. Now we’re in a situation where people who have experienced this before will have to experience this kind of isolation again,” said Tuthall.

Personally, both Tuthall and Wirtanen have been heavily impacted by COVID-19. Both are freelancers, and rely on a patchwork of income to be able to live in New York. This spring, they were accepted to participate in a fellowship program at the Gibney, a renowned dance center in downtown Manhattan. That funding has now been postponed, as have their in-person classes and individual sessions. Like many artists, they will continue to work virtually, but their ability to stay in New York and engage with their art and activism will be more limited the longer they lose income.

Ogemdi Ude, a choreographer, educator, and doula based in Harlem, has also lost much of her upcoming work due to COVID-19. She is a salaried worker within the New York public school system, but also does extensive freelance and fellowship work for her dance and doula practices. This spring, she was supposed to participate in several prestigious projects, including an NYU Residency and Poetic Utterance, curated by Okwui Okpokwasili. Many of these have now all been postponed, or cancelled. Though she is still receiving payment for some of these engagements, the expectation for her work in the future is unclear. This ambiguity is being experienced by artists around the city, and according to Ude, highlights the importance of contracts and unionizing, which could provide failsafe options in case of disaster.

“I have always felt this need amongst independent performing artists to unionize, but I know it’s difficult because there have been attempts at unions in the past, and the requirements aren’t always sustainable to what the environment is financially,” said Ude. “But I feel very passionate about, especially as a young artist, advocating for seeing the contract before you commit to anything.”

Ude echoed Wirtanen and Tuthall’s hopes for the positive ways in which this pandemic might affect the dance and performance community. Not only does she think it could increase awareness of access for and effect on vulnerable groups, but she also thinks the collective crisis could have an impact on the way people work.

“Either it could propel people into changing fields altogether, or, ideally, they will have new practices around how they accept work, how much money they’ll accept for work, and when they will accept payment,” Ude said.

The imperilment of these dancers’ livelihoods and artistic output shines light on the systematic issues that undergird New York’s dance and performance community. When so many artists live gig to gig, without support from the industry or local infrastructure, a catastrophic event like the COVID-19 outbreak means disaster. The livelihoods of many of these performers have dried up, and they will have to turn to government relief and unemployment funding to make it through the remainder of the pandemic.

However, the systematic changes required by the outbreak have provided an opening – an opening to make the dance and performance industry more resilient to these sorts of events, and to make it more accessible and supportive to all artists. This will require the commitment of the industry as a whole to recognizing that the system as it exists excludes whole swaths of the community, including freelancers as well as disabled and chronically ill artists, and that funding patterns have made dancers economically vulnerable. While the outcome remains to be seen, the work of organizations like AGMA is trending in this direction.

“This community needs to organize and needs to, as best as possible, try to speak as one because they’ve been the lowest rung on the ladder for a long time,” said Braun.

Correction: The original version of this story was revised to more accurately characterize Tuthall and Wirtanen’s practice.