Sunday, May 3, 2020

Dance Like No One Is Watching? The Existential Question Of Zoom Video

Before the lockdown I used to go to dance classes. Dance was something I had done as a young person and then didn't do for like ... thirty years or something. Then when I started up again it literally took me years to work up the nerve and motivation to go -- which could, itself, be the topic of another blog post whose conclusion would be something like "just because years have passed doesn't mean you won't do it eventually." I mostly do Contemporary -- but I also supplement that with classes in other styles like ballet and hip-hop.

It's an interesting question why dance class creates anxiety. The most obvious answer is that dancing well can be difficult, and class creates an atmosphere where people are together and naturally you worry that others are judging you. Or maybe you are judging yourself. I feel like one of the weird lingering effects of Anglo-Saxon culture is that there is something about dancing itself that feels especially vulnerable. But I wouldn't know how to connect those dots.

With the lockdown, dance classes are happening online, some through Zoom. It works OK, but I have had a hard time articulating to my friends why dance class via Zoom is such an impoverished experience for me compared to dance class in person. Zoom works OK for me for fitness: the instructors says to do a lunge or a burpee and I do a lunge or a burpee. It's not the same as being in person, but I get a workout and have some echo of the experience of working out with other people.

But with dance? It's just not the same. Part of it is communicative: in class, there is a back-and-forth between the instructor and the students with respect to what students are getting or not getting and how they're feeling about what is happening and what the instructor has in mind for the choreography. In addition to obvious things like "oh you're supposed to turn to the left, do it this way," there is also a complex interplay about the mood and the feeling of the dance. I guess it's not impossible for some of that mood to pass through the internet. But it's not easy.

A more significant factor more me seems to be just the essential pleasure between dancing-with-people -- even for something like Contemporary which is not, on the face of it, what we'd call a "social dance."

And that pleasure brings me to the great question of dance-via-Zoom: video on, or video off? For students, video-on is optional. And I feel like we're still working that out. I've been to classes where almost no one has video on, and I've been to classes where almost everyone has video on. Even though I'm seeing everything through a MacBook Air-sized screen, which means that from the recommended 6-8 feet away I can barely see anything, it is still way better for me when people have their videos on. It's a far cry from being together in a room, but at least there's the feeling of interaction and dancing-with-people.

It's an individual thing of course, and people have all kinds of reasons for choosing video off. I chose it myself recently for a ballet class that I feared was above my level (and it turned out I was right). But I feel like there is definitely a social norm aspect to it. Like, if you log on and everyone has their video off, you think "oh I guess I should too" -- it's embarrassing to be the only one putting yourself out there. But if you log on and everyone has it on you're like "oh ok, we're doing this? I guess I will too."

So I feel like livestream has changed a situation that was necessarily collective -- you're all in a room together, you all have to suck up the vulnerabilities -- to one of those weird individual versus group things where you have to ask yourself whether everyone is doing it and if not whether you're willing to put yourself out there as the only person doing it or what. It's a little sad.

Anyway, unless I have reasons, I try to always turn the video on for dance class, and I always hope that everyone else will too. Even though it's "optional," I was happy to hear a recent instructor admonishing the class to "clean up your room next time" so you can have the video on. Meetings are something else altogether -- but when we're dancing? I miss seeing y'all when your names appear in those black boxes.

I had never really thought much about that thing people say of "dance like no one is watching." I get it -- you're supposed to go all in or something. But one thing I have learned from lockdown is that, like a lot of inspirational quotes you find on coffee mugs and placards, it's not really solid advice when you take it too literally.

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