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Virtual Democracy: Online Ballet and Contemporary Dance Classes During the Covid-19 Crisis

Abstract

This article considers the politics and dynamics of online ballet and contemporary dance classes during the Covid-19 lockdown on geo-political, economic, and cultural implications of dance classes in digital media. Using a post-colonial lens and popular dance studies, this research analyzes the effect of the online ballet and contemporary classes colonizing digital spaces and the effect of this phenomenon on creating a more democratic and participatory access to dance that has built a more global and inclusive engagement with the arts for geographically peripheral spaces. This essay investigates the kind of common created by kinaesthetic experience of the dancers teaching and participating in the classes in digital media providing a key strategy to analyze the participatory embodiment of dancers as a radical, material, corporeal challenge to the hierarchies of the dance world, and furthermore, the economic dynamics that shape it.
Virtual Democracy: Online Ballet and Contemporary Dance Classes
During the Covid-19 Crisis
Dara Milovanovic, University of Nicosia
Abstract
This article considers the politics and dynamics of online ballet and contemporary
dance classes during the Covid-19 lockdown on geo-political, economic, and cultural
implications of dance classes in digital media. Using a post-colonial lens and popular
dance studies, this research analyzes the effect of the online ballet and contemporary
classes colonizing digital spaces and the effect of this phenomenon on creating a more
democratic and participatory access to dance that has built a more global and inclusive
engagement with the arts for geographically peripheral spaces. This essay investigates
the kind of common created by kinaesthetic experience of the dancers teaching and
participating in the classes in digital media providing a key strategy to analyze the
participatory embodiment of dancers as a radical, material, corporeal challenge to the
hierarchies of the dance world, and furthermore, the economic dynamics that shape it.
Keywords: Online Dance Classes, Digital Democracy, Access and Inclusivity, Popular
Dance
In our anxiety-stricken state and looming sense of loss of freedom, on March 18th of 2020
my husband and I took a Graham class in our living room in Cyprus with Martha Graham
Dance Company dancers Marzia Memoli and Alessio Crognale1 streamed directly on
Instagram. We had both trained heavily in Graham in various conservatories and
universities in the UK, Canada, and the US, and we were thrilled to be able to take a class
and disrupt our everyday routine about panicking how to teach dance online and home
school our child, our parents’ exposure to the Covid-19 virus and mental health, and the
overall fear that permeated 2020. We wore our Graham T-shirts with black trousers and
positioned ourselves on the floor to start with the bounces and breathing. After
struggling with technology and trying to figure out how to stream Instagram on a
laptop, our frustrations grew as we were running out of time, we gave up and followed
instructions from a small phone screen. The cats decided to join and swish their tails
across our heads and chest with every contraction, spiral, and undulation of the spine.
We filmed ourselves doing Turns Around the Back, having to constantly adjust our
The International Journal of Screendance 12 (2021). https://doi.org/10.18061/ijsd.v12i0.7927
© 2021 Milovanovic. This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
129 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
positions to avoid hitting each other and the persistent cat. The experience helped us
escape the uncertainty of the situation for a while, allowed us to finally look at each
other and laugh, made us emotional, and happy to gain access into a world we had been
missing since leaving the US after completing our studies a couple of decades ago. As
always, Graham technique provided a familiar physical ground to be emotional with its
glorious high lifts and indulgent spirals, which I had not allowed myself to feel or show
to my family during this time. We posted different videos on Instagram and the Graham
Dance Company reposted it, giving us giddy joy as we felt recognized and seen in our
geographically remote position in comparison to the US.
Screenshot: The author (right) and Alexander Michael (left) taking a Graham Class in their living room in
Cyprus, 18 March 2020. Credit: @alexander_michael_
The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic crisis commanded lockdown across the majority of the
world, bringing various sectors of the professional dance world to a sudden halt. In
March 2020, the world witnessed closing of theaters, dance studios, and training centers
that put dance artists, educators, and students out of their ability to continue to practice
their art. In Cyprus, where I live and work, a strict lockdown was imposed only allowing
us to leave our houses for essential reasons accompanied by an SMS text message sent
to the government carefully monitoring the movements of the citizens. I teach and run
the Dance Programme at University of Nicosia, which shifted all of its instruction online,
challenging me to lead the faculty and students through an alternate pedagogical and
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learning period. At this time, impromptu online dance classes began to appear in variety
of dance genres by world-famous dancers and dance companies. As Laura Regensdorf
writes in Vanity Fair, as schools, theaters, and restaurants had their last sittings, “there
was a first: the debut Instagram Live class from the Merce Cunningham Trust, led by
program coordinator Jennifer Goggans.”2 I was delighted that dancers from some of the
major dance companies began to offer free online dance classes on various digital
platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. At a time when the performing
arts are in an extremely precarious position,3 celebrity dancers, including Isabella
Boylston and James Whiteside (principal dancers with American Ballet Theatre), Tamara
Rojo (Artistic director of English National Ballet), Tiler Peck, Megan Fairchild, Ashley
Bouder, (principal dancers with New York City Ballet), Adam Boreland (Orlando Ballet),
dancers of the Paul Taylor company, Akram Khan Dance Company, dancers from the
Graham company, Gaga people, and the Merce Cunningham trust,4 interrupted the
stillness of lockdown imposed onto the dance world by introducing a new way to
engage with movement practice, demonstrating the dance community’s resilience and
ability to adapt.
While the strict lockdown in Cyprus took hold, the online dance classes by some of the
world’s great dance artists offered relief and a way to engage remotely with the UK and
US dance scene. Sometimes I took class, at other times I just watched classes trying to
make sense of the new dance presence in online dance world. As a popular dance
scholar with a particular interest in screendance, I am used to watching dance online,
but the Covid-19 pandemic shifted what kind of dance exists online and how it is
distributed and consumed. This essay seeks to discuss the phenomenon of online dance
classes in ballet and contemporary dance during lockdown and its effect on politics and
economics of dance. I purposefully focus on internet-based classes in ballet and
contemporary dance, since this trend seems specific to pandemic culture, as opposed
to social and popular dance, which has a strong presence in the media and digital
landscapes. In particular, this article seeks to explore two junctures: the co-optation and
implication of popular screendance aesthetics by concert dance forms, and the
postcolonial positioning of the global North within living rooms and bedrooms across
the world. The changing online dance scene prompted me to question the politics and
economics surrounding the new dance presence online and what these online classes
might signify during a pandemic in terms of democratization of dance through popular
dance methods and aesthetics, and geopolitical implications of access to Western
dancers and dance institutions for dancers in marginalized and peripheral places. The
discussion centers the cultural, economic, and geopolitical effects of traditionally
concert dance forms shifting to digital spaces, such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook,
and TikTok, skillfully occupied by popular dance practices and the new (more global)
dance community emerging out of these generous offerings. Furthermore, I seek to
explore the politics of access that have altered for geographically marginalized places,
using my particular position as a dance educator and practitioner who resides in Cyprus.
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Dancers in peripheral places or economically disadvantaged communities that had no
access to dance classes have been learning dances from screen throughout history of
dance on (home) screens. My first experience of learning American popular dance forms
was by watching musicals and repeatedly rewinding them to learn the jazz
choreographies from VCR tapes of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and Michael Bennett’s
A Chorus Line (1985). I grew up in Yugoslavia and Soviet Russia where I trained in ballet,
which was the only style of dance classes available at the time, and learning jazz from
musicals provided a fun experience that was vastly different from Russian training in
ballet. Like Melissa Blanco Borelli, who discusses learning dance material from Janet
Jackson’s 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814,5 I along with my friends learned dances from
music videos and VCR tapes of various film musicals. In a similar vein, prompted by the
pandemic, online dance classes in 2020 allowed me (and presumably many other
people) to participate in classes with some famous ballet and contemporary dancers
due to the fact that they shifted to digital spaces and employed similar methodologies
that far-reaching popular dance has done successfully for decades.
Ballet and Contemporary Dance in Popular Dance Spaces
Prompted by the 2018 edition of Dance Studies Association’s Conversations across the
field of Dance Studies on how popular dance “is often the innovative site where so many
of our everyday relationships with local, national and global politics gain visibility”6 and
how the practice of corporeal politics acts as a mode of resilience, I seek to analyze the
political effect of online ballet and contemporary dance classes during the 2020
lockdown. By engaging with popular dance scholarship, I am interested to explore the
dynamics of geo-political, economic, and cultural implications of free dance classes by
elite dancers and dance institutions. Dance forms, such as classical ballet,
contemporary, and post-modern dance, ordinarily reserved for big theaters, dependent
on large financial grants and donor support, and formal academies, shifted to digital
platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ballet and contemporary dancers have responded to pandemic-related loss of work by
offering dance classes across various digital platforms in order to stay current, relevant,
and physically active, employing popular dance tactics which Theresa Buckland argues
exhibit a “tendency to innovation” 7 to meet demands of the market. Inspired by popular
dance, which occupies various digital media, ballet and contemporary dancers have
been forced by the extreme social and economic situation to innovate new ways to
work and attract an audience and keep the arts in the public eye. This allowed them to
reach a potentially global audience through online spaces so often utilized by popular
dance forms.
Online dance classes have created a new form of screendance that is particularly site-
specific.8 The movement sequences for the online classes are created specifically for the
camera that captures the instructor and for the home screen on which they are watched.
Furthermore, they are created specifically for home practice and thus take into
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consideration the constrained, furniture-laden environment as a site for the practice.
The online dance classes in question, such as ballet classes taught by Isabella Boylston
and James Whiteside, Graham classes by various members of the company, or by the
teachers of the Merce Cunningham trust are mostly filmed on personal smart phones
with minimal technical support, such as basic selfie ring lighting like the Spectrum
Aurora used by YouTubers and Instagrammers. Most of the classes are taught from
instructors’ living spaces. For example, Jennifer Goggans of the Cunningham Trust
taught the class from her living room, keeping time for the exercises that were
sometimes interrupted by her young son. I followed her class, adjusted for the limited
space that she had to move in, which made it easier to follow the class in my limited
space. This called for a different kind of class in Cunningham technique, which was
concentrated on complex footwork and back movement sequences, rather than
delving into space exploration and large traveling combinations.
After many years of not taking ballet classes, I had chosen to do a ballet barre during the
lockdown often late at night in my pajamas. I would hide in our bedroom, hold onto the
moving office chair as my make-shift barre and mostly try to psychologically reconcile
with the images of stunning dancers on screen and my fast-diminishing turnout. Given
the lack of space and the inadequate barre support, much of my class experience was
preoccupied with adjustments to the chair and myself in relation to surrounding walls,
the desk, and pets. I tried a variety of the classes and observed some trends. The ballet
classes offered online varied in style aimed at different audiences and adjusted to the
aesthetics and demands of the social media, and thus popular dance. Adam Boreland
of Orlando Ballet offered classes on Facebook that used social media catchphrases, such
as Monday Motivation ballet and Sunday Funday ballet.9 In order to make ballet
attractive and fun, he would introduce themes and wear various costumes encouraging
his class participants to do so, such as Spiderman ballet. Isabella Boylston and James
Whiteside employed multiple themes for their classes, including Star Wars, Vintage
Ballet Looks, and Harry Potter, making their classes fun and relatable.10 In their attempt
to keep dancing and working, some ballet and contemporary dancers offering online
instructions employed certain aesthetics that characterize dancing in quarantine in
home settings but also popular dance ideas, such as using well-known music in order
to make the classes fun and having a peppy tone to their teaching style. Tamara Rojo,
on the other hand, continued to teach a formal ballet class albeit from her kitchen.
As concert dance practitioners took to teaching dance online and numerous examples
of choreographed video dance emerged from moguls of ballet and contemporary
dance, it became evident that dance artists have responded to this crisis situation with
the creativity and innovation that characterizes popular dance, which constantly has to
present innovative models in order to meet demands of the market. Similar to popular
screendance culture, the online dance classes signify an adapting site for cultural
tension and struggle between formal institutions and individual artist, stillness of the
lockdown for the dance community, and dancer’ need to engage in physical activity.
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These actions represent an active response to the surrounding issues of the pandemic
allowing an instant transformation of the dance culture, collective, and structures.
The supposed hierarchy in dance, which divides concert dance forms, such as ballet and
contemporary from various popular dance forms has been brought into focus during
the pandemic as dance forms usually confined to theatre stages took to digital
landscapes to show and promote their work. Ballet companies have created a strong
online presence in the last few years and entered popular spaces, such as cinemas, to
screen full live or pre-recorded performances reflecting the shifting marketing
ideologies. However, the bulk of their work, labor, and existence is in studios and stages
reserved for a select local audience with a particular budget. For example, New York City
Ballet has created short videos entitled “Ballet Trailersand Anatomy of a Balletfor
their YouTube channel and Facebook page, which feature dancers speaking about their
experiences of preparing, rehearsing, and performing specific ballets, intertwined with
footage from the dances to instigate interest in the NYCB repertory.11 Royal Ballet
(amongst many other companies, such as the Bolshoi Theatre from Moscow) screens
full-length ballets in cinemas in various locations, including Cyprus.
Online dance classes have increased the popularity of ballet and contemporary dance
and brought them into mainstream, popular culture. Ballet exists on the periphery for
majority of the people who are more likely to be exposed to 15 to 60-second dances on
TikTok and dances in music videos rather than full-length ballets at large opera houses.
The presence of ballet and contemporary dance on digital platforms during lockdown
therefore brought these dance forms into the mainstream of popular and online culture
as illustrated below with the number of views for the online classes. Isabella Boylston’s
Instagram post showing a video of herself and James Whiteside doing a section of the
ballet barre in her kitchen on March 18th, 2020 reifies social media’s reach as she writes:
Holy Cow! Over 15000 (!!!!) of you tuned into #theCindiesBalletClass just now
(emoji) that’s almost 4 times the capacity of our largest theatre, the Met
opera house! Just think what we could all accomplish together! Cindy and I
will continue to give live IG ballet classes, and next time we will be asking for
a totally voluntary donation that we will give straight to the Dancer’s
Emergency Fund.12
Out of all of Graham dance classes uploaded to YouTube by the Martha Graham Dance
Company, the Graham Basics (beginner) Class with Anne Souder has the most views
with over 34,000 views as of May 29th, 2021. At the time of writing this essay, almost all
of Tamara Rojo’s (for English National Ballet) ballet classes that she offered from her
kitchen have been removed. The only one that is still on YouTube has almost 200,000
views. Pacific Northwest Ballet classes on YouTube have upwards of 100,000 views. Tiler
Peck’s ballet classes #turnitoutwithtiler uploaded to IGTV have anywhere between
2,000-41,000 views depending on her invited guests, which appear to increase the
popularity of her classes. Terry Lovell’s suggestion that, “cultural products are
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articulated structures of feeling and sensibility which derive from collective, shared
experience as well as from individual desires and pleasures,”13 offers an explanation for
the explosion and popularity of the online dance classes responding to the individuals’
needs to remain active, stay engaged, offer a charitable donation, and create a new
corporeal collective. Taking into consideration Dominic Strinati’s idea that popular
culture is viewed as a genuine expression of the people rather than an imposition by
institutions14 allows for an argument to emerge that online dance classes represent the
real need for dancers to move, engage, and keep the art form going, and that their
popularity is evident in these numbers, which are in sharp contrast to the availability
and accessibility of classes in exclusive studios in which these dance celebrities may
potentially teach.
Shifting into popular dance spaces causes a social and economic power move for ballet
and contemporary dance that gives it the dynamics of popular dance aesthetics, which
Sherril Dodds argues has “the capacity to destabilize and transgress cultural norms.”15
As professionals occupied amateur digital spaces, they shattered the hierarchy of
institutionalism, geography, economics, and concert versus popular dance. By
colonizing popular dance spaces of digital platforms, elite dance companies and
individual dancers escaped the confines of particular places and thus challenged the
Western notions of dancing spaces, including proscenium theaters and studios, by
reaching into living rooms and kitchens across the world. Company dance classes,
which are normally reserved for elite dancers trained within elite institutions became
web-native content and, therefore, disturbed ideas regarding locations to dance, access
to training, and the geopolitical position of dance styles and genres.
Access, Economics, and Challenge to Hierarchies
As previously mentioned, I live and work in Cyprus—a small sovereign island in the
Mediterranean—so as a contemporary dancer who was trained in the UK and the US, I
was excited to be able to take dance classes during the 2020 lockdown. I was allowed a
unique vantage point to consider the online dance classes during the pandemic, as
ordinarily Cypriot dancers do not have access to taking classes from Western dance
institutions. Cyprus is politically and economically European, yet it remains on the
periphery of the Western world geographically. Cyprus has endured Ottoman rule and
British colonial rule, gained its independence in 1960, and has been divided since 1974
following the Turkish invasion into the Turkish occupied North and Greek Cypriot South.
The history and political situation have shaped the cultural make-up of the country into
a distinctively post-colonial island with a strong pull toward Western trends and
development, yet keen to hold onto traditions. Stavros Karayiannis points out succinctly
that “one effect of these historic turns is a profound crisis in modern Cypriot (both Greek
and Turkish) identity,”16 which also extends to dance. The dance scene consists of an
over-saturated market of dance schools, which mostly teach ballet and modern dance,
and more specifically British systems, such as Royal Academy of Dance (R.A.D.) and
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Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (I.S.T.D.), clearly solidifying the cultural need of
the island to receive international (particularly British) validation; and a great number of
schools which teach traditional Greek and Cypriot dances alluding to the need to
preserve the traditional culture. Before I went to study in the UK in 1996, I had taken
only two contemporary dance classes—not because I was not interested, but because
none were available. Contemporary dance has been developing with great strides since
the late 1990s in Cyprus. Now, a few decades later, the contemporary dance scene is
growing and thriving with local festivals producing contemporary dance, established
dance houses, a university program offering a BA degree in dance, and over 200 dance
schools that offer a variety of dance styles. Yet, for local professional dancers (most of
whom have trained abroad), classes are not available. Therefore, access to online dance
classes from the UK and US proved thrilling.17
As a post-colonial country, Cyprus is still deeply reminded of the British imperial rule
evident in the infrastructure—road signs that feature Greek and English names, and
British military bases—and its citizens are strongly attracted to the West. As prominent
Cypriot scholar Zelia Georgiou explains, defining Cyprus as simply post-colonial fails to
acknowledge its complexity. She states, “by addressing colonialism as a historical
phenomenon and defining itself as a critical metadiscourse, it can be argued that
postcolonialism denies both existing colonialism and its own discourse implication in
current webs of knowledge and power.”18 Western understanding of post-colonialism
does not necessarily apply to the Cypriot model,19 which Georgiou argues continues to
privilege “the western subject as the subject of reflexivity and atonement.”20 As an
ethnically divided country, Cyprus exhibits a strong anxiety to its national self. The
growing multicultural population in Cyprus is experienced as an effect of global socio-
economic change “rather than as a question pointing to the re-appreciation of our
[Greek Cypriot] historical ethnic diversity and ethnic divides.”21 If the local subject in
Cyprus is not a migrant, or of a different race or ethnicity, then what is their position to
the imperial colonialism and how does the dance scene respond to this? As Georgiou
argues, the position of the Cypriot is between two cultures: the post-colonial subject
and national struggle and anxiety, arising from the contact of the local population with
the colonizers, thus making identities form in and by their relations. What is clearly
evident in Cyprus and its dance scene is that what has been “essential to the machine
of colonialism had been the hinge between western imperialism and local, internal
colonialism.”22 For contemporary dance practices, this means that most local dancers
and choreographer practice Western styles of dance, specifically Release, Graham, and
Cunningham with post-modern compositional practices, and largely ignore traditional
dance and music (with a few exceptions), thus the ability to take classes from the largely
recognized Western dance centers appealed to the marginalized dance practitioners in
Cyprus.
The shared practices of having live dance experiences halted, and then resurrected
through an online presence, has provided access to training that is rooted in ideals of
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openness and inclusivity that challenges privileges of geography, economics, and
access. However, they still may exclude individuals with the disadvantages of not
having personal space to take class in, leisure time, or internet access. Set against the
political control of the lockdown and the loss of personal freedom in the name of public
safety, the classes provide a new sense of freedom and virtual democracy by extending
their reach into geographically peripheral spaces, such as Cyprus, and beyond major
metropolitan cities that house well-established dance companies. Online dance classes
open access to dance training to various geographical locations that may not be able to
train otherwise. The fact that a new community was forged may be indisputably fortified
by my experience of taking class from my remote location in the relation to the US, yet
it seemed to represent a vastly Western experience of offering classes in white, concert
dance forms that appealed to a marginalized demographic seeking Western
experiences and approval. Although Harmony Bench critiques Ramsay Burt’s
romanticized vision of contemporary dance practices in Europe, she still presumes that
Europe as a concept provides equal access to dance training and producing.23 The
geographical definition of Europe is vastly different to its political one, which is
amplified for dance with countries in Western and Central Europe holding a monopoly
on contemporary dance in terms of training and choreographic opportunities.
Although ballet training is widely available in ex-Soviet countries, as well as those
adjacent to the communist phenomenon, more peripheral countries (such as Cyprus,
Malta, and Iceland), have gained access to ballet and contemporary training in the
second half of the twentieth century. The phenomenon of online classes may have been
particularly exciting for dancers in geographically remote places who ordinarily do not
have access to training with New York- or London-based choreographers, dancers, and
teachers. My mention of these two cities is purposeful, as they are often seen as the
epitome of dance training and performing, particularly in Cyprus. However, even people
within the US, UK, and Europe who live and engage in dance practice in remote, rural
places would possibly have the same experience as someone living on an island in the
Mediterranean. The post-colonial pull toward Western trends makes activities from
these regions additionally exciting for Cypriot artists.
Additionally, online dance classes would have allowed various economically
disadvantaged groups to gain access to training in elite dance forms that they may not
have access previously. The pandemic has allowed a wider cast net for dance training
and access for particular dance forms. Bench alludes to the importance of digital dance
to ensure a more democratic access to dance as she states:
the digital media at the forefront of my own investigation reach farther and
wider than the festivals and metropolitan theaters to which European dance
artists might tour their stage-based productions. Furthermore, these media
bring all possible dance forms into the flattening space of the computer
screen, blurring distinctions among movement practices and communities
and disarticulating them from their histories and cultural situations.24
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By shifting to digital spaces, ballet and contemporary dance allowed people to learn
dance in the same way as many social and popular dance forms that appear in
mainstream media. Free online dance classes disrupt the idea of who has privilege to
train. Using Robert Gehl’s idea of “YouTube’s democratic, participatory natureas a
challenge to broadcast media,25 I argue that free online dance classes may offer
possibility to decentralize institutional dance instruction bound to studio presence and
economic ability to pursue dance. Although streaming a class can in no way replace the
experience of studio class with a teacher providing feedback and corrections, it does
allow dancers with experience to continue to engage in daily practice. Some dancers
offered instruction for beginner classes allowing access to a larger dance community.
The disruption of privilege is crucial in the discussion of how to make strides towards
more inclusive scholarship and curricula as it encourages participation in dance forms
reserved for financially and geographically privileged people. Free online dance classes
do not offer a long-term solution as dancers cannot financially and logistically continue
to offer their skills for free, as well as the fact that “dance remains a social practice,
regardless if one learns in a studio, on a street corner, or from a screen.”26
Online dance classes do not have an explicit function to promote, mediate, and circulate
celebrity capital, yet they aim to keep the arts in the public eye, raise funds, and provide
a social service in terms of free classes. They encourage a physical response to dance on
screen and seek to engage the viewer to participate in an active way, rather than
passively watch a performance. Through this engagement the dance landscape has
changed as it has included geographically and economically remote dancers into a new
community. Bench argues that “mobilized, dancing bodies reclaim and rechoreograph
terrains that ought to exclude them”27 thus by engaging with the online dance presence
during the pandemic the dance world may have been altered to a more democratic and
inclusive space. Ideally, online dance classes provide universal and democratic access
to dance training, but I wonder if someone without training and background in ballet,
Graham, or Cunningham could safely and effectively follow class, therefore continuing
the disparity in dance training access. Isabella Boylston’s ballet-inspired workout “My
Bootylicious Workout” uploaded on April 28th to Instagram features a mixture of ballet-
and Pilates-based exercises set to the music of Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child, and No
Doubt,28 and is advertised as “no ballet training necessaryin the accompanying post.
Although, Boylston tries to make the video entertaining with popular music choices,
some of the exercises would be extremely difficult for non-trained dancers to do safely,
such as the en croix series of tendus, followed by the lifting of the legs, whilst keeping
the arms in high fifth position or single leg balances without the assistance of a barre.
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Screenshot: Isabella Boylston in “My Bootylicious Workout ;-)” 28 April 28 2020. Credit: @isabellaboylston
Digital circulation of dance classes created for participation, rather than choreography
designed to be observed, alters the way that cultural capital circulates as participants
embody knowledge, traditions, and practices creating a corporeal wealth independent
of formal institution in the given moment. Through this process, the ownership of dance
material is questioned. Jayna Brown argues that searching for the origins and inceptions
of popular dance is a difficult project since with gestural vocabularies there are no
beginnings, only continuation29 pointing to its unwieldy history and belonging to
groups of people and communities. Ballet and contemporary dance, on the other hand,
have belonged to institutions, dancers who gain the right to perform and teach the
repertory, and certification programs that allow teachers to disseminate these
established dance techniques. Anthea Kraut argues that unlike other commodities in a
capitalist system, dance circulates through body-to-body transmission,30 therefore, it is
perpetuated and dependent on people engaging in physical practice. By offering ballet
and contemporary dance online for free, the dancers have bypassed institutions as
holders of traditions and knowledge, and distributed dynamics and hierarchies of dance
ownership and training.
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Dance artists of various backgrounds and experiences mobilized with the act of moving,
teaching, and dancing to resist the stillness of the lockdown forced onto the
professional dance world and ended up challenging politics and economics of formal
dance training, institutions, and access. Responding to their own need to practice their
art, as well as the need to provide a social contribution, dance artists offering classes
online became independent creators of their art, and, thus, asserted their
independence. Online dance classes challenge the idea of institutions, formal training,
and hierarchy of master and teacher. By responding to the pandemic situation, artists,
as autonomous producers of their art, assert their independence, thus, disturbing class
distinctions and arbitrary divisions between concert and popular dance. Boundaries
between public and private spaces blurred as dance celebrities opened their homes to
online audiences. By doing so, professional artists by-passed well-established and
sponsored institutions and created an anti-capitalist approach to dance from their living
rooms and kitchens.
The online classes required a collaborative practice as professional dancers offered free
online classes with learners participating with comments and videos tagging the
teachers. The issue with this is that collaborative practice feeds into neoliberal capitalist
notions of individualism requiring uncompensated labor as dancers offering their
knowledge and experience for free in exchange for tags, tweets, and re-shares.
Although, online dance classes do not explicitly promote a particular product, such as a
performance or work of a company, they are immersed in economics of art promotion
that depends on individual artists and repertory to attract audiences and donors, which
follows Alex Harlig’s argument that much online commercial content has moved even
further towards obscuring their marketing intention while promoting consumption.31
In some instances, dancers promoted fundraising during their classes asking for
charities that would support funds for dancers, dance companies, and various social
causes. However, these practices may be only short-term offerings and will prove
difficult to maintain as dance artists become further challenged with ability to gain an
income and may choose to charge a fee as the Graham school did a few weeks into the
lockdown offering classes over Zoom as an institution, replacing live Instagram classes
by individual dancers. Generosity of online dance teaching on Instagram and YouTube
facilitated gift economy, which Bench argues causes “the slippage between gift and
commodity” and has little possibility to bring financial gain to the creators.32 As
Regensdorf writes in standard magazine fashion “sudden flowering of dance
livestreams has been less a concession than a gift. It’s for nurses working night shift who
need to shake off stress at a later time; for bunheads in far-away Portugal, France, Hong
Kong”33 relegating dance to a stress relief and re-affirming the US view that they are
geographically positioned in the center of the Global North, from which everything is
far away. The dancers’ inability to perform has resulted in a creative and generous
offering of dance classes in order to promote their style of dance, company they dance
with, and their own persona. In the neoliberal capitalist economy, the responsibility to
keep dance relevant fell to individual dancers who took on responsibility to promote
140 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
their work, themselves as brand ambassadors for their companies, and dance in general,
rather than having state support and prolonged economic support from various
governments promising basic livelihood, similar to other industries. By shifting focus to
actions taken by individuals, Bojana Kunst’s idea that “the relationship between art and
life is highly topical because their merger underlies the capitalization of human powers
and their exploitation for the generation of profit”34 has been solidified problematizing
the relationship between art, dancers’ labor, skill set and knowledge, and capitalist
production.
The bold actions of dancers to offer online dance classes demonstrates the relationship
between how the value of performers’ labor and capitalism has formed. Like popular
culture, which Andrew Edgar argues is surrounded by a distinct dichotomy which
situates it within the capitalist system whilst simultaneously trying to resist it from
within,35 online dance classes present a contradictory economic system, whereby
individual dancers express a neo-liberal responsibility to keep the economy going, yet
present a strict challenge to the hierarchies of the dance world and its institutions. As
Kunst articulates and online dance classes exemplify, “the capacities of human being,
our cognitive, affective, and flexible abilities are part of the production of value and this
is why the line between the labor and private time is disappearing,”36 which was further
exploited as dancers shifted from glamorous stage settings to their private residencies
allowing a glimpse into the efforts needed to keep up the glamorous presentations on
stage. In the time of classifying works and jobs into essential and not, artists found a way
to make themselves and their professions “useful” by providing a “service” in the form
of online classes revealing the materiality of their work by physically showing how hard
dancers have to work to stay in shape. This corresponds to the Kunst’s argument that
the artist’s relation to work “especially the usefulness and productive nature of that
work, which affects every dimension of an artist’s life (and therefore also comes across
as a fusion of life and work)”37 is essential to their ability to maintain a livelihood. The
artist must continually update their skills and usefulness in relation to their productivity
and thus capitalist network and with that “forever shift away from the possible
nonproductive and non-useful site of work.”38 Even though the actions by individual
artists to offer online dance classes clearly involve them in a capitalist web of
productivity and usefulness, they also contest the idea that “the value of the labor of
the performer is not residing in the labor of the performer herself/himself but it is only
becoming visible through the institutionalized, economized, and highly managed
initiatives”39 as they assert their individual popularity, labor, and relevance.
New (More Global) Dance Community
Despite the problems exhibited by the post-colonial tensions that attracted dancers
who live, work, and create in spaces that appear peripheral to the dominant West, online
dance classes offered an optimistic idea of a unified dance community. As dancers were
removed from their natural habitat of dance studios and stages, a new digital
141 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
community emerged with the presence of online dance classes that invited
participation. A great deal of dance performances were released online that normally
would not allow access beyond the exclusive theatre settings of cosmopolitan cities,
however they could not create the same sense of community as the online dance
classes, many of which streamed live, allowed live commentary and re-posted videos of
dancers participating in their classes therefore confirming their involvement. Using
Harmony Bench’s ideas on the common as a site to negotiate, exploit, conserve and
consume dance and its practices,40 I am interested in what kind a new common have
digital technologies produced during this particular time. The dancers offering and
taking class became united by the situation created by the pandemic and formed an
embodied reaction that contrasted the extreme stillness of the lockdown seen and
experienced across the world. The stillness applies to the dance community and not the
extremely stressful and demanding pace placed on the essential workers during the
Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
Online dance classes require involvement and engagement creating a participatory
type of common. As Bench argues, by learning a dance, one corporeally manifests
belonging to a social group—even if that group is constituted in online spaces or
through shared media use rather than through physical proximity,41 therefore, it is clear
that the dancers enjoying these classes were united by their experience of taking classes
during this given time riddled with similar concerns and fears. Engaging with online
dance classes through physical participation, commentary, and visual images, dancers
negotiated and contested their belonging to a community. Learning to dance as a
process of belonging provided the participants with the optimistic opportunity to
belong to a world unified by dance, rather, than one clearly divided by politics and
economics. In thinking of the common as a global, online phenomenon enabled and
perpetuated by the lockdown, I employ Harmony Bench’s notion of “no-place” which
has the political potential to create “a site deployed to erase location—a site that works
to render itself invisible… Its very emptiness grounds Western dance practices and
launches dancing bodies into new sites by erasing topological specificities42 to
understand the common created by the digital common of online classes created in
response to this specific time and specific crisis. Opposed to the oppressive (albeit
extremely necessary) restriction of movement during lockdown, this idea of a new
space, of no-place offers alternative ideas to render a common “abstracted from built or
natural environments that would situate their movement, bodies wander through
space with an illusory freedom, unrestricted by physical or ideological barriers.”43
Grounded in and by their own homes, dancers offering classes are dis-located from
studios and stages, thus increasing their reach and mobility, whilst restricting the literal
space to move in. Participation of dancers in online dance classes spreads the dance
forms across geographical, pandemic, and economic boundaries creating a “corporeal
common,”44 however raises alarming issues about colonization through globalization
and promotion of Western dance forms, which may ignore cultural specificities of
remote, peripheral, or marginalized places. The new more geographically inclusive,
142 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
digital common refers to Bench’s idea of no-place as a new digital topography created
by the circumstances of the pandemic that has political potential to disrupt physical,
ideological privileges surrounding dance access and specificity of location.
Online dance instruction cannot replace the experience of dancing in a studio, sharing
the physical experience with other dancers, amplified with music and ability to enjoy
traveling through space, however, I am interested in the political power that online
dance classes have offered to the instructors and participants through a
phenomenological lens. The shared corporeal experience of dancing in spite of the
quietness of the pandemic, the economic and financial uncertainty, and fears regarding
one’s health, acts as sign of resilience and resistance. Pointing to the importance of
mediated popular dance, and furthermore, the subjectivity that occurs through
embodied response of learning dances presented on screen, Blanco Borelli’s argument
that perhaps fans learning dance routines enables a phenomenological relation of
corporeal relation enabled by the screen,45 seems fitting in the understanding of the
somatic experience of offering and taking online dance classes. Dancers engaging in
online dance classes, improvisations, and choreographic experiments during the
pandemic had a kinesthetic experience highlighting corporeality as subjectivity;
dancers whose physical identities were articulated through dancing formed political,
reactive, and reactionary entities that are able to contest boundaries of control. Blanco
Borelli defines the relationship between popular dance and its spectators/consumers
learning to perform the dances as she writes “for it is through the ubiquitous availability
of such mediated performances that dance on screen becomes (corpo)real and
tangible,”46 which is an idea that has been transferred to the possibility of learning ballet
and contemporary dance during the 2020 pandemic. As dancing bodies, united across
screens, engage in kinesthetic experiences they form a collective physical action and a
powerful experience of community in a world halted and divided by the pandemic.
The enforced physical separation and lack of dancing spaces has had a profound effect
on how classes are designed for online teaching and home participation. The
consequences of online dance instruction on the physical well-being dancers are yet to
be determined but the political effect of expanded access to training in ballet and
contemporary dance to people with a decent internet connection and smart phone
(and some background training) has been profound. Dancers have been united through
a shared, screened experience of dance allowing geographically and economically
marginalized groups access to learning dance. Using Bench’s observation that
participatory commons “enabl[e] a contemporary discourse in which the commons
signal open access, anticapitalism, and radical democracy,47 offers a possibility to look
at the online dance presence during the pandemic as revolutionary in terms of
economics and open access and as an alternative to neoliberal financial ideology that
defines economics of the twenty first century Western countries as it challenges formal
economics of institutions and geographic boundaries. The new geographic and
economic challenge to dance democracy that the online dance classes during the
143 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
Covid-19 pandemic have introduced will re-organize dance practices and create new
complex social relations that challenge the arts hierarchy. Ballet and contemporary
dance classes entering digital media presents economic dynamics of popular dance
that embody tensions between neoliberal capitalist incentives by the individual dance
artists versus artistic establishment.
As dancers adapted to the new situation and shifted from physical spaces of studio and
stage to digital spaces, they responded to current cultural needs and sought to create
immediacy and connection that contradicts the separation created by lockdown. In a
similar way to the function of the body in staged protests, as a key factor “in
constructing both individual agency and sociality,48 the physical presence of dancers
creates an individual and collective response in reaction to the emergency of the
pandemic. Dance provides a political and social movement that challenges the
economic and political stillness of the pandemic. The classes provided an opportunity
to connect to one’s sense of physical agency, corporeal power, and a global collective
united by dance practice. The very presence of dancers online serves as an act of
resistance and their belief in the possibility of instigating change. By colonizing digital
spaces of popular dance, ballet and contemporary dancers have created a democratic
and participatory access to dance that has opened up a wider engagement with the
arts. Through shared physical connection facilitated by dance classes the dance
landscape has changed bringing traditional, classical dance forms into the twenty first
century by occupying digital spaces.
Biography
Dara Milovanovic is an Assistant Professor of Dance and Head of the Department of
Music and Dance at University of Nicosia in Cyprus. Dara holds a PhD in Dance Studies
from Kingston University London, UK and an MA in American Dance Studies from
Florida State University. Dara teaches contextual dance studies, dance research,
contemporary dance technique and jazz dance. Her work has been published in books
and journals, such Perspectives on American Dance: The Twentieth Century, Peephole
Journal, Dance Research, and Fifty Contemporary Choreographers (Third Edition). Her
research interests include popular dance, musical theatre, screendance, and film
phenomenology. Dara is an active contemporary dance performer in Cyprus.
Email: dara.milovanovic@gmail.com
144 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
Notes
1 See some of the classes uploaded here: https://www.instagram.com/marziamem/
2 Regensdorf, “In the Age of Quarantine.”
3 Two articles in the New York Times, “One Lost Weekend” by Michael Paulson, Elizabeth
A. Harris, and Graham Bowley and “For the Arts in Europe, Lockdown Feels Different This
Time” by Alex Marshall indicate the dire situation for the arts scene in New York City and
Europe, which are indicative of many other places. According to an ABC news report
published on 27th of February of 2021, the number of jobs in the arts fell from 87000 in
February of 2020 to 34100 in April of 2020 in New York City. The same report states that
arts, entertainment and recreation employment in December was down 66% year-over-
year. Furthermore, according to a report published by Brookings Institution in August
of 2020, based on their creative-industry analysis, they estimate losses of 2.7 million jobs
for creative industries in the US with fine and performing arts suffering the biggest
losses. In Cyprus, the arts scene has been off and on, with artists struggling to create,
perform, and financially survive. For an article on the state of the arts in Cyprus see Gina
Agapiou’s piece “Cyprus arts suffer as performers cannot work.”
4 This is not an exhaustive list of online dance classes offered during the 2020 pandemic
and quarantine. As many of the classes were streamed live, they are no longer available
however information can be found on following pages:
Isabella Boylston (https://www.instagram.com/isabellaboylston/);
James Whiteside (https://www.instagram.com/jamesbwhiteside/);
Tamara Rojo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcT9uRJqCrE&t=406s);
Tiler Peck (https://www.instagram.com/tilerpeck/);
Megan Fairchild
(https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=megan+fairchild+ballet+class);
Ashley Bouder
(https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ashley+bouder+ballet+class);
Adam Boreland (https://www.facebook.com/adamborelanddance);
Paul Taylor Dance classes (https://www.instagram.com/paultaylordance/);
Martha Graham Dancers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdSQpI_zUIU&t=682s);
Akram Khan Dance Company (https://www.facebook.com/AkramKhanCompany/);
Gaga Dance Classes (https://www.instagram.com/gaga.people.dancers/;
Merce Cunningham Trust (https://www.instagram.com/mercetrust/)
5 Blanco Borelli, “Dancing in Music Videos.”
6 Blanco Borelli and Anamaria Tamayo Duque, “Conversations Across the Field of Dance
Studies,” 7.
7 Theresa Buckland in Dodds, Dancing on the Canon, 48.
145 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
8 Douglas Rosenberg’s argument that screendance is a site-specific form of dance fits
well in analysis of online dance classes. See Screendance, 17.
9 Adam Boreland’s Facebook page features many of the ballet videos that dancers can
revisit. https://www.facebook.com/adamborelanddance
10 See Instagram profiles and classes uploaded here
https://www.instagram.com/isabellaboylston/ and
https://www.instagram.com/jamesbwhiteside/
11 See NYCB YouTube channel here https://www.youtube.com/user/newyorkcityballet
and Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/nycballet/
12 Boylston, I. (@isabellaboylston) March 18, 2020.
13 Lovell, “Cultural Production,” 543.
14 Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture.
15 Dodds, 3.
16 Karayiannis, “Anamnesis and Queer Poe(/li)tics,” 240.
17 At this time, no serious academic study has been done on the development of ballet
and contemporary dance in Cyprus, therefore the author relies on personal experience
of living, performing, and teaching in Cyprus. Various websites, such as the Cyprus
Dance Association (http://www.cydanceassociation.org/) offer information on dance
ballet schools; Nea Kinisi Association for Contemporary Dance Groups, Choreographers,
and Dancers (https://neakinisi.com/index.php/en/ offers information on the two
initiaves led by them, including the Summer Festival and Visibility Programme; Dance
House Lemesos (http://www.dancehouse.com.cy/) provides information regarding
their programs and residencies; Cultural Services of Ministry of Education and Culture,
which provides most of the grants for dance only lists the contact person and does not
have information about the festivals and funding schemes it provides on its opening
page (http://www.moec.gov.cy/en/cultural_services.html). Apart from very limited
information available, none of these sources give an insight into the internal politics of
dance on this small island.
18 Georgiou, “De-Scribing Hybridity in ‘Unspoiled Cyprus,’” 241.
19 For example, Tuck and Yang address settler colonialism in the US in their article
Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” which does not relate to the issues experienced in
places like Cyprus.
20 Georgiou, 242.
21 Ibid. 245.
146 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
22 Ibid. 242.
23 Bench, Perpetual Motion, 4.
24 Ibid. 5.
25 Gehl, “YouTube as Archive,” 44.
26 Bench, Perpetual Motion, 154-155.
27 Ibid. 68.
28 Boylston, I. (@isabellaboylston) April 28, 2020.
29 Brown, Babylon Girls, 7.
30 Kraut, Choreographing Copyright, 180.
31 Harlig, “‘Fresher Than You,’” 59.
32 Bench, Perpetual Motion, 176.
33 Regensdorf.
34 Kunst, “Art and Labour,” 116.
35 Edgar and Sedgwick, Cultural Theory.
36 Kunst, “Lust.rf. Lecture.”
37 Kunst, “Art and Labour,” 120.
38 Ibid. 120.
39 Kunst, “Art and Labour.”
40 Bench, “Remarks.”
41 Bench, Perpetual Motion, 160-161.
42 Bench, “Media and the ‘No-place’ of Dance,” 37.
43 Ibid. 37.
44 Bench, Perpetual Motion, 157.
45 Blanco Borelli, “Dancing in Music Videos,” 53.
46 Ibid.
47 Bench, Perpetual Motion, 4.
48 Foster, “Choreographies of Protest,” 395.
147 MILOVANOVIC: VIRTUAL DEMOCRACY
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