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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Wolfgram

Swarovski-Studded Masks

I danced on a real dance floor a few days ago. One with polished floors, mirrors all around me, and enough space to do a half-natural without fearing I’ll knock over a bookshelf. Although it was only for solo practice, I caught myself smiling ear to ear beneath my mask more than a few times. The last time I felt that freedom was March, nearly five months ago.

Dancing in a studio is refreshing. It clears away the amnesia brought on by dancing for months on new terms, or for many, not dancing at all. But as wonderful as this rediscovery is, it’s important to remember that the dance world is anything but what it was. If your studio survived this long in the pandemic, you’re one of the lucky ones. Incredible dancers and dedicated business-people have watched their operations slowly collapse as they find it impossible to pay rent without an income. It’s not just your local upstart professionals either; massive facilities that draw in international traffic have filed for bankruptcy.

Here in the midwest, the surviving studios are reopening their doors, and since the novelty of Zoom classes has long since expired, they don’t have much of a choice. Teaching in-person lessons and making the space available for teachers is, for many studios, the only way to stay afloat.

But the professionals are putting precautions in place: keeping the floor under 25% capacity, abstaining from group classes, strict reservations on who can use the studio space and when, and so on. They’re doing their best to run a business and keep their community of dancers safe, a hard task when those two goals are often in conflict.

We’ll leave those precautions to them. I don’t own a studio nor do I have the qualifications to mandate how others should run theirs. But how as students are we able to help both our local studios and the greater dance community in this crisis? What is our role in keeping businesses alive and dancers safe?

Seriously, bedazzle your mask.

I get it. Dance is an athletic activity, and masks can be hard to breathe through in daily life, let alone after you’ve finished a three-minute quickstep. Challenging as it can be, the task becomes far more manageable when you realize the great lengths your teachers are going to to keep studios open at all. Legal hurdles and administrative hoops, hours spent cleaning and sanitizing every surface, and masking up for much longer periods than the couple of hours you’ll spend practicing there -- it’s a soiree of obstacles they overcome to give you the freedom to dance.

When you recognize your teachers and peers face these struggles, wearing a mask isn’t just about safety, but a sign of common courtesy that you, too, care about the community. It shows you’re willing to put in effort and make sacrifices for your fellow dancers. That expression of solidarity makes the jobs of your teachers and studio-managers much easier, or at the very least, less lonely.

So wear a mask and have some fun with it. Instead of seeing masks as a dreary health precaution, take it as an excuse to bring positive energy into the community by putting a fun, ballroom dancer spin on it. Bedazzle your mask with only the finest of Swarovski crystals, or get one with tiger print on it to match those ugly practice shoes you bought at a competition years ago. Serious as the situation is, seeing a partnership do scattered chasses around a near-empty floor wearing masks covered in crystals and designer dancesport logos is funny. Nothing about that picture makes sense. If it does to you, boy, your community is even more bizarre than mine!

Embracing safety precautions with this stylized attitude does two things:

First, it normalizes the practice. The sad reality is, there’s a good chance this “new normal” will last another year or more. Nobody can say for sure. Especially with the ballroom dance community being awful touchy and made up of disproportionately many at-risk individuals, we have to be more careful than other industries. Making safe behavior an expectation we can enjoy spreads the practice and makes it sustainable. Complain about how dreadful it is to dance with a mask on and it’ll be a matter of weeks before dancers lose interest and get careless. Enjoying the adjustment is the key to making it stick in the long term, both for you and other people.

Second, it raises the spirits of those around you. The coronavirus has hit the dance industry hard, and while many have had their hearts broken watching their business and their community fall apart, many are still struggling. Lots of dancers are sad, stressed, and desperate having been isolated for so long and unsure if their crumbling community will survive the coming months. Anything you can do to show them a silver lining and give them hope that the dance world will survive, has an impact. I encourage you to take it: bedazzle your mask and make somebody smile.

Wearing masks, washing hands, and limiting the number of people we dance with are just part of our responsibility to make sure our industry thrives during this crisis. However you can support your local studios will be endlessly appreciated, both by teachers and the other students that care about its sanctity.

Nobody knows when competitions will restart or when studios will be able to safely lighten regulations, but neither of these can happen without a strong level of trust. We as a ballroom community need to be seen as unified and taking the situation seriously. The safer an environment we can create, the more dancers will return to the floor, rediscover dance, and feel that amnesia clear away.

(Written for Sheer Dance August 2020)

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