Nancy Rosenbaum: Before the Covid lockdown, Katherine Disenhof spent most of her days in a dance studio. Katherine’s been dancing pretty much her whole life, and a few years ago, she got a full-time contract with a contemporary dance company based out of Portland, Oregon. Katherine wasn’t always sure she wanted a career in dance. She majored in human biology at Stanford…and for a while she considered following in her mom’s footsteps and going into medicine. But she loved the arts and she also wanted to help people. The Covid crisis gave her a way to do both when she launched her website Dancing Alone Together.
Katherine Disenhof: So I remember the week that we shut down. I want to say it was Thursday, March 12. We are in ballet class and one of my friends was trying to distract me. And I just turned to him very tersely and said, Please stop. This might be the last ballet class I take for a while, I would like to get through it very focused. And he kind of scoffed at me. And he joked and walked away. But it ended up being the last full ballet class that I took. The next day, March 13, Friday the 13th I think as we all remember, we were mid ballet class that day in the morning, and someone from the office came in and said, Stop, please sit six feet apart from each other, don’t touch anything, and your directors will be in to address you shortly. And they came in and they said, grab your stuff, we’ll hopefully see you in two weeks. Here’s some toilet paper for the road. And we’ll be in touch. And that was the last day we all were together.
Thinking back, we certainly didn’t have any idea that the that was really the end of things. I remember having conversations immediately after with, say my mom who was in San Francisco in a hospital getting very different information. And that’s when she said you might want to pack more than a carry-on bag. If you’re going to come back to San Francisco, it’s not going to be two weeks.
Dancing Alone Together started pretty immediately. I had seen throughout the week, when we were, you know, maybe closing or maybe shutting certain things down my social media account, because I follow so many dancers, dance companies, choreographers, was starting to perk up with all these new offerings that were exciting at the time.
Video clip: My name is Alicia Graf Mack and I am the director of the dance division at the Julliard School
Katherine Disenhof: It was like people teaching classes on Instagram…
Video clip: And demi on one…pliee two….
Katherine Disenhof: And people saying, learn this solo with me in my basement, things like that. And right away, I saw some of my company members, and I sprung the idea on them. I said, I’m seeing all this stuff on my Instagram feed. Are you seeing it? And they said, yes. I said, should someone be organizing all this? Like, it seems like it would be really helpful to find it all in one place. You know, that could be an idea. So that was the Sunday the 15th of March. The 16th, the very next day was the day I was flying to San Francisco. And that morning, I said, you know, I’m just going to get an Instagram handle, I’ll buy a web domain, and I’ll figure it out as I go. So I launched Dancing Alone Together on Monday, March 16. And immediately it started taking off. The Instagram account had 10,000 followers in the first five days, and the website got 100,000 hits or so in the first week.
Nancy Rosenbaum: Dancing Alone Together quickly became a one-stop resource for collecting and promoting virtual dance opportunities from all over the world, including classes and performances. At first, it was mostly individual dance artists who were posting their classes to the site. But when it became clear that studios weren’t opening anytime soon, they got on board too.
Katherine Disenhof: It was a lot in terms of the response just because everyone was shutting down. And that’s I mean, that’s what I love about dance is it’s about shared experience. And this pandemic has been a shared experience. So it made sense to me that dancing alone together took off because every single dancer basically on the planet was being affected by the same situation and was turning to online.
Debbie Allen video clip: So right now, get your game on honey, I’m coming for you! Here we go!
Katherine Disenhof: Right. Debbie Allen was Zooming or Instagram living on Saturdays. Yeah, for sure. Wednesdays. She’s a hoot.
Debbie Allen: [Theme music from Fame playing.] I know you all recognize this song! C’mon put your hands together. Covid-19 does not like you. Let’s bring the heat, cmon!
Katherine Disenhof: Classes of all types. There was a lot of ballet on there but they were certainly classes that I feel like aren’t as representative in most communities, such as, you know, like Afro Cuban classes and Gaga classes and Bollywood classes.
Bollywood class clip: So it’s just myself today. I’m Anushya. I’m one of the cofounders of Bollyheels TO…
Katherine Disenhof: And it was really beautiful to see kind of everything on this equal platform that was available to anyone wherever they are in the world.
Bollywood class clip continued: Yeah, so let’s get started. Our first section, we’re starting on 5-6-7-8. Okay, and our fingers are gonna be like this, ya?
Katherine Disenhof: I would take classes when I could. At the beginning, I took a lot of ballet classes. And I think that’s because that’s what I’ve grown up doing. It feels like morning coffee in the morning, it feels like home.
And I think in a time where everything felt unhinged and unnatural and out of routine, waking up and taking a ballet class every morning to me was like, starting my day, as if nothing had happened, it was a way to connect people in a language that I grew up in. And that was really important to maintain.
It was not a glamorous endeavor, I will say that much. So I was sheltering in place with my fiance and his roommates. In a you know, San Francisco situation where there’s just a lot of people in a little space. So I would wake up each morning, sit on the floor with my coffee and just start inputting classes. So I would just input away and then I’d go in, look for more classes and input those too, and then respond to DMs, and then look for more classes. And then suddenly, six o’clock would roll around, and maybe I’d call it a day, or I’d keep going. It was a lot of work. And of course, I was still kind of building the plane as I flew it. So It started out at kind of a slow burn. But you know, again, with the response that I was getting, it very quickly snowballed into full-time hours. Yeah as I got further along in it, it became a little bit heavier of a lift. And a lot of that was the stress of building websites, not really knowing what I was doing, at times, or most times. And knowing suddenly, I had like 30,000 people on Instagram who were very carefully watching me.
A lot of the feedback I got was in the early days of COVID, some people returning to dance who haven’t danced since high school since college saying, I haven’t danced in so long and I took my first you know, X, Y and Z class today. And it felt so good to just reclaim my body in this isolated, confined space. So hearing those stories, to me was really positive because it’s like not only can we maintain our community during this time, but we might even be able to grow it.
This is from a teacher in Berlin, who’d been teaching on Instagram for a while and she wrote me on Instagram and said I just wanted to send you an appreciation message. What you are doing is making a huge impact on the worldwide dance community and bringing so much positivity and movement to so many homes during this time….
I’m a college student minoring in dance and this project has been literally life-saving during upheaval from study abroad back to my home your organization efforts are seen and loved and needed.
Oh! This is one of my favorites. You are awesome. I just took an absolute beginning ballet class. I’m 52 lol and have never done anything like this and it was awesome. That made me smile for days.
This one I think was from a doctor. And she said Dancing Alone Together has let me keep my promise — be stronger after Covid-19 than I was when I started. I put cardboard on my little office floor to make a dance floor and have broken up the fear and despair at the hospital by taking classes every day.
Dancing Alone Together since the summer has kind of slowed down and been a little quieter. I think people have been finding their routine of classes, there’s not as much discovery happening. It’s really just like I found my class, I know I want to take every Monday or Friday. So traffic kind of slowed down, people went back to school in whatever way that meant people went back to work in certain ways. And other states opened up in person. Europe opened up actually. So really the need for Dance Alone Together kind of quieted down. And I didn’t feel like I needed to jump back up on a platform, pull up my megaphone and say, Wait, I’m still here, come use me. So I kind of went with the flow and naturally let Dancing Alone Together, just turn the volume down, get a little quieter. Social media account is on a hiatus, the website continues to go but I’m not really advertising it all that much. And I really plan to stop taking class submissions have it up there as a resource, but not actively curate the site.
I completely started this as a stopgap. I did not intend for this to be a long term endeavor, again, two weeks, one month maybe was the timeframe that we were all looking at.
I really do want studios to continue to thrive. And I don’t want to compete with that, that was something that pretty early on I recognized is I don’t want to start taking money or traffic away from studios, these big name dancers were throwing classes. And that was kind of like the hype-y thing that was happening. But at the end of the day, I really need people to go take classes from a local studio so that those studios can stay open and are there for us when we can go back in person. There have been studios that have shut their doors. And it’s been really sad to see some of these iconic places where so many dancers have passed through that. Again, the lack of closure is immense in certain ways. And I’m trying to prevent that. So I think the more I can shut down and allow people to naturally flow back to either the places that they came from, or tap into their communities and hopefully Dancing Alone Together spiked and inspired some new motivation behind dancing, I think the better off we will all be on the other side of this because there is another side of this. It’s coming and we need to prepare ourselves for that.
I’ve taken a hiatus from taking class and dancing and a lot of that is kind of dealing with the not having closure through my professional career as a dancer and not knowing like is this is this really the end? Because you know you’ve got a limited life cycle as a dancer and at 30. I’m kind of in for actually for contemporary dance, I’m kind of in peak range, but I’m losing valuable time right now. And it’s been hard to deal with. So that’s kind of, for me, the sadness is I know, I’m not going to get closure. So I’m trying to find other means of tying up some of those loose ends, but it is what it is, we can’t again, we can’t go back, we have to move forward.
This is the longest in my entire life that I have not been in a dance studio since I started dancing. So I have not been in a studio since March 13. I do want to get back into movement, into dancing and reconnect with the community. I think stepping back into a physical studio will be a huge turning point for me because right now, that really is a not having that space available to me feels like a big loss. So I’m hoping me stepping back into a dance studio in 2021 is something in the cards but we will see what happens.
Nancy Rosenbaum: For iPondr, this is Nancy Rosenbaum.
Audio story edited by Annie Sinsabaugh
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