“Dance like no one’s watching.”
This dance world cliche danced almost mockingly into my thoughts this morning when I sat down to reflect on the state of Portland’s dance community amid COVID-19. In today’s socially distanced, quarantined world, the phrase (originally meant to encourage self-expression and confidence) takes on a whole new meaning. Dance like there’s no one watching, because … well, unless your bedroom window lines up with your neighbor’s like mine does, it’s likely that no one is.
In the past two weeks, the landscape of just about everything has changed. For Portland’s dance community, there’s been a communal quieting: cancellation of in-person classes, temporary pauses on rehearsals, and the postponement or cancellations of shows and fundraisers. While a few studios have posted projected re-open dates, Gov. Kate Brown’s recent “Stay Home, Stay Healthy,” order shakes the fragile structure that the dance community steps upon now.
I’ve been chatting (from the comfort of my home via my computer and phone…. practice your social distancing, folks!) with a few studio owners, freelance dancers, teachers, and company directors to see what the COVID-19 shutdown looks like for their artmaking. In a nutshell, this virus is testing the dance community’s strength and flexibility . Studios are experiencing huge loss of income due to class and rental cancellations, companies are cancelling tours, performances, and rehearsals, teachers are shifting to online classes without guaranteed pay or retention of students, and the overall energy of our community is down. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel though, which includes a local artist relief fund, the nation-wide stimulus package, and of course, the profound resilience of art-makers, movers and shakers.
“This crisis affects more than myself, but our 20 teaching artists, our 2,500+ customers we serve in the community and the K-12 local schools that we partner with to bring dance through our non-profit “Steps for Youth,” says Kathryn Harden, founder and artistic director of Steps PDX.
Some of those schools and programs include Kairos PDX, Central Catholic High School, Centennial Park High School, Boys and Girls Club and Rose Haven Shelter for Women and Children. Harden’s been reaching out to the Steps community, “as well as seeking other resources to find ways to financially stay afloat, as I understand, we are all in the same boat and trying to support one another through this uncharted territory.” In the meantime, Steps has gone online, as have other studios, such as St. John’s FLOOR Center for Dance. “We have been providing free live stream online classes, in various styles through IG Live, Zoom, Youtube and our website for review,” says Harden. “We are only asking for donations, so that we can continue to pay our teaching artists that teach our free online classes.” If you love Steps PDX and want to help out, you can support them here.
At FLOOR, co-founders and studio directors Lauren Smith and Adrianna Audoma are adapting to online streaming services to keep students engaged through the quarantine period. The two-year old studio has been the home to Tongue Dance Project (which I currently am a company member with) and daily open dance classes, and the host of multiple performances for local artists. It is currently running discounts online for class cards and gift cards, to be used once the studio returns to normal operations. The financial impact could hit hard, though, if the flattening of the curve doesn’t happen and doors remain closed.
“Without regularly scheduled classes and resident artist rentals, FLOOR does not have the financial means to continue paying rent,” Smith and Audoma detailed in an email to me. “We are currently offering both live and recorded classes through our Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube channels, and although our online classes are absolutely free, we are accepting donations through Venmo (@Floorcenterfordance) and soon GoFundMe to aid in monthly rent.”
The free online classes aren’t just limited to Portland studios. Worldwide, professional dancers and large scale companies are streaming without a price barrier. A recent project that popped up called Dancing Alone Together serves as a central resource for the dance world during this time of “social distancing.” Dancing Alone Together does not host classes or events—it collects streamed classes, creative prompts, and dance films to make them easily accessible. Kelsey Leonard, one of Portland’s tap dance leaders and co-founder of Portland Tap Alliance, commented on widespread access to top-notch training being offered online from some of the world’s best dancers. “I’m feeling overwhelmed with the amount of free classes on Instagram every day. I mean, it’s like a tap festival every day,” Leonard said. “Some of the best dancers in the world are live-streaming free classes.” Though, the timing is ironic. The alliance has had to cancel the fifth annual Portland Tap Dance Festival that had been scheduled for late May. The annual event was started by Leonard and Portland Tap Alliance as a means to connect Portland to the international tap community with performances, classes, and contests over the span of long weekend. As the company’s main event of the year, “canceling the festival effectively ended our revenue steam,” Leonard told me over a chat on Facebook.
As happens in any transitional time, though, some unaccounted-for bumps in the road have arisen. Leonard, who also works for a local dance studio, noticed a drop in attendance (and therefore payment) for her regular tap classes that have now moved online. When she inquired about the drop to studio management, the news was less than pleasing: Parents said they didn’t see any reason to continue paying for dance classes when their children could utilize the free online resources from some of the world’s best. This choice (and given the spike in unemployment it’s understandable for many) during a time of crisis can shatter the local dance economy, depending upon how long the pandemic continues to rattle any semblance of normalcy left. For many dance artists, their paychecks depend on the number of classes they’ve taught, the gigs they’ve completed, and the commissions they’ve received. Portland parents: If your child is enrolled at a dance studio that offers continued classes online as part of their regular curriculum, support your local dance teachers and keep your kids in class, if you can afford it! Let the additional free classes online be a special treat to get your kids through this weird time. Eventually, COVID-19 will pass, and if we don’t band together through this crisis, your kid’s Saturday morning class might not be there when we’re on the other side.
Back in January, Shaun Keylock Studio opened its doors for the first time—a huge step forward for the young dance company founded by artistic director and Portland native Shaun Keylock. After two months of reveling in the new space, with company rehearsals in full-bloom for Keylock’s latest project and a slew of ballet, modern, and contemporary classes (one of which I teach) running, the team announced their closure on March 13, hoping to reopen in late spring. Though the unexpected closure and devastating reality of how this pandemic is affecting years’ worth of planning that went into the studio opening, Keylock’s instagram post regarding the closure offered a token of hope for all of us: “Only one thing is certain, dance is forever.”
For other teachers, there’s been an upsurge in support. Local dancer Elle Sevi, a company member of The Holding Project, also works as a teacher in both dance and various cross-training styles. At ModPhysique, where she teaches Pilates, a popular workout style that many dancers use to build necessary core strength, classes have moved online to a donation-based model. Sevi said that this opportunity has given her a larger reach in clientele, including a greater number of Portlanders as well as her family and friends who live across the country and world.
To keep her ballet students engaged at Studio One Dance Academy, Sevi is continuing to teach new material for their end-of-year performance by uploading the phrases online for her classes. Though the performances will likely be postponed, “it’s important that the kids can dance and have something to look forward to,” she says. Continued payment for her time teaching online classes varies from employer to employer. As many businesses are experiencing, the ongoing uncertainty in client retention, length of closures, and escalating budget deficits make estimating wages throughout the crisis a challenging balancing act.
For many smaller dance companies, which make up the largest portion of Portland’s dance scene, the economic hit is still up in the air with both the near and far future still wavering in uncertainty. Push/FOLD, led by artistic director Sam Hobbs, is in the middle of planning for the second annual Union PDX, a local, weekend-long festival set for November. “We are moving forward as if this all will pass before November,” Hobbs explained.
The company remains “somewhat hopeful that there will be an upsurge of interest in supporting the arts after the quarantines get lifted, but ultimately [we] don’t know,” Hobbs said. A number of other short-term plans for the company are on hold now.
It’s a similar tale for The Holding Project, which is in financial limbo as it temporarily suspends fundraisers and crowd-sourcing campaigns. Artistic director Amy Leona Havin explains what that looks like for her and her company dancers, who have lost their jobs outside of The Holding Project due to closures of businesses and community isolation. “I also have less income as an individual,” Havin said, “therefore leaving me unable to raise my company dancer pay to fill their current wage gaps.”
Havin is looking forward, though, with hope that the community will help support her company when we emerge post-COVID-19. “Donated rehearsal space and fiscal sponsorship are the two more important resources at this time,” she says with hope that The Holding Project can emerge from the “sudden and immense impact” on her company.
The temporary pause in regular company rehearsals and freelance gatherings puts a huge hit on local dance spaces as well. New Expressive Works has postponed until further notice its residency cycle performance that was originally set for May. Founder and director Subashini Ganesan (who wears many hats, including one as Portland’s Creative Laureate) said she’s anticipating that the artists who were in residence will need more time allotted for their creative work now that they’ve been stopped abruptly mid-process. “Creatively, everyone will most likely be in a different place after this is all over,” she says. “I’m respecting that the artists will need space and time to change and adapt. We’ll most likely start the residency over with a clean slate in the fall.”
In Foster/Powell, Portland’s beloved long-time dance performance and rehearsal space Performance Works Northwest is looking at a loss of $1K-$2K per month in rental cancellations and postponement of fundraisers. The company is in the midst of its 20th anniversary year, and the outbreak has put a pause on all celebration and fundraising efforts. A slew of other companies added their fundraisers to the seemingly endless “postponed until further notice” list, including NW Dance Project.
The financial hit that many freelancers and dance instructors are feeling right now may have a local remedy on the way, however. This past week, Portland’s Creative Laureate, Ganesan, and Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Kim Stafford, launched an emergency relief fund for independent and freelance artists in the tri-county area. The fund aims to assist those who are facing guaranteed lost income between March 18 and June 10. More information on the fund can be found here.
I chatted with Ganesan on the phone this morning to get an update on the fund. In the first week, the fund received 632 applications, 30 of which were dance-specific. Of those, 245 are receiving notice today that they will be receiving relief grants. The numbers are staggering: of just the 245 applicants who are receiving funding, $680,047 has been requested to cover the upcoming 90 days worth of freelance and independent artists’ projected loss of income. As of now, the relief fund has raised $95,000 to give directly to artists. That works out to roughly 14% of the requested amount to be allotted to the 245 selected artists in need.
When Ganesan and Stafford set out to create the relief fund two weeks ago, they didn’t realize how much data they’d be pulling in on independent and freelance artists in Portland. This is a sector of the community that is often shrouded in mystery to the public eye. Because of the nature of the work, the organization and strategic planning that goes into the life of a freelancer/ independent artist is often overlooked, especially within the dance community.
“There’s a lot of rich content being submitted as we collect stories from artists in their applications,” Ganesan said. “The big thing I’ve been gleaning is that for independent artists, the gatherings and events— the human interaction— is what builds more business. When large events, performances, touring, etc. get disrupted, it’s not about lost income—material loss—it’s about what strategies you have to build new relationships so that you can be seen in new places.”
Now is a good time to note that the $2 trillion federal emergency stimulus package passed this week included a few important provisions that directly affect the arts in America, as well as your charitable donations to nonprofit organizations during this time. An “above-the-line” or universal charitable giving incentive for contributions made in 2020 of up to $300 was included in the package. This provision will now allow all non-itemizer taxpayers (close to 90 percent of all taxpayers) to deduct charitable contributions from their tax return, an incentive previously unavailable to them. Additionally, the stimulus legislation lifts the existing cap on annual contributions for itemizers from 60 percent of adjusted gross income (AGI) to 100 percent of AGI for contributions made in 2020. In short, that translates to: If you have the means to support the arts during this incredibly challenging time, your donations will be 100 percent tax deductible for up to $300. The bill also includes Expanded Unemployment Insurance (UI) that includes coverage for furloughed workers, freelancers, and “gig economy” workers. That means an increase in UI payments by $600/week for four months, in addition to what one claims under a state unemployment program.
While the near future for dance in Portland seems to be confined to our cell phones and laptops, there’s still hope. I’ve seen at least 10 posts today calling the larger population to recognize the clear value of the arts during times like these. As we all hole up at home, there’s been an immediate indulgence in the arts: reading books, drawing, watching films, playing music, and of course, the one that requires nothing at all: dancing. So Portland, for the time being: Stay home, stay healthy, and keep dancing. As Keylock said, “One thing is certain, dance is forever.”