By now many of us have worked from home on Zoom. So what does that mean if you are a dancer in the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company? When Ohio shut down in March, DCDC choreographers and dancers created dance together through Zoom in their separate apartments-- as best they could. David Seitz joined them online to learn about the process.
Seven boxes fill up the zoom screen where each dancer has pushed back couches and tables. Choreographer Countess Winfrey teaches rolls, jumps, and poses for the dance. But the process of virtual dance rehearsals leads to a little dance of its own. Winfrey must back up from the camera to show the moves and then walk back down to the camera to explain the steps. The dancers also must pull back to practice and lean in to see Winfrey.
Countess Winfrey is collaborating with her brother Wesley, a jazz saxophonist who is composing the score for what will be a half-hour long dance. The inspiration comes from their family stories. In this uncertain time, brother and sister join weekly family gatherings on Zoom.
Winfrey views these Zoom gatherings with family as research for the dance.
“I’m getting to learn more about them,” says Winfrey, “and their particular history and the history before them. So all of that is infiltrating and informing the way that I am creating movement.”
In this process, Winfrey has been listening to the struggles and strengths of her family, especially her aunts. She is translating their energy into movement.
She explains one movement in the dance so far. “There’s some things that happen that make the dancers fall, and then they get back up. They fall. They get back up. There’s things that happen that make them look like strong warriors. And then there’s ways that they move that make them feel like ninjas. They’re quick. The falling portions of it remind you that they’re human. But the warrior aspect also reminds me of resilience.”
As Winfrey watched each dancer adjust to their available space, she saw new possibilities for her choreography. “I was really enjoying how tight they were having to move,” she said, “And thinking about their spatial awareness differently, how would that then translate to a larger space?”
These tight movements posed difficulties too. Devin Baker, a dancer with DCDC for six years was watching his fellow dancers on his screen. “People would be trying to figure out the movement in these small, small spaces, remarked Baker. “So they’re doing the movement, and they’re doing the movement. And you could see them like, putting like the energy into it, but it looks like they’re just kinda like spinning around in circles. It just reminded me of dogs chasing their tails cause they were so committed inside of it.”
When Baker wanted to practice an arabesque in one of the dances, he encountered these problems in his own room. “I just never had space, said Baker. “ So it was kind of like it was throwing me off my legs, so I couldn’t do it. I said you’re really about to hurt yourself. It’s a wall right here. You can, you know, hit that little wobbly part in the carpet. I say, you know you could break a toe, and I said Devin, it’s not that serious."
The dancers knew they had to show patience. At times, staring into a gallery view of the other dancers could leave them a little wonky. Baker provided an example. “She did all this choreography” using the Zoom platform, said Baker. “She got us all the way so far till one of the dancers was like, “Hold on, Stop!” I’m facing the wrong way.”
Creating dance online requires as much telling as showing. Countess Winfrey sees this as a good thing that stretches her as a choreographer. Winfrey reflected that the process through Zoom “also further teaches me the way that they like to move. And it also has made me have to be more definitive about what I’m looking for.”
And for Baker and the other dancers, the Zoom rehearsal process leads them to ask more questions, building their collaboration in the dance. “Is it the shape of it or is it the feeling of it?,” Baker would ask during the zoom rehearsal. “Do you actually want the hands to…have a pop at the end? And the choreographer is explaining all that. And just really taking the time to like to cultivate in a very careful way.”
The dancers deeply miss the physical group energy of the studio. But for now, they say they have found their own resilience as a family. Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council and is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.