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A Dancer's Dilemma How six emerging performing artists are coping with the challenges of being an entertainer during a pandemic

By Sara Magalio

Introduction: COVID's Impact on the Performing Arts

The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted nearly every industry this year, with the performing arts being especially crippled by the inability of audiences to congregate in theaters to watch shows, and entertainers left in limbo as they were largely unable to train, audition, rehearse, and perform for many months.

According to a Brookings Institute study released in August, which collected and analyzed data from April through July, it is estimated that the creative industry has experienced “losses of 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services for creative industries nationwide, representing nearly a third of all jobs in those industries and 9% of annual sales.” The study also reported that the fine and performing arts industries have been the most negatively impacted, “suffering estimated losses of almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales. These estimated losses represent 50% of all jobs in those industries and more than a quarter of all lost sales nationwide.”

This Bloomberg video posted in September 2020 features Len Egert, the national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, sharing how devastating COVID has been for the performing arts.

Based on the Brookings study’s analysis of creative occupations, it estimates losses of more than 2.3 million jobs and $74 billion in average monthly earnings for the creative occupations, representing 30 percent of all creative occupations and 15 percent of total average monthly wages. “Again,” the study states, “creative occupations in the fine and performing arts—which include the visual arts, music, theater, and dance—will be disproportionally affected, representing roughly a third of wage employment losses.”

For performing artists such as dancers who are just beginning their careers, taking classes, auditioning, and just getting their faces to be recognizable to industry leaders are crucial components of building a successful professional presence. In this six-part series, six dancers who all began their pre-professional training at the Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas, Texas have since gone on to begin careers in various dance styles and across multiple cities in the United States. Aside from their collegiate training, these dancers all have one major component of their careers in common: the very beginnings of their professional dance journeys have been dramatically impacted by COVID-19. However, Jennifer, Kendall, Fallon, Takia, Reid, and Deepa have all proven that even when the show cannot go on, the persistence of the performing artist can prevail, and dancers can still find creative ways to share the art of dance.

Part 1: Jennifer

Jennifer Nelson in Central Park, New York City (Photo by Chantel Erin, 2019)

Right after Jennifer Nelson graduated from college in 2018, she did what many dancers do at the start of their careers—she moved to New York City. Nelson was thrilled to have already landed an apprenticeship with Parsons Dance, an internationally recognized contemporary dance company. From the very start, her career was looking up.

Shortly after moving to New York, with the free time in her schedule, she began freelancing and doing various dance and acting gigs to supplement her work with Parsons. Nelson wound up signing with an agent and manager at the DDO Artists Agency in early 2019, and she was even featured in a Delta Airlines commercial that was advertised across New York.

“I really started to hone in on acting and freelance dance work, which gave me the flexibility and variety in the performing arts that I was looking for,” Nelson said.

Then COVID hit, and Nelson’s emerging career halted. The lull in performance work prompted her to return home to her parents’ house in Virginia, where she stayed for five months before moving back to New York in late August. Now, she lives in an apartment in Prospect Heights in the Brooklyn area with one roommate, and she is working to build her career remotely.

Left: Jennifer Nelson in Brooklyn, New York (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Nelson, 2018)

While she was in Virginia, a friend told her about dancers joining the popular video sharing app TikTok as a method of self promotion for dancers, but Nelson said she was initially very against joining the platform.

“I think there’s something about being a classically trained dancer and feeling like doing more cutesy dances on TikTok doesn’t feel like an actually serious pursuit,” Nelson said. “But after the boredom really set in at home, I downloaded the app and started just having fun, and it’s actually become a really great way for me to market myself as an actor and dancer."

Jennifer’s TikTok account has 196.9K followers and 3.3 million likes. Her top TikToks, which feature her mom and her dancing, clock in at over 2 million views. Jennifer has received various brand deals as a result, and tries to make a TikTok post each day to keep up her presence.

Above: Jennifer Nelson and her mom dance the "Pick it Up" TikTok challenge. TikTok posted on March 30, 2020.

“I was so surprised when some of my TikToks started to go viral, because it’s such a highly saturated platform full of young girls dancing, but I guess you never know,” Nelson said. “I’m just happy that I found something that’s fun to keep me entertained during quarantine, that is also helping me to build my brand while I’m in isolation and not able to audition or take in-person classes."

Background: Jennifer Nelson in New York City (Photo by John Deamara, 2019)

TikTok even helped Nelson to book a gig choreographing a short film in New York. The film director hired Nelson to work on his video based on his viewing her TikTok account posts.

Above: "LYTD" short film (Video via Gino Click Vimeo, 2020)

“Everything I do on TikTok is actually very strategic,” Nelson explained. “For instance, I put the more fun, trendy dances that get a lot of views in between my more serious dance videos that showcase my choreography, so that people who find my account see that I’m a serious, trained dancer once the more fun clips pull them into checking out my account.”

Background: Jennifer Nelson in New York City (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Nelson, 2018)

Nelson noted that once the pandemic restrictions abate and she is able to get back into the studio, she wants to refocus on pursuing a career in more classical techniques such as ballet, modern, contemporary and jazz. For now, though, Nelson said she recognizes that apps like TikTok are the future of entertainment marketing, and she thinks that she will keep up her TikTok presence as a means of marketing herself as a performing artist.

“I honestly think that dancers who are ignoring these trends and choosing not to build their social media presences are doing themselves a disservice,” Nelson said. “Why would you not take advantage of a free way to show yourself and your art to the world, especially when in-person auditions and classes aren’t currently a thing?”

Background: Jennifer Nelson performing in Dallas, Texas (Photo by Cayla Simpson, 2017)

Nelson also mentioned that filming for TikTok is good practice for auditioning for acting gigs during COVID, which she said have almost exclusively involved filming herself doing scenes and then sending the clips to casting directors. While chatting over FaceTime from Nelson’s tiny New York apartment, she showed off her miniature acting studio, complete with a blanket nailed to the wall as a backdrop and a small ring light ordered from Amazon to enhance the ambiance of her bedroom corner.

“There’s this added technique you have to develop now when auditioning, because I’m trained in dance and acting, but definitely not in cinematography or video editing, so I’ve had to really teach myself how to create content that looks at least semi-professional just to get noticed in this new world of virtual auditioning,” Nelson said.

Nelson noted that in a world where massive, “cattle-call” style auditions are no longer the norm, she has had to rely on connections to book jobs and build her career.

“It’s frustrating to be getting jobs in this more informal way as a person who is super into planning and is detail oriented, but I’ve had to learn to go with the flow more for sure,” Nelson commented.

Right: Jennifer Nelson in New York City (Photo by John Deamara, 2019)

Fitness is a huge factor for dancers, who are constantly striving to maintain their peak physical condition. Nelson said she has become obsessed with CorePower Yoga's on demand virtual platform as a way to stay in shape. She even participated in a 12-week virtual training course with the company to become a certified teacher and make money while keeping in shape.

“I’m the type of person that has to move every day and really gets a lot of my happiness from moving my body and getting those endorphins going,” Nelson said. "Doing and teaching virtual workout classes during COVID has really become a way for me to both keep my body in top condition for dance and find happiness and fulfillment while staying in.”

Another way that Nelson keeps busy is by utilizing her dual degree in advertising through a part-time job in marketing with Mirror, a new at-home fitness system that enables users to take a myriad of fitness classes from a screen that doubles as a full-length mirror.

“They mailed me a Mirror more for research, but I’ve found myself using it regularly and really loving it, because there’s so many different fitness classes you can take,” Nelson said.

Left: Jennifer Nelson in New York City (Photo by Chantel Erin, 2019)

While Nelson enjoys workout classes as a “mindless” way to keep her body moving, she finds that remote dance classes are far less fulfilling, because of the emotional and artistic components that are lost when she is not able to move and connect with other dancers in a shared space.

“In a dance class, I’m already emotional, because I have an emotional connection to dance,” Nelson said. “I have found myself shying away from taking virtual dance classes as a result, because I’ve found myself tearing up during classes when I’m trying to move and dance my heart out, but my situation and the space I’m working with is just not allowing me to do that. It feels like a piece of me has been taken away when that happens.”

Background: Jennifer Nelson in New York City (Photo by John Deamara, 2019)

In the future, Nelson is planning to continue auditioning for any dance or acting gigs that come her way during COVID and beyond, and she hopes to continue forging the connections that will help her to emerge on the audition scene stronger than ever when casting directors are able to work with dancers and actors in person again.

“It’s all about getting seen with these casting directors,” Nelson said. “It’s literally their job to see you and remember you maybe not even for the specific gig you’re auditioning for, but for another project that they may be thinking about months or even years down the line. So I am going to just keep plugging away and sending in these videos, because I know from experience that persistence is key, and I’m not going to let COVID slow me down or take away my dreams of performing again.”

Background: Jennifer Nelson in Brooklyn, New York (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Nelson, 2018)

Part 2: Kendall

Kendall Lockhart for Ballet Dallas (Photo by DFW Dance Photography, 2020)

After graduating college in 2019, Kendall Lockhart didn’t get the major audition season that many ballet dancers participate in to kickstart their careers. However, through a connection with one of her ballet professors, Lockhart was able to audition for Ballet Dallas directly after graduation and was offered a contract with the company. Still, Lockhart feels as though she has missed out on presenting herself to more ballet companies through the national round of ballet auditions that normally happens each year, which were nearly all canceled or rescheduled due to COVID-19.

“This has been something that I’ve wanted to speak on, but there’s been so much going on in the world that I feel guilty talking about the difficulties that have been going on in the dance world, but this is still a story that needs to be shared,” Lockhart said.

Lockhart enjoyed the work that she got to do for the fall 2019 season with Ballet Dallas, and she acknowledges how getting to build her professional career so quickly after college is an opportunity that not many dancers get.

“I am really grateful that I got the job with this company right out of college, where I could hone my ballet technique even more and get my body to the level where I could audition for companies across the country by working in this professional capacity,” Lockhart said.

Left: Kendall Lockhart for Ballet Dallas (Photo by DFW Dance Photography, 2020)

Lockhart auditioned for various ballet companies across the country from the fall of 2019 all the way up until the pandemic hit. She was determined to get herself noticed by as many companies as possible as quickly as she could after graduation, and her initiative paid off in a big way when her audition season was cut short due to COVID.

“When auditions started being canceled, I was like oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” Lockhart said. “The audition tour is such an important part of starting a career in ballet, and I was really nervous about my career being set back, because I wasn’t going to get the chance to show myself to the companies that I had been working towards.”

Luckily, one of the last dance companies that Lockhart auditioned for before the pandemic hit was Memphis-based Collage Dance Collective, who reached out to her after her October 2019 audition and asked for a callback. Lockhart wound up doing a Zoom callback audition with the company in March, and afterward she was offered a full-time position with the company.

Collage is presenting a fully virtual season of performances this fall and winter, which Lockhart is a part of. Performances will be broadcasted by offering a subscription for people which costs $11 a month for full access to their performance library, dancer highlights, full-length performances, and shorter dance clips.

Right: Kendall Lockhart in Dallas (Photo courtesy of Kendall Lockhart, 2019)

Lockhart shared that in this Zoom audition, she completed an online class that was live, and also learned choreography live so that the casting director could test how fast the dancers could pick up sequences of dance steps. After that, the dancers had to film themselves doing the routine, send the footage to the company, and then Collage evaluated the recordings and made final hiring decisions.

Lockhart revealed that she was teaching at the Dallas Conservatory studios at the time of the audition, so she was fortunately able to rent a private studio space that allowed her to have enough room to complete the audition choreography to her fullest potential. Also, since this Zoom audition happened right at the beginning of the pandemic in March, before Zoom had become a tool that most people felt comfortable using, this caused a multitude of technical issues to arise.

“When I was on Zoom I could see other dancers trying to go full out in the audition in their kitchens and living rooms, doing kicks over couches and using their kitchen chairs as ballet barres,” Lockhart said. “It was amazing to see the resilience of everyone to do their best and make it work even with these difficult circumstances.”

Background: Kendall Lockhart for Ballet Dallas (Photo by DFW Dance Photography, 2020)

Lockhart noted that while space was not an issue for her, she experienced internet connectivity issues, causing her screen and audio to lag as she was trying to listen to and watch the audition.

“It was very nerve-racking, because my screen was lagging on their end, so you feel like you’re not putting your best foot forward and presenting yourself professionally to a dance company when they can’t see you dance clearly,” Lockhart said. “I was terrified of getting cut because of my computer and not my dancing."

Her computer problems proved to not hold her back; however, because Lockhart was offered a position with the company in March, and she moved to Memphis for the start of their now virtual season in September. While dancing in Tennessee, Lockhart has enjoyed a relatively normal dance schedule. She has daily, socially distanced rehearsals and company classes, in which the dancers complete temperature checks, wear face masks, and also undergo regular testing for COVID.

Background: Kendall Lockhart for Ballet Dallas (Photo by DFW Dance Photography, 2020)

Going into her work with Collage, Lockhart had already been wearing masks in class over the summer in Dallas, so that made it a bit easier for her to acclimate to rehearsal life in her new company.

“There have been times though where I feel like I’m almost about to pass out, but for the most part, when you don’t have a choice and it’s important for everyone’s safety, you make it work,” Lockhart said.

There have been times when Lockhart has the studio to herself and is able to practice without her mask, and she said she can really feel the difference then with how much stamina she has built up from dancing in a mask.

Prior to moving to Memphis and working with Collage, though, Lockhart stayed in shape by taking virtual ballet classes every day.

“It was a really funny experience with my roommate over those first few months,” Lockhart said. “Because she was working from home on her headset, and in the background you could see me doing ballet exercises at the kitchen counter.”

Background: Kendall Lockhart for Ballet Dallas (Photo by DFW Dance Photography, 2020)

After about a month and a half, Ballet Dallas transitioned back to the studio for socially distanced, in-person classes combined with virtual work.

“The consistency was difficult between virtual an in-person classes,” Lockhart noted. “When you’re taking a virtual class, you don’t have the space, and you’re missing the energy of having other dancers moving in the room with you. There’s a different level of discipline that you need to succeed with virtual training.”

Above: Video of Kendall Lockhart rehearsing with Ballet Dallas (Video courtesy of Kendall Lockhart, 2019)

While taking a class in front of a camera is no longer an issue for Lockhart, performing for a lens instead of an audience has presented a whole new obstacle for this classically trained ballerina. Lockhart shared that performing for the camera requires a completely different performance quality, and a whole new level of stamina for her body, since she now has to do the same small sections in performance mode over and over again to perfect the shot.

“For as long as I have been a dancer, which is most of my life, I have been a concert dancer,” Lockhart said. “Now, I’m having to adapt to essentially be a commercial dancer and perform for a camera instead of a live audience. Also, with recorded performances, it’s not like with a live show where you get one chance and then you’re done. With virtual shows, we are recording sections and pieces multiple times over and over again for different camera angles, so that has really been a test of my stamina.”

Left: Kendal Lockhart for Ballet Dallas (Photo by DFW Dance Photography, 2020)

Lockhart says these additional camera angles are necessary to keep audiences engaged and interested in the work as they stare at a screen, which she feels is much easier to do when the audience is experiencing all of the sights and sounds of a performance in person.

Lockhart will be featured in Collage's virtual performances premiering on December 14th, 2020, including the company’s rendition of the classic ballet “Swan Lake” and their original, holiday show, “'Tis the Season.” She is thrilled that even in the midst of COVID, she has still been given the opportunity to do what she loves most–perform ballets.

“It’s a really hard time for performing artists,” Lockhart said. “It’s really devastating to have worked basically your whole life to get to the professional level, to where you can make a living doing your art, and then this pandemic hits, and you can’t do that anymore. I am just so blessed and happy to have found a company that wants to continue and find ways to support their dancers.”

Right: Kendall Lockhart for Collage Dance Collective (Photo by Raphael Baker, 2020)

Part 3: Fallon

Fallon Reedy (Photo by Nic Ricci, 2015)

Immediately after graduating college in 2017, Fallon Reedy set her sights for the high seas. Reedy, who has had a passion for musical theater dance for as long as she can remember, spent her first summer post graduation in Dallas doing a dance gig for Mary Kay cosmetics. During that summer, she also auditioned for and signed a contract with Norwegian Cruise Line to dance on their ships. Dancing on cruises is a popular way for emerging dancers specializing in musical theater and jazz dance to build their resumes, while getting to see the world and doing what they love at the same time.

Reedy signed three different contracts with Norwegian back to back. She first set sail on their Alaskan cruises porting out of Seattle, and then she ported out of New Orleans to Mexico, Honduras and various regions in Central America. In her last two contracts, Reedy got even more international travel experience, sailing to Mediterranean countries including Italy, Spain, and Greece. She also toured with Norwegian’s Baltic cruises, through Norway, Finland, Greenland, and Iceland. In 2020, her career ground swiftly to a halt when COVID docked cruises indefinitely.

“I was set actually to go onto another ship in March, and then COVID hit and all of the cruising had been stopped,” Reedy said.

Left: Fallon Reedy on stage for a Mary Kay show (Photo by Christian Waits, 2017)

“I miss the traveling so much,” Reedy continued. “I have talked with some of my friends who I performed with on the cruises and for some of them the quarantine has made them really appreciate being home, and they’ve realized that they maybe don’t want to go back to cruise life when that’s a possibility again. It makes sense, because it really is a different world, you’re sleeping in bunk beds and sharing a room and there’s definitely not as much personal space as there is on land. But for me, it’s been the opposite.”

Reedy explained that getting to travel the world, even if it’s not with the most luxurious accommodations, has been one of her favorite parts of being a cruise line dancer. She is looking forward to when she can leave her home in Mobile, Alabama and dance at sea again.

“I have such bad travel fever. I want to be able to go to these amazing places again. I do love being home and being with my family, but once you have that travel bug you just want to keep going,” Reedy said.

Right: Fallon Reedy in Chichén-Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico while on contract with Norwegian Cruise Line (Photo courtesy of Fallon Reedy, 2018)

For now, though, Reedy has landed an opportunity dancing on land. She is currently performing as a backup dancer with Legends in Concert, a Las Vegas-based company that specializes in tribute artist performances, and has locations across the country.

Reedy feels fortunate to have been cast with the company at their Foley, Alabama location, which is one of only a few Legends shows that are functioning right now with COVID restrictions. Reedy explained that the theater is kept to half capacity, with every other row left empty, and audience members are required to wear masks during the shows.

“I loved this last show, it was all good music and really fun to dance to,” Reedy said. “Also, the audiences have been so great about being receptive to the new requirements and following the rules of the theater.”

Reedy explained that she previously performed a Legends in Concert show on a Norwegian ship, and that connection helped her to be quickly cast in this land-based production that is being performed in a theater just an hour from Mobile.

Background: Fallon Reedy (left) with cast members aboard a Norwegian cruise (Photo courtesy of Fallon Reedy, 2018)

“I saw on social media that the Elvis impersonator that I was working with on the ship was down in Alabama, and I reached out just out of curiosity to ask him what he was doing down here,” Reedy said. “I came to find out that he was actually performing in a Legends in Concert show right by where I’m living at the moment, and I was like, well if you know of any openings for dancers please let me know! It so happened to be that there was an opening in the dance troupe, so I sent over my reel to the dance captain and the rest is history!”

“It was crazy how my two worlds of cruise life and my hometown happened to collide and enabled me to keep dancing even at this time where it’s so difficult to find a job in dance,” she continued.

Above: Fallon Reedy performs a solo with a George Michael tribute artist at an October 2020 Legends in Concert show in Foley, Alabama. (Video courtesy of Fallon Reedy, 2020)

Word of mouth has become a major way that dancers are now booking gigs, because the traditional casting method involving auditions with hundreds of dancers is just not something that is available at the moment. This has also caused the dance video reel to become an indispensable tool for dancers to market themselves in this new virtual world.

“Luckily, I had just updated my dance reel, because Norwegian likes us to update our dance films after every contract with them, so they are up to date when potentially hiring us for the next contract. It’s been interesting how through connections and sending in virtual auditions and reels, my coworkers and I have been able to stay viable in the job market,” Reedy said.

Background: Fallon Reedy at the Norwegian Creative Studios in Riverview, Florida (Photo courtesy of Fallon Reedy, 2017)

In the rehearsal process for her current show, Reedy noted that since there is only a cast of four dancers, they have been able to form a type of “COVID cohort isolation pod” that allows them to rehearse their dancing and singing roles without masks. Earlier on in the summer, however, the cast mainly operated through virtual rehearsals to learn the choreography.

The cast has also found ways to shorten rehearsals to limit exposure. For instance, they will go into the studio to learn a routine, and then the dance captain will film the choreography and send it to the dancers so that they can rehearse individually if need be.

Reedy also noted that she knows that part of the reason of why she is able to perform at all right now is because she is dancing for a larger entertainment company that is able to absorb the cost of operating at limited capacity.

“Obviously those smaller modern and ballet companies can’t really afford to book a theater at half capacity, because they need all of the ticket money they can get,” Reedy said. “With a bigger company like Legends, it’s a bit easier for them to take the hit, and they’ve told us that they are losing a bit of money by keeping some shows going at limited capacity, but they’ve said that they think it’s worth it, because they have to start rebuilding somehow.”

Background: Fallon Reedy performs in Dallas, Texas (Photo courtesy of Fallon Reedy, 2016)

Reedy’s other passion aside from dance is fitness instruction, which has also been dramatically impacted by the ongoing pandemic. She has been a certified Barre3 instructor since the summer before her junior year of college. During school, Fallon was mainly substitute teaching classes in her free time, and when she was touring internationally she was was not teaching at all. But now, she has started teaching on a more regular basis in the company’s Mobile studio.

“When I started out after returning home for the start of quarantine, the studio was closed for in-person classes. So I wound up teaching classes virtually so people could take classes from their homes. Luckily, they opened the studios up to the instructors, so that we could go into the studio, and I didn’t have to try to teach from a cramped space like my bedroom,” Reedy explained.

Reedy said that teaching for a computer screen was definitely an adjustment, but she was surprised with how quickly she became used to instructing in this way.

“What was really strange was that after so many weeks of teaching just to a computer screen and being in the studio by myself, when I finally was interacting with people in class again I felt like I had forgotten how to really teach and be social with the students. It was so strange and interesting, but it was so nice to finally get a bit back to normal,” Reedy said.

In the last few weeks, the Mobile studio has opened at half capacity. Thirteen masked people can be in the studio at a time. Barre3 also still does a livestream of the classes for those who do not want to or are not able to take classes in person.

Left: Fallon Reedy teaching during a Barre3 class (Photo courtesy of Fallon Reedy, 2020)

While Reedy has no problem maintaining her fitness regimen due to her work with Barre3, she admits that keeping up her dance training through virtual classes has been far more difficult.

“I honestly found it really unmotivating to dance in my living room,” Reedy said. “One of the things that I love about dance is being around other dancers, because I’m a competitive person and I love to feel that competitive energy from the other dancers in the room, whether it’s a class or an audition. The camaraderie of being in an in-person class is amazing. You really feel pushed by the other talent in the room to give it your all.”

So Fallon has been focusing on her fitness, and her rehearsals with Legends have allowed her to get back into dance and stay in dance shape for future jobs.

“I really lucked out with Legends, because now I’m not only getting paid to dance, which is a rarity right now, but I’m also just getting to dance with other people which is such a blessing,” she explained.

Right: Fallon Reedy outside the Legends in Concert venue in Foley, Alabama (Photo courtesy of Fallon Reedy, 2020)

Looking to the future, Reedy said that she has maintained contact with Norwegian throughout the pandemic, and her goal is to continue working with the company again when that is a possibility.

"Norwegian has been really good about keeping in touch with us cast members," Reedy said. "They’ve had several Zoom calls with us to see how we are doing and gauge interest, since they are obviously going through a crisis as well of figuring out how to bring back their talent and determine if they will need to hold more auditions to recast these shows.”

Reedy revealed that Norwegian hopes to sail out ships as early as January 2021, and that the company would send her out on one of the first three ships that sets sail after the initial lockdowns. Of course, things are still up in the air right now.

“It’s definitely going to be different,” Reedy said. “They’ve told us that if we are on the ship, we might not be able to get off in port because there might be different protocols in different locations. Also, they are going to do their best to keep the crew isolated to limit the spread, if there ever is spread. I think that it will still be worth it for me, because although I’ve loved dancing with Legends in Alabama, the caliber of dancing is not on par with what I had on the ships, so it will definitely be nice to get back to that level again.”

Left: Fallon Reedy with a Norwegian cruise liner that she performed on (Photo courtesy of Fallon Reedy, 2017)

Part 4: Takia

Takia Hopson (Photo by ShotByMK Atlanta, 2020)

After graduating college in 2019, the last thing Takia Hopson wanted to do was move back to Atlanta. Hopson wanted to follow the more traditional route for emerging dancers and move to New York City or Los Angeles to begin her career, but she decided that fiscally it made more sense to return home for the time being .

“That’s the idea that’s placed in your head as a young dancer,” Hopson explained. “That you have to move to New York or LA to make it big, so I wasn’t necessarily happy to be moving back to Atlanta, but I came to realize that I was being a bit naïve with that sentiment, because Atlanta truly has so much to offer when it comes to the arts.”

Hopson also noted that Atlanta is very much an emerging city in terms of its notoriety as a dance hotspot.

“If you had asked me about dance in Atlanta in my freshman year in college, I would not be saying what I am now,” Hopson said. “This has all really happened in the last few years, that now you’re hearing dancers say that they want to move to Atlanta to further their careers.”

Left: Takia Hopson in Dallas, Texas (Photo by KlearCut Media, 2019)

Hopson’s perspective really shifted as she began to take classes and audition in the city, where she began to find increasing opportunity. During her first summer out of college, she auditioned to be a guest performer in a live performance with Atlanta-based Komansé Dance Theater called “SKID.” This show focuses on the history of police brutality in the United States, and the history and culture of the Black community in Atlanta. The piece was featured in a fall festival put on by the City of Atlanta in October 2019.

Above: Promotional video for "SKID" (Video via Komansé's YouTube page, 2019)

Hopson performing during "SKID" (Photo by Kemi Griffin Photography, 2019)

Working with Komansé on this project, Hopson developed a relationship with the company’s artistic director, Raianna Brown, who then brought her on board for a project filming a music video for hip-hop duo EarthGang’s song “Up.” This was Hopson’s first work on a major music video, which has over 1 million views on YouTube. The video also required Hopson to be in complete prosthetic makeup for her role as an alien.

Adove: Music video for EarthGang's "Up" (2019) WARNING: explicit language

Left: A closeup shot in the music video shows Hopson's prosthetic makeup (Still from video via EarthGang's YouTube channel, 2019)

Hopson was able to book a few additional performance gigs over the next few months, and then COVID hit, and work essentially stopped. Hopson was furloughed from her job as a front desk worker at SoulCycle, but she continued to teach virtual classes for local dance studios. In the past few weeks, these studios have transitioned to hybrid models, with children taking classes in person or online.

“I really don’t like teaching combined virtual and in-person classes, because it can be so easy to forget about the people on Zoom and being really clear for them,” Hopson said. “Also technologically there is always something wrong. And we’re talking about young kids. It’s hard enough to get their attention in person.”

Right: Takia Hopson in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo by ShotByMK Atlanta, 2020)

During the pandemic, aside from teaching dance, commercial dance gigs have been a mainstay to Hopson’s furthering her dance career. Most notably, Hopson was cast as a backup dancer for rappers DaBaby and Young Thug’s hit song “BLIND.” She shared details about filming a music video during a pandemic and the added stress that is piled on to an already fast-paced production schedule.

For this project, Hopson was informed that she was cast in the video late on a Friday evening, she learned the choreography for the video in just four hours on that Saturday, and filmed the final product on Sunday. The dancers also had to rehearse in small groups and wear masks, which made the work even more taxing, though she was happy to see that the production company implemented enhanced social distancing, cleaning, and testing protocols. Dancers were also required to do their own hair and makeup to limit contact while on the set.

Above: Official music video for "BLIND" (2020) WARNING: explicit content

“I was so grateful just to be working and moving again,” Hopson said. “It’s gotten a lot more selective to be cast in a video now. They have to pick and use exactly who they want and can’t bring any extra dancers to the set. So they have to really want to use you if they choose to hire you.”

Left: Hopson on set for the "BLIND" music video (Photo by Damn Johnnie, 2020)

Hopson has also kept busy through the pandemic by using her dual degree in journalism to do editorial work for the newly founded Black Artists Dance Collective, an organization founded with the goal of uplifting the Black dance community in Atlanta. Hopson reaches out to Atlanta dance studios and organizations to get them involved with the collective, which was founded over the summer during quarantine, making the opportunity for connections that this organization provides even more crucial.

“There’s a lot of talented young dancers of color in this city, but not a lot of avenues at the moment for those dancers to connect with the varying opportunities that are open to them,” Hopson said. “So our goal with this collective is to facilitate these connections, and to connect the Black dance community in Atlanta with the rest of the world.”

Background: Takia Hopson for Luna Dancewear (Photo courtesy of Takia Hopson, 2017)

“At the end of the day, it’s about these dancers and what they need,” Hopson continued. “I feel like sometimes the voices of the youth get overshadowed and they’re told what they need, but with our work we are trying to create a way for them to amplify their voices and make their concerns and needs heard.”

The collective has been working to create a historical repository of Black choreographers, along with a directory of Black-owned studios, hair and makeup artists, photographers for headshots, visual artists, and safe studio spaces. The organization also provides nutritional and self-care workshops, and shares talks with successful dancers who are from Atlanta and are performing around the world.

“Even with the lockdown, I feel like there’s this fire within the artists in Atlanta,” Hopson said. “There’s a huge contemporary and concert dance presence as well in the city that I think sometimes gets overshadowed or overlooked because hip-hop is so big here. But those people are always creating, whether that’s a show or a dance video, which is becoming more prominent now.”

Background: Takia Hopson in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo by ShotByMK Atlanta, 2020)

While helping to grow the Black Artists Dance Collective, Hopson also worked on a YouTube video with 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, and LightSkinKeisha, where she was featured as a stepper. This video was a part of YouTube’s virtual HBCU homecoming initiative and the Revolt Summit x AT&T virtual event series. Hopson explained that for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), homecomings are normally a very big part of university life for these schools, but many of these events were impacted this year due to COVID-19. YouTube stepped in to create a virtual homecoming to bring awareness and funding to these universities.

Above: HBCU Homecoming performance featuring 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, and LightSkinKeisha (Video via Revolt TV, 2020)

“It’s so cool to see all of these companies and organizations using film to promote art now, because you really get to see the art form progress and even more people getting to enjoy it,” Hopson said.

In November, Hopson also worked at the polls with the New Georgia Project, which works to help Georgia residents register to vote, get informed about their local elections, and provide transportation to help people get to the polls and make their voices heard. Hopson was a part of their event “Party at the Polls,” in which they hire dancers to perform for the people on line to vote and entertain the crowds to keep morale up in the potentially long waits.

“It was so amazing to feel like you’re making a difference while dancing,” Hopson said.

Most recently, Hopson has been able to realize her goal of performing more classical dance techniques, as she was brought on as a full-time dancer for Komansé Dance Theater in November. To join the company, Hopson had to send in a virtual dance reel of her performing, a tool in the dancer’s arsenal that has become increasingly important to hone.

“It’s been weird to audition digitally, because all we were ever taught was to get in the auditioner’s face and make yourself seen,” Hopson said. “I have realized though that with all of the film experience I have been getting, it's becoming more comfortable for me to perform for the camera instead of an audience. You just have to create that energy that the audience normally provides in yourself.”

Background: Hopson (left) for Komansé Dance Theater (Photo by Shocphoto, 2020)

Looking to the future, Hopson said that she is excited to have the opportunity to perform both concert and commercial dance, which allows her to truly feel artistically fulfilled as a dancer.

“I feel like my heart is in concert dance. I have trained for so many years in classical dance, and I want to be able to utilize that,” Hopson explained. “The commercial stuff is fun, and especially with today’s virtual climate it’s a very important component of my career, but I really love dancing in theaters and moving in a more expansive way. Ideally I’d like to make both work."

While Hopson said that she will probably move out of Atlanta one day to a larger city for dance like New York or LA, right now, with the challenges of being a dancer during COVID in mind, she’s fine with where she is and doing what she is doing.

“I’m happy when I’m always dancing and have work to do, and I’m grateful that even with COVID I’ve still been able to book gigs,” Hopson said. “It’s also great to see that as the reputation of Atlanta dancers grows, the pay has also increased for our work, making dance a more viable career in Atlanta.”

Left: Takia Hopson in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo by JWRPhotography LLC, 2019)

Part 5: Reid

Reid Conlon (Photo by Michael Kushner, 2018)

Reid Conlon has always dreamed of being a modern dancer in New York City. Once he graduated from college in 2017, he immediately moved to New York to fulfill that dream, as a newly hired apprentice with the Elisa Monte Dance Company. Conlon performed with Elisa Monte for about a year, and then wound up leaving that company to pursue other opportunities in dance.

“After Elisa Monte I did some sporadic gigs here and there,” Conlon said. “I was religiously checking the Dance NYC audition information website to see new opportunities that I could find.”

Through his freelancing work, Conlon connected with the Amy Marshall Dance Company, where he was hired as a full-time member of their troupe. He had been dancing with the company for just over a year when COVID hit, and performances in New York were indefinitely canceled.

Left: Conlon performs a solo while at SMU in Dallas, Texas (Photo by Paul Phillips, 2017)

During lockdown, the company did convert recordings of one of their pieces into a dance film, but dwindling resources and the prolonged lockdown prompted the company to temporarily halt major operations until in-person performances can resume again.

“It is not ideal at all, taking classes and trying to connect with dance companies virtually,” Conlon said.

Above: Reid Conlon improvises in a New York City dance studio (Video courtesy of Reid Conlon, 2019)

Conlon has since moved back home to Michigan, and he is taking cardio and online ballet classes at the moment to stay in shape, while working a retail job to pay the bills during his dance hiatus.

“I feel like I got more into the fitness side rather than the dance side of cross training during the pandemic,” Conlon explained. “Pre covid, I was going to the gym a lot, and I had a very regimented workout routine to keep myself in peak condition for the stage. And then when the pandemic hit, working out and training in a tiny New York apartment was definitely a challenge, but I was motivated at that time to keep working toward my goals.”

Right: Conlon (left) poses for a promotional photo for SMU. (Photo courtesy of Reid Conlon, 2017)

Moving back to his childhood home has not necessarily helped the situation, as sharing a home with multiple family members and pets still creates limited space to move around.

“Because I’m in a house with five other people and pets and furniture, it just becomes really hard to actually find space to move my body," Conlon said. "Since I don’t really have the space to do dance classes, I’ve really been trying to keep my body in check by doing other things.”

Conlon is currently trying to determine whether or not moving back to New York is the right decision for him. He had initially set a tentative date of moving back to New York in January, because at that time it was being estimated that Broadway would reopen then. Now he’s not so sure if moving back that soon is the right move.

“Because it hasn’t really gotten better, and if Broadway is now not going to open until June of 2021, and there’s really not going to be auditions happening necessarily, my partner and I are now seriously considering postponing our move back to New York, if we go back at all,” Conlon said. “Of course I want to dance. Of course I want to do what I went to college for. But I’m also like, well what if that’s no longer an option? What else am I good at? What else could I do?"

Background: Reid Conlon on stage in Dallas, Texas (Photo courtesy of Reid Conlon, 2017)

Conlon has even been considering hanging up his dance shoes and branching into a different profession, as the likelihood of modern dance jobs being regularly accessible in the near future is becoming increasingly unlikely.

“When I went to SMU, I didn’t double major in anything, which is probably one of the biggest mistakes that I’ve made in my life,” Conlon said. “I really should have figured out what I am going to call a safety major, that I could fall back on if dance didn’t work out. I was just so invested in pursuing dance in college that I didn’t think it was necessary in the moment, and of course I could have never predicted what is going on in the world now.”

Conlon has been thinking about returning to school for interior design, because he feels like that profession has a lot of creative and artistic components involved. He said that he is also interested in working in the hospitality industry, as a hotel concierge for example, because he notes that service industry jobs such as these do require a level of entertainment, even if it is far toned down from what he is used to on the stage.

“I’m going to call hospitality a type of performing, because you are interacting with people every day with the goal of providing satisfaction. So I think that this could be an alternative way that I could find a fulfilling career,” Conlon said.

Background: Reid Conlon (left) for SMU Dance (Photo by Paul Phillips, 2015)

Overall, Conlon said that being in this state of limbo has been particularly anxiety inducing, because he never imagined that he would find himself in a situation where having regular access to performance opportunities was not a possibility.

“Definitely with COVID happening, I’ve been feeling the pressure of figuring out what I really want to do with my life,” Conlon said. “It’s honestly been super anxiety inducing, terrorizing my every moment, because I feel like I am just floundering with no real sense of direction since dance has been taken from me. My time has really been spent deep in thought, assessing all of my options, whether that’s changing my life completely, or making my old life work.”

Left: Conlon performs a solo during SMU's Senior Dance Concert (Photo by Paul Phillips, 2017)

Part 6: Deepa

Deepa Liegel (Photo by Pete Saloutos, 2020)

When Deepa Liegel began her professional dance career after graduating college in 2017, she was in the position that many aspiring modern dancers can only dream of. Liegel had already landed a position as an apprentice with the world-renowned Limón Dance Company in New York City, and she moved to New York in the fall of 2017 to begin working with the dance troupe.

Because the hours were relatively minimal for her apprentice position, Liegel freelanced a lot, and she was also able to pursue one of her other dance passions, classical Indian dance. She performed with Barkha Dance Company, who specialize in Kathak style Indian dance, for the entirety of her time with Limón and beyond.

“I bounced around New York, took classes, and jumped on literally any opportunity that I could get in performance,” Liegel said. “Because that’s what you do your first year in New York as a dancer, you don’t know anyone, so you do everything to make those connections.”

Left: Deepa Liegel in New York City (Photo by Apertura Dance Photography, 2019)

Then, after leaving Limón, Liegel got her big break when she joined another renowned modern dance company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, full time. She danced with the company for a year and a half, before leaving the company in January 2020 to pursue yet another dance love of hers, musical theater. Liegel was in the thick of auditioning for multiple Broadway and touring productions when the pandemic hit, and her already impressive dance career was interrupted.

“At first we in the NYC dance community were like, oh great, this will be a nice two-week break when we can all rest our legs and get energized to get back out there, then two weeks turned into two months, and then six months, and now here we are,” Liegel said.

Right: Deepa Liegel (left) performs in Mark Morris' "Hard Nut" holiday show (Photo by Mat Hayward, 2019)

By the end of April, when it became clear that performing in New York would not be resuming again any time soon, Liegel began to focus more on her secondary jobs, teaching pilates and ballet cardio classes virtually as a way to make money and stay in shape.

One issue, especially with taking dance classes, was the lack of space in the minuscule NYC apartment that she shared with two roommates and trying to find space to take dance classes that normally eat up the space of massive studios.

“I would just get so frustrated. I felt like, if I can’t move, what’s the point of even doing this?” Liegel said.

Background: Deepa Liegel in New York City (Photo by Sanjib Karmakar, 2018)

Also economically Liegel noted that it wasn’t making sense to pay upwards of $17 for dance classes that she could only barely do with her space. She said that in the beginning, many people were offering free classes to keep entertainers’ spirits high, but as everyone’s budgets grew more and more stringent, there weren’t as many free options. Still, Liegel knew that for her, maintaining some sort of a normal schedule would be crucial to keeping her dance aspirations on track.

“I had to wake up and get into a routine of hour by hour, sectioning out my day so that I was plotting even time for training, researching other job opportunities, cooking my meals, and overall just not sinking into a pattern of complacency that is so easy to do when you’re stuck in one place,” Liegel said.

Background: Deepa Liegel in New York City (Photo by Nic Lipscombe, 2017)

As the months dragged on, Liegel and her roommates decided by the fall that they did not want to wait out potentially a second lockdown in a tiny NYC apartment, so they moved out. Deepa moved back in with her parents in the Seattle area. While in Seattle, she took an adjunct professor position for the liberal arts college Western Washington University, while continuing to virtually teach her pilates and cardio classes.

Liegel said she first heard about the professorship position from a former member of Mark Morris who now works full time at the university. The colleague reached out to Liegel and sent her the job listing, encouraging her to apply.

Above: Deepa Liegel improvises in her home in Seattle, Washington (Video courtesy of Deepa Liegel, 2020)

Now, Liegel is teaching contemporary dance for juniors and seniors three times a week, slotted in for two-hour Zoom classes. She said that teaching these classes has forced her to stay creative, focused, and motivated.

“It’s been great to see the growth and progress that can happen even over Zoom. I’m very fortunate to have 13 students that are all so welcoming, forgiving, generous and open to this process of learning virtually,” Liegel said.

Right: Deepa Liegel in Port Blakely, Washington (Photo by Pete Saloutos, 2017)

Unavoidably, there remain technological challenges while teaching a performing arts class that continue to be frustrating both for Liegel as a professor and for her students.

“You of course wish you could be in the room with the students and giving them more hands on corrections,” Liegel said. “As dancers, we feed off of that give and receive, symbiotic relationship with the people we are dancing for and with, and the energy that we feel in a room, whether that’s in a performance or a class. I really miss that. However, I feel like teaching on Zoom, if anything it makes you work harder, because you want to translate that energy and enthusiasm through the screen.”

Left: Deepa Liegel (right) in New York City (Photo by Nic Lipscombe, 2017)

That being said, getting to make connections with her students at Western Washington and in her pilates and cardio classes has helped Liegel to find a sense of community in these isolating times. Teaching online has also helped her connect with her mom on another level, who now takes her cardio classes with a group of friends over Zoom.

“It’s been really inspiring to help people get up and moving and get that energy flowing in their day,” Liegel said.

When thinking about her future in dance, Liegel said that her mentality changes day to day. She originally thought she would move back to New York in February, but now that is not looking realistic for her. Liegel has decided that she does not want to be in a position where she is paying NYC rent while not being able to take advantage of what the city has to offer for dancers.

Right: Deepa Liegel in Brooklyn, New York (Photo by Llewelyn Peña, 2020)

However, through discovering her love of teaching dance at a higher level, Liegel is thinking about this down time in the performing world as a potentially good opportunity look into pursuing a master’s program in dance pedagogy, should she one day want to become a full-time dance professor. Liegel has decided that overall she will stay positive, and will hopefully return to New York when dancers can return to the stage.

“The sheer fact that so many people are still dancing, even if it’s only in their tiny living spaces, is amazing and so inspiring to me. It makes me want to keep going,” Liegel said.

Left: Deepa Liegel in Brooklyn, New York (Photo by Christopher Jones, 2019)

Editor's Note: All of the photos and videos included in this series were provided by the dancers. Where applicable, photographers have been credited for their work.

Created By
Sara Magalio
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