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Photo Essay: Louisville’s Dance Community Is Dancing Through The Pandemic

Louisville Ballet dancer EmmaRose Atwood is partnered by her boyfriend and fellow dancer Justin Hogan in the backyard of their home.
Louisville Ballet dancer EmmaRose Atwood is partnered by her boyfriend and fellow dancer Justin Hogan in the backyard of their home.

Louisville's dance scene might not get the same recognition as dance meccas like Manhattan or San Francisco. But the scene here is a robust one, featuring a range of dance styles and artists.

Even when the pandemic keeps us all sheltering in our homes, dancers are active.

They are dancing in their living rooms, home offices, basements, back decks and outdoor spaces to keep moving. Like other artists, they're also navigating all sorts of technology and platforms to find ways to stay connected with audiences and other members of the dance community. 

These Louisville dancers shared their experiences with WFPL News.

One Dancer’s Newfound Love For TikTok

Hip hop dancer, choreographer and teacher Phillip Hancock has been taking advantage of the vast array of virtual dance classes that went online after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down every in-person dance experience. But what’s really keeping him on his toes as of late is TikTok.

Waves of professional dancers have jumped on the TikTok social media platform since the quarantine began, and Hancock decided to get in that mix. He’s learning from TikTok, both by watching the short videos and making his own, he said.

“I'm watching all these dances, and I look at them like oh, this is easy,” Hancock said. “And then I go to do it and I'm like, this looks nothing like what they're doing…so I learned to stay patient.”

He’s learning to be patient enough to take it slow and really break down the movement, a valuable skill for a teacher. Hancock teaches for dance organizations like the Louisville Ballet School and Safiyyah Dance Company. He was also recently the featured artist for a Kentucky Performing Arts #KPAatHome Facebook Live performance, during which he led viewers through an “old school fun” dance routine that he’s hoping people will continue to practice in their homes while they’re continuing to shelter at home. 

Louisville Ballet Dancers Try To Find Routine

Kateryna Sellers has been a dancer with the Louisville Ballet for 15 years. She’s found some solace while sheltering at home in creating some routine. She takes a virtual ballet class daily in the front room of her house.

“The space that I’ve been using as my makeshift dance studio is usually our home office/ gym,” she said. 

Already stocked with her “physical therapy toys, like rotator discs, therabands, free weights and foam rollers,” Sellers said she outfitted it with a Marley floor, a vinyl covering for the floor that’s designed to be less slippery and ideal for dance, and a ballet barre that her husband made from scrap lumber they had around the house. 

“It has been an adjustment taking class in such a small space,” she said. “It feels kind of cramped and the floor is not really appropriate for much jumping, but I’m grateful to have a space to work in.”

What’s also odd about dancing in this setting is doing it in solitude. 

Sellers misses dancing with her colleagues and “the social interaction” that comes with company life.

Fellow company dancer Ashley Thursby has been dancing in her basement. She has a ballet barre down there with a Marley floor atop “a rubber gym floor surface that helps for traction.”

She’s also been going for runs when she can, though she is still working through what it feels like to do that with a face mask. Plus, she's teaching on Instagram and Facebook Live for Louisville Ballet’s mind. body. balance. program and for the national dance training platform artEmotion.

She said it’s not just about keeping her body active. She’s also been trying to push her creativity while sheltering at home.

“Once we realized the impact of COVID-19 and the importance of social distancing, I decided to give myself a weekly challenge to create one movement phrase per week,” she said. 

She works with musician and editor friends to create videos that “layer my [iPhone-captured] clips of movement, nature and some sound bites." They call the body of work #SocialArtisting, with the goal of releasing these short videos once every week the community continues to social distance. They’ve featured other local artists such as Dane Waters, Ryan Conroy, Rachel Grimes, Phourist and the Photons, Ben Sollee and Big Momma Thorazine.

Still, Thursby said she misses jumping and turning. 

“Don't get me wrong, I love going back to the basics, but I also really miss moving dynamically across the floor,” Thursby said.

Kateryna Sellers would also like nothing more than to be able to return to the stage and rehearsal studio, to be able to dance “full out with all the space I could possibly want” and to see friends and family. 

“But I think until that is possible in a responsible way we, as artists, are going to have to be creative and explore different ways to share dance with our audiences, and to fulfill our need and love for movement,” Sellers said. “In some ways that’s very exciting. Great art often comes out of difficult times.”  

A Dance Student’s Perspective

Twenty-one-year-old Emma Lucas just completed her junior year at the University of Kentucky, double majoring in Arts Administration and Communications and minoring in Dance.

She’s been keeping moving by taking virtual dance classes, some offered by the university, as well as “conditioning every day in my basement to stay active and get my heart rate up.” 

Lucas said, the first few weeks, she got frustrated with the virtual classes, mitigating restricted space or less-than-ideal floors, figuring out the best camera angle so the teacher could see her and give her corrections, plus the lags or delays with various internet connections.   

“But the one thing I would constantly tell myself was ‘Hey, at least I still get to take class,’” she said. 

Lucas said she would like to dance professionally after she graduates if an opportunity arises. But she’s also interested in a career in arts administration or teaching. The pandemic has put some of those goals on hold, yet at the same time, she’s trying to use it as a period of reflection.

“I’ve noticed that, because I don’t have much space, I’m learning how to move more efficiently,” she said. And without mirrors to constantly be checking her form, she feels like she’s “really been able to strengthen the connection between my brain and my body.”

Perfecting Your Shuffle, Hop, Step Via Zoom

Lola Griffin, 77, has taught dance for more than 55 years. She said shifting to teaching her tap classes for Oldham County Schools Art Center on the video conferencing platform Zoom has come with some learning curves. One of those curves has less to do with the tech and more to do with the footwear.

She said the sounds from the tap shoes on the piece of plywood she put down on her dining room floor, coupled with vaulted ceilings, seemed to cause a confusing delay. 

“The kids seemed to always be dancing behind the music,” said Griffin, who goes by Miss Lola. “So when I watch them and am trying to get an idea of how they are actually doing as a group, in a group routine, everybody’s dancing at a different time.”

She subbed in a pair of running sneakers for a, so far, better effect, and has modified as she’s gone to see what works for her and her students. 

“It might not be the best for us as teachers, but it keeps the kids engaged and active,” she said. “It’s kind of like it’s bringing the class together as a whole.”

Griffin ran a cluster of dance schools with her husband for more than 36 years and came out of retirement to teach for Oldham County Schools Art Center in 2014. 

She said she’s “not a computer whiz,” so initially, learning Zoom was “like a foreign language to me.”

“But now I’ve got it, and it’s working well,” she said. “It’s fun and it keeps me doing what I do.”

Flamenco Artists Stay Connected

Diana Dinicola and Paul Carney feel very fortunate.

The couple, respectively, are co-founder and musical director for Flamenco Louisville

“We're kind of lucky because we're quarantined together,” Dinicola said. “So that gives us the opportunity to do some rehearsing together.” 

They typically rehearse on their back deck at their Clifton home, with the nearby train tracks and wildlife providing some additional ambient noise. 

To stay engaged with their local flamenco community, they’ve started something called #FrontPorchFlamenco, everyday, “teaching a little snippet.”

“We're really sad because May 17 was supposed to be our student showcase, which is like the highlight of the year, where everybody gets a chance to perform,” Dinicola said. “And obviously that's not going to happen. So we're trying to make sure that our family still feels connected.”

Carney said that one of the biggest challenges during quarantine has been keeping “some kind of momentum” in terms of staying motivated to keep working on your art.  

“For lack of a better way of putting it, you get in the funk of being isolated and it's kind of hard to regulate your days or at least it has been for me,” he said. 

They’ve turned to watching flamenco online and video chatting with their instructors back in Spain to help with that motivation.

“There's more opportunity for connection and more opportunities just to see what other people are doing right now than ever,” Carney said. “ I heard somebody say, rather than saying silver linings, it's all of these sort of unexpected gifts that are coming out of all this. There's resources now, just last month, [that didn’t exist before] because everybody is trying to reach out.”

When Dancers Emerge From This ‘Big Long Sleep’

Theresa Bautista is a Louisville-based dancer, choreographer and dance educator who ran her own company, Moving Collective, for 12 years. She also teaches dance for UK, so she’s stayed active and busy with online classes, plus taking virtual ballet and modern classes whenever possible, trying to accommodate for dancing in small spaces while dodging pieces of furniture. 

On top of that, she’s been running on the treadmill and going for long walks. 

“Just a couple weeks ago, when the weather was nice, I took a two-hour walk and introduced myself to some neighborhoods in Louisville that I've never seen,” she said. 

Happy to be moving, she still struggles with the “sense of isolation” that comes with seeing fellow dancers and students as a grid of images on her computer screen — something probably many people can relate to these days.

“When I look at all the people that are taking class, there's so many people that I recognize, and it's so great to see them,” she said. “But there is something about dancing in your own space that you feel that you're not always giving the same effort that you would in a studio environment.”

She thinks dancers will have to do a bit of retraining when they emerge on the other side of this, pointing to her own experience of feeling like she’s lost some flexibility and jumping ability “because I’m not practicing that in the space that I have.”

“I feel like, in some ways, we're going to be waking up from a big long sleep, and we're going to have the biggest stretch possible,” Bautista said. 

She said she’s still in a “slight grieving period” because her commissions for the spring were canceled. But she’s also starting to see some opportunity amidst all of the uncertainty, like envisioning how she can choreograph more for the camera.

“What can I do creatively…that's not necessarily what people would define as dance?” she said. “How can I make it more toward the film aspect or the cinema aspect of it, as opposed to just recording a dance on video in some alternative setting?”

She’s also wondering if all of this working remotely, “the way we’re using technology and the internet,” will broaden artists’ thinking when it comes to collaboration.