On February 16, 2020, I realized a longtime dream to launch a dance company in New York City. The debut production for Movement Headquarters Ballet Company was one of the most rewarding and terrifying experiences of my career. As we bathed in the afterglow of two successful performances at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in midtown Manhattan, we started hearing news of a distant illness halfway across the globe. Little did we know this virus was already present in our community, likely being passed around in our very theatre.
A few days prior to opening, I had invited several volunteers to watch a studio rehearsal. One mentioned how excited he was to be feeling better after a strange flu, where he lost his sense of taste and smell. While it took us several more weeks to hit the panic button, it is now evident to me that COVID-19 was already working its way through our community.
The week of March 9th, 2020, felt like all of those apocalyptic horror movies where the world is coming to an end. Except for us New Yorkers, it wasn’t a movie. As a dance educator at Broadway Dance Center, I felt an obligation to my community. But I didn’t have enough information to choose not to teach. I was also concerned when an Italian student of mine messaged me stating I should prepare for the worst. I grappled with the thought, “Do I risk the health of my students or do I risk losing the ability to pay my rent and put food on the table?” There were rumors of the subway ceasing operation, hordes of people began evacuating our city, and others started hoarding anything and everything that made them feel in control.
I was worried that things could get bad. But I never imagined it would get as bad as it did. I live in the borough of Queens, a 15-minute subway ride to Manhattan and a 15-minute walk to Elmhurst Hospital, the first medical center overwhelmed by patients in our country. As New York began to lock down, the city took on a seemingly impossible quiet. But that didn’t last long in my neighborhood. Within days, our community fell ill and the sound of ambulance sirens pierced every moment, waking and asleep. This didn’t last for several days or a week. We suffered in an auditory hell for an entire month.
I feel this part of my story is important to share because I didn’t start this pandemic feeling creative or inspired. I had just experienced a major success. And instead of riding that wave of excitement and creativity, I felt nothing. I felt absolutely no creativity whatsoever. And I realize now that I had become numb to survive.
There was a turning point for me in June 2020 after I attended Dance/USA’s first-ever virtual conference. I remember one of the keynote speakers sharing, “It is our responsibility as leaders to find creative ways to continue bringing income to artists for their survival.” In that very moment, something changed in me. It was as if somebody grabbed and shook me out of my traumatized stupor and said, “Get to work!”
Since that moment, my creativity has run on overdrive. I began offering online workshops for beginner level adult dance students around the world. Additionally, I have since written about a dozen articles for Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Teacher, and multiple other publications. But most importantly, I started choreographing new work for my company again.
In July, I timidly reunited with several of my company dancers in a park across from Manhattan after my first trip on the subway in nearly 4 months. It was my dancers who urged me to escape the confines of my apartment to begin creating again. I didn’t realize at the time that this was also the beginning of my healing process from living in the American epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. I choreographed an outdoor installation series, Love Letter, to express my love for our great city and to show the world that New York City was alive and well. We performed this program at multiple parks across town the following month and engaged with all of the resilient locals in our community who stuck it out through our city’s tragedy.
Since last summer, I have returned to teaching in-person and choreographing regularly. I am creating a brand new immersive Nutcracker, Land of the Sweets, for Movement Headquarters. And we are about to hold our first in-person, indoor performances at the end of June. But most importantly, I have finally begun the process of healing thanks to my art, my community, my husband, and family.
Photo by Liz Schneider-Cohen
Back to Blog