The COVID-19 pandemic stripped the Tampa Bay dance community of in-person classes and performances for a year and a half. The resilience of this same community led to innovations in masked and socially distanced performances and virtual classes.
Now with vaccinations, there is a renewed interest and hope in slowly, but surely, physically gathering and dancing together once more.
As vaccinations rolled out this spring, projectALCHEMY’s Artistic Director, Alexander Jones began tiptoeing back towards face-to-face options for dancers seeking connection. This May, Jones debuted a new community dance class schedule in The Studio@620’s lofted studio space, replete with a new Marley dance floor.
Jones says he took inspiration from New York City’s Gibney Dance and San Francisco’s LINES Dance
Center’s community dance models. The schedule changes every month and includes both projectALCHEMY company members as well as guest teachers in a modular format.
He sought to take the hierarchy out of class offerings by mixing traditional “concert” dance techniques, such as ballet and modern, alongside hybridized dance forms that highlight improvisation and experimentation. These include contemporary, jazz, hip-hop, urban funk and global dance forms. Classes are held Monday evenings from 7-8:30 pm and Saturday mornings from 10-11:30 am for $10.
“There are very few places for adults to take class,” says Jones. “I’m not replicating those [studios] here because they aren’t the Tampa Bay area’s needs, but I wondered how to fill the need by looking at these models. Also, how do we highlight our BIPOC artists who are doing awesome things in the area?”
I first connected with the St. Pete dance community via projectALCHEMY’s contemporary classes in spring 2019 and continued to move with the group as one of the company’s resident artists. I dutifully brought my notebook to the studio and penned movement sequences in fragmented poems and blind contour sketches. I chatted with company members and other community dancers after class, got the skinny on upcoming performances in the area, and was advised on the best eats on Central Ave.
When classes were put on hold to abate virus transmission one year later, I, like many other dancers and dance educators, turned to Zoom and virtual classes to fill the gap. While these classes help dancers to keep moving, the social and gathering aspects of taking class together were hauntingly absent with every click of the red “leave meeting” button.
Although COVID numbers are on the rise with the Delta variant, Jones is taking precautions to keep the company and participants safe. All dancers are asked to wear masks regardless of vaccination status, and he will continue to monitor the CDC as new guidance develops.
“We want to keep the community moving, and the community still wants dance classes,” says Jones. “I support everyone’s agency at this moment.”
The August series kicked off Monday night with company member Fernando Chonqui’s Modern Contemporary class. Chonqui says the classes have been a cornerstone in his ability to re-connect with the community.
“Having a regularly scheduled class in the center of our community has allowed me to recalibrate my relationship with dance and my artistic self,” he reflects.
Fellow company member, Heidi Brewer, has also taught her “moving our bodies through space” class throughout the summer, and will teach again on August 9 and 30. In the class description, Brewer says movement will include modern and contemporary dance, lyrical jazz, Countertechnique and floorwork. Her list of current interests as a dance artist gives food for thought for participants as well.
“How my feet interact with the floor, relating body parts to one another as well as points in space, feeling the wind across my skin as I move, how my gaze informs my movement, how good it feels to move my body through space.”
Luis Torres, a freelancer in hip-hop and contemporary dance and former Fall 2019 recipient of the projectALCHEMY Momentum Choreographic Mentorship, will lead an Urban Fusion class on August 21.
Torres defines this class as a modern approach to fusing new hip hop styles with classical contemporary aspects. “In a way what I’ve been ‘bringing to the table’ to today’s dance community,” he states.
Robert Kelley will follow Torres with Dance Meditation on August 28, which investigates the connection between breath and movement using prompts and imagery like, “breath is your engine” or “breath is your fuel.” Kelley says he uses breath and the concepts of the Chakras to inform dancers about their movement patterns.
“Being able to teach class again in a physical space has really been empowering,” says Kelley. “Although teaching remotely has helped keep my practice alive, being able to feel the energy of the class really makes all the difference.”
This Saturday, August 7, I will teach “Move Write Move.” This class is designed to explore the intersections between contemporary movement exploration and poetry to facilitate self-expression – in a physical space and on the written page.
As I prepare my prompts and movement sequences—which reflect choreographic methods I use with my dance company, Poetica—I echo Chonqui’s reflections on the fulfillment these classes create for both mover and instructor. After the trials of being apart for so long, there is a warm gratitude that hums underneath the excitement of returning to in-person dance teaching.
“Coming together with my community, in a safe space where I can truly express my artistic self, while also witnessing other’s artistic manifestation is a gift that COVID took away,” says Chonqui. “A gift that now feels so much more precious than it ever did before.”