Thoughts on the COVID-19 Digital Dance Landscape

by: Rebecca Salzer, Project Director

For the past several years, I’ve been writing and speaking at conferences, urging a more open-minded approach to making full dances available online.  My credo has been that in order to stay relevant in a quickly-changing world, dance as a field needs to think through, understand, and drive:

  1. The processes by which dance is recorded
  2. The crafting of spaces in which recorded dance is received
  3. The ways in which we provide access to recorded dance – including how we respectfully and equitably represent artists, contexts, and styles

Watching the explosion of live and recorded dance online over the past ten days has been truly incredible.  It is a testament to the strength of our community and our commitment to keeping our artform vital. 

There is also something deeply upsetting about seeing these video riches after spending years chronicling the sparseness of full-length dance recordings available to educators, many of whom are still relying on VHS tapes of Free to Dance.  It feels similar in some ways to how internet providers told us that data limits were necessary for the system to function.  But now, miraculously, courtesy of our national emergency, we all suddenly have unlimited data.

The swift transition has also raised some concerns that I feel are important to voice, not just for this unprecedented moment, but for where we find ourselves once we’re able to reconstruct our public lives.

First, as much as I’ve been pushing for accessibility, the panic of the last ten days has, in many cases, involved broad sharing of art for free.  I think this is generous and wonderful and soul-sustaining in these difficult times.  I also wonder if it sets a precedent that will make it more difficult for artists to be compensated for digital manifestations of their work in the future.  Whatever your feeling toward dance on screens, digital space is a key performance venue.  It will certainly continue to exist alongside live performance, and its importance in terms of both exposure and compensation is only growing.

I’ve also been troubled by the here-and-gone/Snapchat mentality with which many of these videos are being shared.  I understand that artists, presenting organizations, and collection-holders may feel that making recordings available temporarily is a way to keep audiences interested without completely giving away the art (see monetization point above).  But, let me tell you, it hamstrings educators. 

I can’t teach with your temporarily-available video. If I could watch your work repeatedly, I could share it with my students.  Actually, seeing your amazing work has given me an idea for an entire unit – no wait, an entire course!  I want to hire you to do a residency at my university!  When are you next scheduled to perform it, because I would like to bring my class to see it performed live?  I’m also looking for a topic for my senior thesis/graduate dissertation/monograph, and I’m deeply inspired by what you’re doing!

And, dear artist/presenting organization/collection-holder, please know that even now, on lock-down, I’m still not going to have the chance to watch your temporarily-available video.  I will look at the title, get excited, bookmark the page, and then have to resume home-schooling my kids, dealing with my new online work universe, and rationing squares of toilet paper.

In all seriousness, though, I realize I’m just highlighting problems.  The solutions are not easy, and this is why the Dancing Digital Project is just the latest chapter of a 30-plus years push to better preserve and create access to dance recordings. If nothing else, this current moment reveals the kind of community and cooperation that are necessary ingredients to any solution.  Especially now that this panic-sharing has given us a glimpse of the wonderful dance recordings that exist, we need to work together to turn our increasingly fragmented artistic landscape into a sustainable, accessible, and connected legacy.