“People are recognizing that we artists live off this to a higher degree, versus the assumption that we do this just for fun.”
It was a Saturday night in late March. Social distancing measures were being introduced across the US and the world as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Things were sure to change, and they did. In one since-legendary Instagram performance, LA based DJ and hip-hop icon D-Nice pulled everyone from former First Lady Michelle Obama to Mark Zuckerberg into his virtual Club Quarantine.
Perhaps it was the universal appeal of D-Nice’s selection—everything from funk and soul to old school hip-hop. His rotating array of trendy hats on display for performances are also a bonus. But what seems to stand out most about these club nights is the attitude of performing from a home as if he were behind the decks in a Los Angeles club, right down to the piercing eye contact he uses to engage his audience through the screen.
Whatever it is, D-Nice found a way to connect with the world in the face of mass isolation. In that initial epic nine-hour performance, he drew in 100,000 viewers (rumor has it, he may have even landed a date with Halle Berry). “Musically we found a way to use tech to unite people, that’s a beautiful thing,” he said in a NY Times interview.
Though D-Nice will go down as an icon of this sudden virtual revolution, he’s certainly not alone in finding news fans, likes, and platforms. The pandemic has placed serious limitations on artists—from lost gigs and studio space, to an inability to fully connect with students face-to-face for artists who teach.
Though these limitations, a lot of dancers—a core of D-Nice’s regular crowd, you can be certain—are using virtual experiences and classes to expand their businesses and connect with global audiences at a higher level. Many got moving back in March, and by this point are adapting to rhythms with the potential to grow into business models for the new normal.
Tina Cavicchio, a Boston-based international Latin dance artist who has transferred her teaching practice online, said in an interview: “I feel like it [social distancing] has opened up opportunities. People from all over the world come to class. I have a lot of people online from different countries that couldn’t take my classes before. And, [as a student] I also get to take classes with artists who I would normally never get to take classes [online] with.”
Sean Bjerke, a local house dance teacher, noted that the coronavirus has prompted many people to fill otherwise empty time in their lives with artistic pursuits. “Artists always say, I wish I had more support, and that more people would come to class or see me perform. Well, now you got people looking for stuff to do, you got people answering that call.”
Offering online classes has also allowed some dancers to benefit from a business standpoint.
Cavicchio said: “I did one online class [last month] that was bachata [a Dominican dance], body movement, which did really well. I made the most I’ve ever made for a 1.5-hour class, and people are still buying the footage of it.”
For Cavicchio, artistic limitations stemming from the crisis pushed her to do something she “probably never would have done [otherwise].” “I’ve reached a whole new level of people,” she said. “I know this is something I can keep doing.”
Bjerke said that expanding his business online has allowed him to tap into his strengths as an artist and entrepreneur: “I’m seeing the value that I can use to create engagement with myself online. Again, it’s all about the opportunity to see what we can do to engage with people, but also make it lucrative. Obviously I don’t want to be doing this [online thing] as 100% [of my practice], but the upside is that now I appreciate how resourceful I can be to create content and how far that can reach.”
Bjerke and other dancers also acknowledged that the coronavirus crisis has created a consistent level of communal support in creative communities: “I’m seeing more genuine and authentic action [by artists online] taken to collaborate by doing things like cross-promoting.” He added, “People are also recognizing that we artists live off this to a higher degree, versus the assumption that we do this just for fun.”
Jason Wallace, a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts who now works as a multidisciplinary artist in New York, said: “Your network is your net worth. It really translates to how much you are connected to the community and your network as a way of enduring.”
Despite previously unimaginable opportunities, it’s not a fully rosy picture for dancers and other artists. According to Ashton Lites, a dancer and professor with experience in krumping, hip-hop, tap, house, and other styles who is working online at the moment, “everyone is moving everything online and people are overwhelmed. A lot of dancers who haven’t taught online before are teaching for free, but for dancers who need to sustain and make income, it kind of like messes up the market.”
Lites continued: “It’s been difficult to adjust. There’s been a shift in schedules and [many] cancellations. Spring is usually my busiest season. It’s the time of the year when I can regroup and plan for the summer, which is when my annual festival is. … The cancellations were super rough so it’s hard financially. A lot of those gigs lined up were really big gigs that won’t come back around. Still, artist minds are coming up with their own creative ways to thrive.”
Though hardly a universal solution, there are numerous relief grants for artists and ways for gig workers and those who are self-employed to file for unemployment. None of which, of course, compensates for the inevitable loss of intimacy.
“I’m really big on building energy in a class, and that’s a hard thing to do in a virtual setting,” Bjerke said. Echoing that sentiment, Lites noted, “The first hurdle [with online teaching] was that I was worried the value [of classes] wouldn’t be the same online. I’m a hands-on teacher, and it’s a bit harder to feel a vibe through the screen.”
“When they [students] lose [face-to-face classes],” Bjerke said, “they realize how important [this practice] is to them physically.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Micaela is a Boston-based journalist and sociologist who covers dance, culture, and immigration for DigBoston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and other outlets.