As the UK reels from the effects of Covid-19, dancers face not just the loss of their jobs and income but the challenge of maintaining their physical fitness. They tell Rachel Elderkin that, while a rush of resources and support between artists across social media has offered an initial lifeline, sustainability will need to be addressed
When UK theatres closed on March 16, an entire industry was suddenly left in complete uncertainty. As for most theatre workers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, dancers’ jobs disappeared in a matter of hours. Katie Deacon, cast member of Mary Poppins in the West End, says: “I was warming up for our Monday evening performance when our company manager announced that due to government advice the evening’s performance, and [performances for] the rest of the week, would be cancelled.” The show has now closed until at least April 26 and, as is the case for performances across the UK, the future outlook remains uncertain.
As with others in the theatre industry, this uncertainty has also left most dancers without an income – though measures announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak last month for self-employed people should help. While some companies have been able to honour contracts or projects that were set to take place in the next few weeks, that is not the case for every dancer. For many, the flexible, zero-hour side jobs that fit around the life of a performer, such as front of house at the theatres or teaching work, have also been lost.
“I’ve witnessed so much happening these last weeks; people’s shows that had just opened and are now unlikely to reopen,” says performer Harry Francis, who had been due to return to the international tour of Cats. “People have been passionate about putting that on for months, for years, and suddenly everything goes.”
Equity is pushing for performers’ rights, but for some, it becomes a more personal decision – should you push to get paid when you know that would bankrupt the company you were working with? “We need money but we want theatre to bounce back,” says Francis.
Having toured China with Cats in 2019, he is also concerned about the people they met at the theatres on tour. “I was in Wuhan with the show a year ago, and it’s heartbreaking. I hope everyone we met along the way is safe, but there’s little way of knowing.”
Now, during this period of lockdown, dancers face not just the loss of their jobs and income but the challenge of maintaining their physical fitness across an indefinite period of time. Big companies have implemented home resources for their dancers, but for freelances, a surge in online classes has proved invaluable, with dancers sharing their home workouts via platforms such as Instagram Live, Facebook and Zoom.
Self-training isn’t anything new to dancers, but in the absence of daily classes or a trip to the gym, that chance to continue to train alongside others, even virtually, has offered a vital form of connection during a time of sudden change; a reminder that we’re not in this alone.
“In the midst of chaos, it is very important to have something solid, a certain consistency or a routine, to hang on to,” says choreographer Jorge Crecis. “To be able to navigate all the uncertainties we need to sense that we belong to a group and are part of a family.”
‘In the midst of chaos, it’s vital to have something solid to hang on to’ – choreographer Jorge Crecis
As the founder of online training programme Towards Vivencia, which, over the course of a year guides participants from across the world through a programme of mental and physical training, Crecis is an advocate of the effectiveness of online community. “Technology allows us to reinvent how we train the body and mind. I’ve been working online for 10 years and have seen the effectiveness of working in this way, in connecting and training people around the world.”
In isolation that sense of community and the virtual support of other artists can provide the motivation needed to keep going. “It has honestly blown my mind how much our industry has pulled together at this time,” says Deacon. “Our community always perseveres, but this has been something else entirely. I’ve taken a Pilates class via Zoom with 75 other people and the other day did a live-stream dance class with more than 350 people, which is crazy if you think about it.”
It’s a surreal scenario and one that would have been unlikely to occur in normal circumstances. As Francis points out, many dancers have struggled alone through periods of injury and the enforced rest and retraining that brings. Perhaps the industry has some valuable lessons to learn from dancers’ actions during this time.
However, with so many classes now freely available online, another debate arises. For some artists like Hanna Hughes, a freelance contemporary dancer, teaching private online classes offered another form of income. Hughes had been halfway through a production with National Dance Company Wales and Welsh National Opera when most of the remaining performances had to be cancelled. “It’s different as it’s a time of crisis, but it’s also shown me how working for free impacts those who can’t,” she says.
To address the balance of this new situation, some artists have proposed a donation-based scheme for those who can afford to contribute financially to their class. For other artists, particularly those who would normally teach in person at dance schools, the move online has enabled them to continue earning an income. Of course, the long-term sustainability of offering classes online, and the length of time this will be necessary, is yet to be seen.
The speed and efficiency with which artists have gathered their resources and joined together through social media is perhaps unsurprising for an industry reliant on creativity and resourcefulness. However, in a time of uncertainty, it can also be wise to slow down and reflect.
“My main concern with this new situation, where we have a lot of extra time on our hands and a huge amount of online content becoming available, is that it can feel extremely overwhelming and can make you feel like you aren’t ‘doing enough’. It’s important during this time that we don’t feel pressured to constantly push forward and ‘better’ ourselves,” says Deacon.
‘It’s important during this time that we don’t feel pressured to constantly be doing more’ – Mary Poppins cast member Katie Deacon
For many dancers, used to working in a fast-moving industry, this unusual amount of extra time can feel equally empty and a relief. “Usually we’re stressed about what’s next, but right now there’s nothing. So now, for the first time, I’m not in a
position to worry – it’s awful, but it’s also a mental break from it all,” says Francis.
At this time of uncertainty, it is more important than ever for artists to consider both their mental and physical well-being – whether that’s taking some much-needed time out or finding ways to keep training and motivated.
As Hughes says: “Dance is part of your identity, there’s so much history in your body.” That inherent knowledge provides dancers with a wealth of skills to draw on while they train in isolation, but it also reflects a lifetime’s work that can’t be let go of overnight. The rush of online classes and support between dance artists across social media has provided an initial lifeline, but the long-term sustainability of that is now an important question to consider.
“When we return it’s going to be a huge challenge in every area of the industry, but hopefully there will be a different kind of urge and motivation – when something’s not there, we realise what we appreciate,” says Francis.
It might be too early to gauge the impact this period will have on dancers and the wider industry they work in. But over the coming weeks, maintaining that drive to support each other and work together will be an essential step towards the future.