Elitism, Equity, and Access in the Virtual Dance World
While dance itself is a foundational part of the human experience, the professional and academic field of dance does not have a history of being universally accessible. Often, it exists mainly in “high-art” spheres, alienating those who do not have access to the monetary or cultural resources that buy access to such spaces. Classes are expensive, you must train for years on end to really base a career in the form, and the field’s epicenters are often isolated to large cities, leaving those who for various reasons cannot live in cities estranged from the inner workings of the field. Not to mention, disabled dancers often are left out of broader dance spheres all together (although companies like AXIS dance are working to change that). Zoom classes have ushered in a whole new era of connection beyond these limitations.The abrupt shut down in March and the way that dance has evolved out of it has had a profound effect on traditional barriers to dance; many have been broken down, while new ones have evolved to take their place.
Perhaps the biggest change is the level of pure accessibility that virtual dance spaces possess. Virtual and online spaces have a curious paradox inherent to them - they expand our range beyond our physical bodies. This has the potential to disrupt our grounding, but also has the potential to connect us to things we could never experience before. The hybrid of technology and dance has had expansive and powerful results. Organizations and individuals are hosting low-cost, donation-based, or even free classes regularly. There is no expectation for who is showing up to class. Even if you are a first time dancer, all you have to do is log on. There is no one else in the room to compare yourself to, and you can get out of the class exactly what you need. If you are self-conscious about your ability level, you have the option to turn your camera off, further turning the attention inward as opposed to applying external pressure. The student-teacher hierarchy has been disrupted by the physical separation of teacher and student: while this may pose pedagogical challenges, it frees students from expectation and launches them into a world of exploration. It also allows for dancers to modify and take class in the way that they need and are able to. This is especially meaningful for those who might not be able-bodied, are elderly, or are inexperienced dancers. Students have agency to make class work for them, free from expectation and optionally free from being witnessed. Finally, the dissociation from the body has freed dance from its large-city habit. You no longer have to physically live in New York to take classes from teachers based there. Entire techniques that cannot be found anywhere else are now accessible to the general public. The dance field has never spread open in this way before. As more and more people gain access to more and more types of training, the innovation of the field will begin to accelerate. As we expand further into this virtual realm, the virtual body becomes a whole new tool to express and comprehend. The tools we now have access to are many: the possibilities are almost overwhelming. As we continue to move forward, learning to harness these tools effectively will most certainly create an entire new realm of dance and performance.
The same way that dancers now have expanded access to dance, virtual spheres also expand access for audience members and arts supporters. We know that it is more convenient for people to stream a movie to their home TV as opposed to physically going to a movie theater; the same is true for streaming performances. Dance performance, especially traditional proscenium performance, can be intimidating and is often alienating for audiences who are not already familiar with dance. Virtual performances give people the opportunity to engage with dance at their own comfort level, inside their own homes. There is no pressure to “understand” the performance, offer interpretation, or even like what you see. Audiences simply can witness, no pressure or obligation further. Not to mention there is once again the value of removing geographical accessibility. Performances now happen in your own living room, no train ride, flight, or parking fees needed. This has the power to expand dance appreciation to an entirely new audience. Dance and performance arts often feel isolated within the art world; perhaps this can begin to change.
Overall, virtual dance poses great possibilities and expansion of the field. It is important to recognize, though, that virtual dance spaces are not magical utopias. As we well know, technology tends to reflect the dynamics of our physical world; zoom classes and live streaming performances are no exception. Already, virtual dance spaces have been seen to leave behind those who live without stable internet connections, safe spaces to practice in, or stable environments that leave the time and mental space to engage with dance content. As we move forward into this new era of dance online, we must be intentional in the way that we build our virtual community. How can we continue to move towards equity in the arts and improve access for all? If you have ideas, leave a comment!