To dance is human
Reminders to dance: How 2020 changed us

10 December 2021

By Caren Carino, Vice Dean (Dance Programme)

In April 2020, Singapore announced a ‘circuit breaker’. It was an inevitable outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading rapidly worldwide. At Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), the campus was closed seeing the final weeks of instruction, assessments and events eclipsed. What followed were challenges of uncertainty. In all my 21 years as an educator, first as Head of the Dance Department at LASALLE College of the Arts and currently as Vice Dean of the Dance Programme at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, I had not encountered an ordeal such as this. Even the SARS outbreak in 2003 did not prepare me for this sudden unpredictable shift.

While the world was gripped by this disruption, dancers demonstrated amazing agility. I saw students, teachers, performers, and creators dancing in spite of the apparent difficulties. I was poignantly reassured by the words of modern dancer and choreographer Jose Limón (1908 – 1972) that “dancers are part soldier, part gladiator, part matador. They possess the disciplined courage of the first, the brute daring of the second, the finesse of the last.”

  I was poignantly reassured by the words of modern dancer and choreographer Jose Limón (1908 – 1972) that “dancers are part soldier, part gladiator, part matador. They possess the disciplined courage of the first, the brute daring of the second, the finesse of the last.”

Bangungot at Guni-guni (Nightmares and Hallucinations)’ choreographed by Filomar Cortezano Tariao
   


The body is a dancer’s instrument of expression. Physical training is required to maintain, develop, and improve its ability to perform. During the height of the pandemic, when in-person training was not possible, dancers quickly turned to the internet, where a plethora of classes were offered by professionals and amateurs alike. Dance training was no longer a typical physical group session. Instead, dancers practiced in physical isolation guided by a virtual teacher called synchronous learning. Ballet students transformed their homes into mini studios equipped with a portable ballet barre and a patch of dance mat. Other dance students practiced in their living rooms and bedrooms, removing or pushing aside furniture to provide more floor area to move in.

Dancers were not confined to their homes, they danced at building void decks and car parks – anywhere where there was space to move. Since the conditions of these spaces were often not conducive for typical dance training, teachers tailored their classes to suit the confines and limitations of their students’ environments. Travelling and jumping sequences were no longer part of a typical class. Eventually, as safe management measures eased, dancers gradually returned to the studios and to familiar dance practice, albeit with restrictions such as donning masks, maintaining the regulatory distance apart from other participants, and no physical contact.

Movement is a dancer’s medium of expression. Making dance requires the processes of exploration and creation. At the beginning of the pandemic, dance creation leveraged social media platforms such as TikTok where dancer-creators shared their short-form videos. As weeks turned into months, dance creators embraced digital technology. I was reminded of historical instances when new technologies influenced creation such Loie Fuller (1862 – 1928), a modern dancer who was interested in creating dance using “coloured theatrical lighting playing on and through voluminous folds of silk that were her costume. At the time, light refraction had just come into use in the theatre.” Hence, as time marched on and it was still uncertain when dance would return to the theatres, choreographers were catapulted into the virtual realm of digital spaces and effects, often times producing a feast and escape for viewers.

  Lead with imagination and dare to discover new possibilities. Dance is a performing art. Celebrate it as the physical expression of the human experience and imagination.

Home.body, choreographed by Yarra Ileto
   


Dance is a performing art. Viewing dance requires connecting to it kinaesthetically and/or visually. Unable to attend live performances, video and livestream instantly became the only ways to experience dance during the height of the pandemic. Replays of past performances on YouTube was a quick fix. Eventually, audiences were treated to free online performances. As companies were finding it hard to sustain, they began ticketing their virtual performances and asking audiences for donations.

Faced with the unprecedented circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic which began in early 2020, dancers were pushed to rethink how we practice, perform, and produce dance. I am reminded to be grateful to have studied and have had a career decades ago during much simpler and far less challenging times. Today, as a senior manager and teacher at a tertiary arts institution, I am philosophic that dancers will always dance, it is just a question of ‘how’.

Judith Hanna, an anthropologist, simply describes dance as a “physical behaviour: the human body releases energy through muscular responses to stimuli received by the brain. Movement, organised energy, is the essence of dance. The body or its parts contract and release, flex and extend, gesture and move from one place to another. The action, or existential flow, of dancing is inseparable from the dancer: the creator and instrument of dance are one…”. Hence, when times are difficult, we only need to remind ourselves that the body is a dancer’s instrument of expression. Take good care of it, explore its capabilities, and strive to develop it to its fullest potential.

Movement is a dancer’s medium of expression. Lead with imagination and dare to discover new possibilities. Dance is a performing art. Celebrate it as the physical expression of the human experience and imagination. Embrace new technologies to further dance but not to replace it. Finally, always remember that “to dance is human” (Judith Hanna).

A dance academic and educator, Dr Caren Cariño from Hawai’i (USA) has earned three dance-related degrees, Doctorate in Southeast Asian Studies (Contemporary Dance Research); Master of Fine Arts (Dance Performance and Choreography); and Bachelor of Education (Dance).

Dr Cariño’s prolific professional career includes a wealth of experience. Trained as a contemporary dancer, she was a full-time dancer with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (USA). She eventually migrated to Singapore and was appointed Programme Leader/Lecturer (Dance) at LASALLE College of the Arts. Her current position as Vice Dean /Principal Lecturer (Dance) at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts since 2007 has seen her develop a conservatory-style dance programme with a contemporary outlook.

1 Brown, J. M., Mindlin, N. & Woodford, C.H. (Eds.). (1998). The vision of Modern Dance. Princeton.
2 Hanna, J.L. (1987). To dance is human: A theory of nonverbal communication. The University of Chicago Press
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