Softening their strides

Dancers and educators re-envision equitable connection

Dancer and writer Jillian Groening is one of Winnipeg's many dance artists finding new ways to perform during COVID-19.

Supplied photo

Not only is dance canonized alongside other temporally bound art forms, but it is a practice completely charged with movement, bodiliness, sweatiness, heavy breathing and closeness.

Marina Harss writes in The New Yorker: “Dancers’ lives are mostly spent in spaces crowded with people.” However, right now, this is simply not the case. 

For much of the spring, dancers in Winnipeg were cooped up at home, or if they were lucky, in private studios. Throughout the summer and fall, some opportunities for in-person dance practices and performances opened up, but those are quickly disappearing, as Winnipeg enters the Code Red designation.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many rehearsals, classes and performances, it has also created space for dancers to reflect on their practices.  

Many Winnipeg-based dancers and educators have spent the past months dreaming up new ways to connect with one another and their audiences, so that dance can become more equitable for all.

Actor and writer Reba Terlson

To adapt, or not to adapt?

Some dance schools, like Drop in Dance Winnipeg, were quick to adapt their classes for online platforms when the pandemic hit in March. 

Reba Terlson, a writer and actor who has been a regular at the studio for a number of years, recalls, “there was maybe a period of two weeks where I wasn’t dancing ... but then everything got switched online.”

Classes were based on what teachers could do from their homes, so there were fewer options offered. However, most people were dancing from their living rooms, and this was sometimes challenging. Terlson explains that taking these classes was a huge source of physical and mental reprieve during quarantine. She took at least three classes a week.

“It sounds so silly, but I would plan my days around it,” she laughs. “I did it all the time. It was my saving grace.”

Although Drop in Dance Winnipeg was offering in-person dance classes throughout the summer, they are now switching back to online teaching.

Professional dancers with upcoming performances also had to weigh their options when in-person showings were banned in the spring. 

Neilla Hawley, a Winnipeg-based contemporary dancer, was part of the 2020 Young Lungs Dance Exchange Program Research Series alongside Emily Solstice Tait and Mark Dela Cruz. They began their rehearsals in February, preparing a workshop and a final showing of their research. 

“We were like two days away from the workshop and one week away from the showing right as everything shut down,” Hawley explains. 

The group decided to postpone their final showing until further notice. When they returned to rehearsals at the beginning of October, they planned to present it outdoors to a decent-sized audience.

“It wasn’t until Code Orange came into effect that we realized we needed to make sure it could be accessible on Zoom,” Hawley explains. “That really was a turning point in the research, because everything had shifted around to accommodate it, but it felt not quite like an accommodation. It felt like an artistic challenge.”

Some projects were able to continue throughout summer but faced increased costs because of the time and space it took to implement safety precautions. 

Alice Crawford, project director for the Manitoba Cultural Society for the Deaf-Deaf Arts Manitoba

A New Rhythm: Teaching Dance Beyond Sound is an educational project that seeks to “open the door to a new perspective of dance and how Deaf dancers experience their art form,” Alice Crawford, the project director from Manitoba Cultural Society for the Deaf-Deaf Arts Manitoba (MCSD-DAM), says.

Over the summer, a team composed of dance teachers, Deaf dancers, non-Deaf volunteers, Dance Manitoba directors, a film crew and a group of ASL-English interpreters produced a video training manual for dance educators, exploring strategies for working with Deaf students.

“It is very seldom that (Deaf dancers) get the opportunity to access a class that takes into account the very different relationship (they) have with rhythm, vibration and dance,” Crawford says.

Natalie Sluis, a hard-of-hearing dancer involved in the project, has experienced many barriers in the field. 

“I find it difficult to communicate and understand in classes when the person conducting the class is turned away from me, when teachers are talking, correcting or directing over music and/or background noise pollution,” she says.

Sluis says the group developed a number of techniques that educators can use to improve the learning experiences of Deaf and hard-of-hearing dancers. 

“This included gesturing, facing the people you are talking to, demonstrating instead of solely talking, stopping and discussing the correction, and in some (non-pandemic) scenarios, physically touching to correct.” 

Crawford describes the Deaf dancers as “all smiles and full of enthusiasm throughout the rehearsals and filming at RWB (Royal Winnipeg Ballet) from the joy of being able to fully participate.”   

The videos, which will be released in 2021, outline a number of practical considerations for instructors and raise awareness about cultural and linguistic differences, while focusing on a number of different styles, including jazz, contemporary, and hip hop.

Although Crawford notes that adapting to COVID restrictions was a time-consuming and costly challenge, she explains that, overall, it was a “very positive experience.” 

Dancer and writer Jillian Groening

A destabilizing opportunity

Restrictions to dancers’ ability to move, perform and produce freely have arguably shed light on the systemic inequalities within the industry itself. Deaf and disabled dancers have struggled for years to access educational and performance opportunities.

In an article in Dance Magazine, Alice Sheppard, a disabled choreographer and dancer in Britain, explained: “Right now, the world is all about disability, even if you don’t name it as such.” 

“I do believe that the pandemic has shed some light on the struggles that Deaf and hard-of-hearing dancers and people with other disabilities face on a regular basis,” Sluis suggests. 

“In my dance school, my peers have had a small look into my world.”

Terlson notes that “being restricted during this time has made me hyper-aware of my body.”

Jillian Groening, a dancer and writer from Winnipeg, is hopeful this period of time has encouraged people to rethink unhealthy power dynamics in the dance world. 

“There needs to be a softening,” she explains. “It’s not enough anymore to sign a contract giving a choreographer the rights to your body, your image and your time.”

“Dance artists need to be allowed sick days. They need to be allowed to express when they are uncomfortable, and they need to be allowed to say no ... without fear of losing their jobs or future opportunities.” 

Groening explains that although the pandemic has been devastating in so many ways, it could be helpful to think of it as a “destabilizing opportunity” for dancers.

“It’s good to be able to think about how we create, interact and to see how power dynamics and power structures can be better,” she explains. “It’s allowing us to think about the body differently and think about the body in relation to the world around us differently.”  

The Young Lungs Dance Exchange Program Research Series had to adapt to digital platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moving to Zoom "felt like an artistic challenge." -Neilla Hawley

Shifting focus

Groening, who shares a studio with Hawley, spends lots of time watching online performances these days. 

“Just being able to access these performances you wouldn’t always be able to is so exciting,” she says. 

“I mean, yes, there will always be arguments for ‘liveness is special,’ she laughs. “But, well, no, there are so many exciting things that can be done with choreography and dancing bodies right now.”

The final showing created by the Young Lungs Artists in Residence, which eventually took place on Oct. 11, is an excellent example of the way adapting dance for online platforms can lead to innovative performances.  

The show happened at Drop in Dance Winnipeg and involved Hawley, Tait, Dela Cruz, their tech supports and four in-person audience members.  

The performance created a series of connections between dancers, objects and audiences, which Hawley describes as “a world that was being built in real time.” It was an entirely improvised piece, in which Tait and Dela Cruz were the primary dancers. 

“There were lots of hand sanitizers and sprays,” Hawley explains, “and everyone was wearing masks.”  

Hawley carried a phone around to give the Zoom audience the opportunity to view the dancers from different angles and distances. Then, they would pass the phone to an audience member, encouraging them to take part and “make choices.”   

Hawley explains that this process “ended up opening up a massive amount of questions about what it meant to be a performer and an audience member.” 

They tried to amplify sound and visuals for the virtual audience, “because you don’t have that ‘felt-sense’ in the room.”

Hawley says that for Tait and Dela Cruz, who were dancing, it was a new challenge “to both give to the people that were physically present and to give to the audience that was interacting with them on Zoom.” 

The shifting focus of the dancers, the multiple moving cameras and all the masks and hand sanitizer created a performance space that questioned the nature of human connection in a way the group had not anticipated.

“I would never have done this if the pandemic had not hit,” Hawley says. “It’s something I would like to continue researching and exploring in the future.”

“We can’t go back”

Though the pandemic has completely changed the nature of dance for now, it has also created an opportunity for dancers to reflect on the methods through which dance is shared and expressed. 

Dance artists and educators are beginning to tap into the potential of Zoom and other live-streaming services. Another interesting medium dance artists are exploring is scoring, in which both Groening and the Young Lungs Artists in Residences are interested. 

“I’m really fascinated with movement scores, not for the goal or intention of recreating movement, but for sharing and spreading choreographic ideas,” Groening says. 

Groening and a group of three other dancers are working on a new scoring project. Scores will be drawn and written out, held together by binder clips, so they can be rearranged at will and mailed between the dancers. Groening says she’s fascinated by the way choreographies “resonate differently with different people.” 

The months of the pandemic have been devastating, but they have also created an opportunity for dancers to think about what mindful, equitable connection can look like in practice. 

As Sheppard says, “I have tried to not think about ‘going back’ or ‘returning’ or ‘normal.’ I believe that we can't go back.”

In lieu of an in-person workshop this spring, the Young Lungs Artists in Residence created an “Improv Score for the COVID-19 Age.” Find it at

Four educational films created as a part of A New Rhythm will be released in 2021. The first video, called the Sizzle Reel, is now available on the MCSD-DAM website,

Drop in Dance Winnipeg is going virtual again. Find them at

Published in Volume 75, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 5, 2020)

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