Dance Has Thrived for Decades on the UWS; Will the Pandemic Break It?

Dancer Natalie Rae, at right, taking a Virtual Steps ballet class taught by Nancy Bielski, at left. Courtesy of Steps on Broadway.

By Michael McDowall

Writing about the Upper West Side these days, it’s easy to focus on the absence of what once was and lose sight of what still is.

That’s particularly so when it comes to dance, and the neighborhood’s numerous empty studio and performance spaces: although they’ve all gone virtual—from Alvin Ailey to Lincoln Center, and Steps on Broadway to Ballet Hispánico—the Upper West Side is a neighborhood full of dance, and full of dancers.

Whether or not it will remain so, however, is another question, as empty auditoriums and dusty studios exert ongoing pressure on the budgets of institutions and individuals alike.

It’s unlikely that a virtual Nutcracker will make or break an organization like New York City Ballet, given its large endowment. But the future is less certain for others—and that may include the landmark institution that happens to be your favorite neighborhood studio.

 “Our landlord has been very accommodating and very understanding. I think they recognize what Steps has brought to the Upper West Side all of these years, I think they believe in what we are doing, and we continue to work together to keep this afloat,” said Joe Lanteri, executive director of Steps on Broadway, which since the 1980s has trained dancers from Misty Copeland to Madonna at its studios above Fairway at 74th Street and Broadway.

“We’re looking to see how we move forward, and how we get through next summer,” Lanteri continued. “Quite honestly, we’re anticipating we’re not going to see a real change until fall 2021,” he said, referring to the indefinite suspension of physical, in-person class.

At Virtual Steps, however, a full menu of classes—from ballet to modern and beyond—is available daily. How? Instructors are linked to students via Zoom. But bringing a Zoom class to life is a complicated choreography in and of itself, and the virtual studio isn’t so easy to fill, especially given the abundance of free or donation-based classes available online. 

“There does come a point where our industry—every dance studio and dance company across the United States—is truly impacted financially by what is happening. Right now, we need the support. If [dance] continues to be given away for free, then all of the businesses that are trying to stay afloat will continue to have a challenge,” Lanteri explained. “The reality in our world is that you end up doing a tremendous amount of work, a lot more effort and manpower to produce dance classes in a virtual way than if you were walking into a studio.”

Light attendance at virtual classes has a broad impact, as studios like Steps nurture an entire ecosystem of dancers, choreographers, and more, who rely in part on teaching to supplement more ephemeral performance income.

“My classes are unfortunately on hold, and the majority of what I do is in the musical theater world, which doesn’t exist right now,” said Kelly Bolick, a dancer, choreographer, and Upper West Sider who teaches in the youth program at Steps.

“I went to school for math and science, and I’m spending the majority of my time tutoring. I joke all the time that it’s the best thing my parents could have made me do, because it’s definitely come in handy,” Bolick laughed.

“But I consider myself extremely lucky to have work that can pay my rent and keep me going. The majority of my friends have moved back home. There’s no theater work, and even getting any other type of work is so difficult. The ones that are here, there is some babysitting, there is some tutoring, some friends have found other ways to use their creativity, but it’s pretty rough.”

As the pandemic persists and hopes of a relatively immediate or even gradual resumption of life as it was dim, it has become clear that, for those sweating to make it onto the stage, fitness and food service may no longer provide the audition-friendly schedules and stable paychecks they once did.

“We have seen a lot of people leave the city: many of them have gone elsewhere, where they can cut their expenses, perhaps not pay rent, perhaps give up an apartment,” Lanteri said. “I personally have seen some people start to trickle back, even though we don’t have a clear ending in sight. Who would ever have expected that we would live through something like this, and that it would last as long as it has?”

It’s a material reality that has upended the lives of gigging newcomers, established players, and everyone in between. As of October, jobs in the performing arts had declined 72 percent from September 2019, according to the Center for an Urban Future, in what it called “the sharpest job loss of any industry in the city’s economy.

“It’s a really challenging time for us all,” said Colleen Thomas-Young, a choreographer, performing artist, and professor of professional practice at Barnard. “I’m watching companies fold, I’m watching colleagues leave the city, I’m filling out a lot of graduate school recommendations for professional dancers. If people are concerned and care about this art form and care about art—if you have the ability to donate money to individuals and smaller companies—you should give. Give to your community, and give to your artists, because they are all struggling right now. Just like we’re all thinking about helping smaller businesses in New York City, it’s the same thing with art.”

The Zoom studio. Courtesy of Ailey Extension.

Put simply, attending a virtual class is one easy way to keep dance in business in the neighborhood.

“When you go to these classes, you are supporting aspiring artists, your city, and your community,” said Lisa Johnson-Willingham, director of the Ailey Extension at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “You are supporting generations of dancers to come, who are training to become professionals, you are supporting the dance companies, and you’re keeping arts alive.”

The Ailey Extension offers public classes and workshops to all who wish to participate.

“I’ve seen people join a class who have a restriction in movement, who just want to sit and be a part of the class. They’re in that room just to be in that community, to find some solace and peace,” Johnson-Willingham said. “Right now, these are moments we need. I think dance saves lives.”

Joe Lanteri, at Steps on Broadway, has also observed the formation of community via Zoom, and called the shattering of geographic boundaries one of the few silver linings of this moment.

“One of the beautiful things about dance is that you gather together and share this experience in a dance studio—a communal gathering in one room—and that will never be replaced,” Lanteri said. “But there is community on Zoom. It’s a different sense of community, but it’s a community nonetheless. Seeing those faces on the screen is a level of connection, and Steps will continue to embrace the idea of virtual students, virtual dancers, to make sure people around the globe continue to have the opportunity to dance at Steps.”

He paused.

“Imagine if this had happened ten years ago, before we had Zoom.”

Beyond time in the studio, the pandemic also poses questions that are difficult to answer, questions as to the texture of isolation, the nature of loneliness. How to contend with the surreal and almost overwhelming experience of a city gripped by a loss that feels impossible to represent. Questions that are perhaps best confronted in an art whose form evades language.

“Artmaking is about creating and expressing and sharing and connecting with community, and I see a lot of people struggling, and wondering how we move forward,” said Colleen Thomas-Young.

“What we do as artists is we put these struggles and questions into our making. How do we give smaller performances? How do we give performances outside? How do we give virtual experiences that feel deeper than a Zoom screen? I have hope that we’re going to come out of this in a brighter way. That’s what artists do, right? We take the ugly or the broken, and we make it the beautiful.”

Eduardo Vilaro, artistic director and chief executive of Ballet Hispánico, is confident that dance will be back, full of vitality and with much to communicate.

“I’m gonna go back to my Bronx roots: hustlers are gonna hustle,” Vilaro laughed.

“Will people want to come back into a theater? In New York, that’s a big ‘Oh yes!’ I think that we’ll see a lot of work around human experience, around the human need to connect, around the stories that we haven’t heard that can only be told in this form, that is based in music and is in some ways the physicality of that music coming alive. After this, when we can make live art, and feel the energy of the audience, we’re going to come back with such gusto.”

Ballet Hispánico, which in September received an award of $4 million from the Ford Foundation, has been throwing weekly watch parties since April.

“We have been here virtually, and we certainly will be back,” Vilaro said. “The Upper West Side is a resilient community, and I love it because it’s still a diverse community. It’s not like the Upper E—”

 “I can’t say that,” he chuckled.

“There is such an abundance of empathy on the Upper West Side that you can’t find in other places in the city. I love how the West Side comes together. We’re New Yorkers. We are creatures of adaptation, and we learn and we care. We’re going to be changed by all of this, but we’re resilient, and inside, we’re good.”

Bolick seconded that assessment. Over the phone, the Rag could hear the unmistakable hiss of a radiator: the sound of home.

“If we were to push a button and this was all over, I think the first place I would go is a dance studio,” she said.

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