Armed for a Pandemic

A dance troupe’s film project holds loneliness at bay

Doug Carraway
Doug Carraway

Picture this: 24 masked people in a field, every one of them—every one of us—decked out in an array of variously whimsical homemade costume armor. My costume consists of a computer keyboard and two computer mice, decorated with sparkly nail polish my daughter left behind when she moved away; my mother’s white gloves from the 1950s; a silver sash with the letters MAMA in purple; an aluminum dryer vent; and a stuffed snake coiled around my head.

Kendra is wearing bits and pieces of her kids’ old Halloween costumes (Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Flapper Girl), the scarf Danielle has tied around her waist is imprinted with dragons and belongs to her six-year-old, and Laura S has a bandolier made of the cardboard inner tubes of toilet paper studded with her children’s toys from fast food restaurant meals, birthday goodie bags, and dentist awards. I am pretty sure the multiple tutus around Stacie’s neck belong to River, her three-year-old, but she hasn’t said so and I haven’t had the chance to ask. It’s hard enough to have a conversation with someone six feet away; at double or triple that, masked and outdoors, there’s no point trying. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter, because there’s only so much time to talk anyway when we meet up in the field on Sundays.

We’re making a dance film in the time of the pandemic, and every minute is precious. We’ve only got these three hours once a week, and it’s turning cold. In fact, it’s already cold: it’s early November and it has started to snow.

Ten weeks before, when we first started meeting in the field on Sundays, after nearly six months of rehearsing the choreography virtually, we were overdressed for the weather, sweating under our armor, panting behind our masks. One Sunday in October I realized that I was about to faint. “I think I need a break,” I called out—I could hear how shaky I sounded—and then I let myself sink to the grass before I fell. I’m 65 years old, a writer and college professor, not a dancer—hardly any of us are dancers—and the snake around my head was cinched too tight across my temples. But I was also wearing a black jumpsuit over a black long-sleeved leotard under my armor, the temperature was hovering around 80, and the sun was relentless in the shade-free field as we moved through the choreography again and again. Honestly, it’s surprising that I was the only one who came close to fainting, that day or any other day. I’m not even the eldest—at least three others are older than I am—and my costume isn’t the heaviest or the most constricting.

Too hot or too cold, almost all of us show up, week after week. It’s the only chance we have to go anywhere.

Over the entire period of filming—we finish right around Thanksgiving—there ends up being just one Sunday when there is perfect weather for dancing outdoors in Columbus, Ohio. “That was a great day, wasn’t it?” we say for weeks afterward. But even on the not-great days, even in the rain, or under a blazing sun, or when the wind is so strong that parts of people’s costumes fly away—or on this particular cold November Sunday when it starts to snow soon after we take our positions —we are all grateful to be there. Grateful to have somewhere to go, of course. And also grateful to be making something interesting and maybe even beautiful—we can’t tell, not yet.

We were supposed to have started rehearsing last spring for a dance performance that would occur in the usual way—in person, in a theater—come summer. More than 40 of us, almost all amateur but unusually dedicated adult dancers, were going to participate. At that point, the upstart dance company that Russell Lepley, the choreographer, and his husband, Filippo Pelacchi, had founded in Columbus was three years old, as was the studio they’d opened with the mission of teaching adults to dance.

Beginners like me, and people like my new friend Judith, an epidemiologist in her mid-70s who had been dancing for more than 30 years, and also people who’d danced seriously at one time but had been away from it for years (Lindsey, now a clinical social worker; Heather, now a physical therapist), quickly became regulars. First regulars, then acolytes. Judith called us a cult (but that is Judith’s mordant sense of humor: she is also the one who once said, in ballet class, during barre—in response to Filippo’s exhortation to pay more attention to the inside leg than the working, outside leg—“If God wanted us to pay attention to it, he wouldn’t have called it the inside leg”).

Russell and Filippo, it must be said, are the kind of magical teachers who transform people’s lives; they are also the sort of people others simply want to be around as much as possible. It was irresistible, I found, to be taken seriously as a dancer at my age, to be so patiently talked through every minute detail of everything I was being taught. To be guided by their metaphors: Step into the water, Russell would say as we walked across the floor, and Stretch the floor away from you to describe a tendu with plié.

When Russell raised the possibility of choreographing work on us, their most devoted students, it seemed natural, even inevitable. For us, it was an exciting, absorbing new challenge; for Russell and Filippo, it was a chance to break free of the norms of dance performance, and to put in practice what they had come to believe fervently, and could see for themselves every day as teachers—that different kinds of bodies and ability, age, gender, expectations, and experience expressed themselves through dance in ways that lifelong training in “the right bodies” did not.

For some of the pieces Russell made for us, we danced alongside—or served as a corps de ballet for—the members of the professional company; sometimes, we were alone on stage. Or—in the case of this newest piece, as it became clear that the original plan had to be abandoned—we were alone in a field, masked, armed.

For our first virtual rehearsal, Russell had only a glimmer of an idea about what we were going to do. He asked us each to bring a spatula and a pot lid—a child’s version of a sword and a shield. At this stage, after Russell brings the seed of an idea and starts to move through it as we watch and imitate, he then stands back and watches as Filippo leads us through the choreography and the two of them talk. It reminds me of writing a first draft of a new story or an essay, when I’m not certain yet what I want to do, when I don’t know where I’m going but I just have to trust myself because I know that something has brought me to the page.

In those early weeks of lockdown, twice a week, we logged on to Zoom and raised our spatula swords, swung our pot lid shields. We swayed and spun, bent low, raised ourselves up on our toes. We advanced and retreated, we fell forward and lifted ourselves, drawing our shoulders and our heads back. We whipped our spatulas through the air and bellowed and ducked behind our pot lids or held them just above our heads as if they were umbrellas. We crouched, scanning the horizon. We made ourselves as big as we could. And then we made ourselves small.

As the piece took shape, it gave shape to our lives, too. Seeing one another twice a week, even as small squares on our computer screens, checking in and chatting and laughing together, going through Russell’s familiar warmup, step-touch through shaking every part of ourselves, then settling in to review everything we had done so far, then leaning in to the screen to watch as Russell showed us the new movement he had worked out since our last rehearsal, then trying it out ourselves as he talked us through it—this was something we could count on when there was so little else that could be counted on. I felt anchored by the project. I felt as if, without it, I would float off into space.

I was at home all day long every day—I had stopped going anywhere, even out for groceries—and yet I was part of a community that was working together toward something even if it wasn’t clear yet what it was, how the pieces of it would fit together. We were together. We counted on each other to keep showing up.

We dwindled, though, inexorably, as the weeks and then the months piled up. Exhausted, stressed, pulled in too many directions by work from home and children at home, or panicking because of lost work, or having grown too anxious to commit to something that was stretching on for so long with so nebulous an endpoint—with no endpoint—some of us had to bow out. But for those who stayed, the project felt ever more like ballast—or an axis to revolve around. That the project had no end in sight helped me: it mirrored what was happening beyond the project, what was happening to everyone, except that this was interesting and inspiring, rigorous and difficult and fun. The project kept me putting one foot in front of the other as I did my best to go about the rest of my life, all of it so much diminished and constrained.

When I hadn’t slept at all the night before. When I couldn’t write; when it was hard to read. When I was worried and afraid. When my students were falling apart and I tried to do whatever I could to help them hold themselves together. When my daughter, 500 miles away, confessed she’d had the virus and had kept the news from me—when she was at her sickest, dodging my phone calls and texts, telling me the truth only once she was on the mend (not wanting to worry me, my friends said when I told them, but I understood that what she really hadn’t wanted was for me to freak out, to jump in my car and drive to New York City at the peak of the pandemic there). When I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, I could concentrate on this: swinging my spatula-sword, my pot lid–shield, in a choreographed battle against an invisible enemy. And I was part of an army fighting it. I was not alone.

I would sometimes wake in the middle of the night and feel my hands twitching—I had been swinging my sword and shield in my sleep. I remembered this from the last project, the way the choreographed movements I was practicing again and again would get under my skin, into my bones, be with me all the time, no matter what I was doing. No one had told me this—but then I’d never asked: how when you’re making a dance piece, the movement you’ve learned becomes a part of you, so that even when you’re not moving, you can feel the movement just under the surface of everything else you do.

I turned 65 in March 2020—a milestone birthday. I had planned a party and invited all of my Columbus friends (which meant, in the main, my dance friends). It was going to be a “piano bar” party. One of my graduate students was going to play; my friends would be able to request songs and sing them. But given the coronavirus news, I canceled the party on March 12, three days before it was scheduled to happen on a Sunday night.

On March 9, my actual birthday, I celebrated in my friend Cheryl’s back-yard hot tub with five other friends, including Russell and Filippo and Judith. Cheryl had declared that I couldn’t let the day pass without at least a small celebration. The seven of us just barely fit into the hot tub. We drank cocktails, ate takeout Chinese food, and sat inches from one another, sweating and laughing and talking in the thrashing water. The day was cool, but surprisingly not very cold—it is usually very cold on my birthday. Before we parted, I hugged everyone.

This was the day, I now know, when the first three people tested positive in Ohio. But it isn’t as if we didn’t all know by then that the pandemic existed. I remember that we talked about it. But it never occurred to me—to any of us—not to hug, not to climb into hot water together and squeeze close so that we could all fit. Not to share a meal. Not to pass champagne glasses to one another.

None of us were sick, after all—it was not like being around strangers. That was what we thought, what most people in the United States thought on that March day.

In May, when George Floyd was murdered, and Black Lives Matter protests bloomed and spread across the country, at first we didn’t rehearse at all. Many of us were at the protests; none of us could imagine swinging make-believe weapons and protective gear just then. Soon Russell suggested that we use our rehearsal time to come together, to sit and talk. And then before long we were up on our feet again, because talk is not how Russell processes the world or makes sense of his own thoughts or feelings. It was a relief to all of us to move again, to absorb what was happening and what we made of it without words. As we grieved and raged, Russell made new movement for us, and by the time we took up our spatulas and pot lids once more, the piece itself had changed. It changed the way any work of art does when it’s being made over a long period of time, as life unfolds and makes its way into it. As the ground shifts and shifts again under one’s feet.

In flux, we kept on. Whatever else was happening—and so much was happening—there was this, still: every Tuesday, every Sunday. All summer long, it was how I knew what day it was. And in between the two rehearsals every week, I kept practicing. Or dreamed myself practicing. Swing, swing, swing, and step and turn, lift, down, down again, and now around. A steady drumbeat in my mind.

Gail’s an occupational therapist. Stacie’s a comedian. Brad teaches dance to kids. Danielle, an anthropologist by training, is a lecturer at the university; last year she taught 10 classes in seven different departments. Jane is a retired professor of nursing. Sherry’s a middle-school teacher. Carolina, a classicist, is fluent in 10 modern and five ancient languages.

Charity has been homeschooling for years, long enough so that when lockdown began, the eldest of her five kids was halfway through his freshman year of college, still living at home but for the first time going elsewhere for his classes.

Nancy is a retired social worker. Holley is a speech-language pathologist. Kendra works with incarcerated men to make their lives better. Natasha, a Russian émigré, does something I don’t understand having to do with “comprehensive intellectual property analysis” (I’ve asked her to explain it and she says, “No. It’s too boring to explain”).

In the field, on Sundays, in the midst of the pandemic, we are nothing else but dancers.

It’s impossible to be anything but dancers—impossible to think of anything but the choreography we’ve been working on for so long now. Impossible to worry about anything, to feel sad or angry or afraid. We have to concentrate on what our bodies are supposed to do, the shapes we’re making with them, what shapes we’ll be making next. We have to concentrate on what the people nearest us are doing, to make sure we’re all doing it at the same time.

When I first began to take ballet classes, this was a revelation to me—the way everything that wasn’t dance would vanish, the way all that mattered was keeping my legs turned out, one hand light on the barre, the other sweeping through the air as gracefully as I could manage. And my épaulement—the position of my head and neck and shoulders. That all around me there were other people doing the same thing at the same time did not cross my mind at first. I was thinking too hard about what I was doing, what I needed to try harder to do, what I wanted to be able to do next time, to take in my surroundings. But the first weeks passed, and then the first months passed, and the efforts of everyone around me became part of what quieted everything outside the studio and everything else inside me. They became part of what I did, part of what I was. I moved through rond de jambe and fondu and adagio with Judith and Brad and Cheryl and Lindsey and Mallory and Rian and the others. All of us together. All of us in it together.

But right now I am not in the warm studio moving through the evening’s barre, plié through grand battement, surrounded by my friends. We are lying on the cold ground, writhing, because Russell has flipped a piece of the choreography and has us doing it lying down. We look like—we feel like—bugs trying and failing to get up after being knocked onto our backs. And this would be fine, since we are all used to doing this sort of thing by now—but, as I have said, it has started to snow.

Snowdrops are falling into my eyes as I lie on the ground six feet away, on one side, from Danielle, who, besides her daughter’s scarf imprinted with dragons, has an air filter tied to her back, a heart made of red-and-white striped straws attached to her chest by a safety pin, and a hat that’s actually a camping pot. On my other side is Jenny, whose armor is made of plastic bags and soda cans.

I can’t feel my fingers—I’m not wearing warm gloves; I’m wearing the pearl-encrusted white gloves that are part of my costume.

I close my eyes so that the snow falls onto my eyelids instead of into my eyes. That’s a little better. I am trying to decide if what we are doing makes us more or less like professional dancers. I make a mental note to ask Russell later. I know he sometimes seems to forget that we are not professionals. (He also forgets that we need breaks; he has to be reminded—usually by Filippo—that we need to rest, to hydrate.)

Today, finally, after an hour on the ground, he does give us a break so that we can warm up. We all scramble to our feet, go put on our coats as well as we can over our costumes. We wrap scarves around our faces. We are all miserable, but until Charity says, “Guys, we can’t do this. We need to tell Russell to let us go home,” it has occurred to none of us that this is a possibility.

Brad’s costume is made of brown felt lavishly embellished with metallic emblems, some of which are Stars of David, and from which he has affixed a variety of kitchen utensils—they clank when he walks. Nancy’s armor includes a puppet she’d used in her therapy practice with children and is otherwise made of bubble wrap, reinforced by twin mini-colanders from microwavable meals—one bright red colander over each breast. Pat’s chest is protected by a roasting pan.

Dian, who is from China and is an actual dancer—she graduated in the spring with her MFA in dance from Ohio State—has made her costume armor entirely of gauze, except for a headpiece that looks like a halo. She seems to be dressed as an angel. It’s as if she’s there in the field to protect us all.

Tamie, who has more impressive crafting skills than the rest of us, has made chaps out of hundreds of strips of different kinds of fabric and a breastplate out of beer caps; her headpiece is a three-foot-tall, upside-down hat from which she has hung long ropes that swing when she moves. Almost everything Jovita is wearing was a gift, she tells me: folkloric shoes from Spain and a handmade, crocheted googly-eye hat—both gifts from her sister—and a fanny pack, a gift from her parents. The keffiyeh around her neck and shoulders—“to try to make them look bigger,” she explains—was a gift from an Iraqi veteran. She’s also wearing swim goggles.

For several weeks, we shoot the part of the piece that involves eight-foot poles we hold between us as we dance in pairs (predictably enough, we jokingly call this part of the piece “the pole dance”). It’s the first time we’ve paired off and danced with the poles between us instead of imagining them. For the first time, we fully understand which way to turn around the pole. Directional positioning is the hardest thing to convey over Zoom: which corner to point our bodies toward, which way to turn them, which corner to end up facing.

Charity and I pair off in the field. For part of the pole dance, we are meant to face each other, one end of the pole held up by my shoulder, the other by her hip; at other times, we are both facing forward, the pole balanced between our palms. There is a part of the dance when we are both facing right, one end of the pole digging into the small of my back. In other parts we are connected sternum to sternum, hip to hip, belly to belly.

Russell asks us to try some different ways of being attached. I try putting my end of the pole into my hair, which is coiled in a thick bun on top of my head, but when Charity and I begin to move, it falls and smacks my face. “Okay, let’s not do that,” Russell says, as gently as it’s possible to say something when speaking through a megaphone. It’s the only way we can hear him when we are spread out across the field.

I put the pole in the center of my chest. Charity’s end is just below her heart.

“I wouldn’t touch you with an eight-foot pole,” someone inevitably jokes. But it isn’t really a joke at all, is it? Not now.

I find myself thinking more and more about what the invisible enemy we are fighting in our dance actually is. It started off seeming obvious enough (I wondered, at the start, if it might be a little heavy-handed—too obvious: our pathetic, even childish, efforts to fight and protect ourselves from the enemy we couldn’t see). But the metaphor itself begins to shape-shift as we move from rehearsing into filming, and as filming progresses, week by week. Russell has us each beginning parts of the choreography at different times—or he has us “break” the choreography (making it wilder, more desperate); he asks us to slow it down and speed it up at points we choose ourselves. He has us tearing off parts of our armor, flinging them; we make a mountain of castoff armor. It’s impossible not to think about what it is we have been arming ourselves against—about the many things, all the things, we all arm ourselves against.

As we near the end of filming, I think about loneliness: what I have been arming myself against all my life. Long before the lockdown that made lonely everyone’s chronic condition—that made it concrete, visible, unavoidable—it was the way I understood myself. It’s the way I’ve understood myself since I was three or four years old.

For a long time, this was a source of shame. Everyone else seemed to know how not to be lonely. I know better now. I also know how lucky I am in so many ways, especially right now. My daughter survived her bout with the virus, with no lingering effects. I’ve been able to keep myself safe—to stay locked up in my house, to order groceries and anything else I’ve needed online—and I haven’t had to worry about losing my job. I have a husband whose life has been almost entirely unaffected by the pandemic: he always shelters in place. His painting studio is steps from our back door. My teaching salary and benefits support us both. My elderly mother is safely tucked away at my brother’s house.

And we are white. We all are college-educated; my husband and I have graduate degrees. My daughter will soon go to graduate school. I live in a house. I can afford to pay my mortgage.

I recite all of this to myself sometimes at night when I can’t sleep. I count my blessings. I don’t call them blessings—I don’t believe in blessings. I call them luck. My father dropped out of high school. He sold insurance to support us. My grandparents escaped pogroms. We nearly lost my mother to the crushing depression she suffered in her 20s and early 30s and again when I was in my 20s. We all made it out okay.

And so far, we all—those of us who are still here (my grandparents gone, my father gone)—have made it through this pandemic. There’s no reason for anyone to care about a woman whose life has been made better—less lonely, more meaningful—thanks to dance, an art—an occupation—that came into her life only in her 60s. Whose experience of a global pandemic has been eased, who has been comforted and steadied by a dance project. Who, in the midst of a worldwide crisis, has found order and peace and ballast.

That’s what I am thinking now that I am writing about it. But writing about it—writing about everything—is how I process it. The great irony of my life is that writing is such a lonely activity and yet it’s the activity that has kept me company practically my whole life. It’s what I reached for as a lonely child—my mother behind a closed door, my grandmother warning me not to trouble her. It’s what I buried myself in throughout my teens and young adulthood. It was a way of being lonely for a reason.

I had no idea that when I found my way toward dance, it would make me feel less lonely than I ever had before. It’s not that I’ve outrun or outfoxed my loneliness. It’s not that I’ve fixed it—as I used to believe that each new boyfriend would fix it, or each new best girlfriend, or motherhood. It’s like a dog that lies sleeping beside me as I go about my life now. The way the rescue puppy I adopted four months into quarantine lies beside me now. But when she wakes up, she’ll demand my attention. She’ll deserve my attention.

My loneliness demands and deserves my attention too. I am tending to it the best way I can.

It sounds dramatic to say that I would not have gotten through the last nine months without dance, without this community of dancers, without Russell and Filippo, who have become like family. What does it mean to say, “Would not have gotten through”? I would have gotten through. What I mean is that I would not have experienced joy. Joy isn’t “getting through.” What joy is is thriving.

The sense that everything has vanished is still part of the joy of dance for me. The way dancing concentrates me—the way there is room for nothing else because my mind is so fixed on the movements of my body. The movements of my body and the bodies around me. Even in a field on a bitterly cold day, in an absurd costume, a mask covering half of my face, the whole world beyond that field uncertain, dangerous. It is a temporary vanishment, to be sure. But it’s something I keep with me all the rest of the hours of the day, the week, the months that just keep stacking up.

As the project nears its end—as it turns out, it has an endpoint after all—the weary 24 of us who have remained are ready for it to end. We know we’ll miss it, but even so we’re ready. That’s how it goes, I know by now—something else no one ever told me about making something that’s meant to be performed. That by the end of the process, one is eager to be done with it—but it’s awful to be done with it. Even if it has gone on for so long that it’s become exhausting, boring—how one longs to be done with it!—once it’s over, one longs for it. For the camaraderie, for the routine, and for the movement too—for each specific movement, and for the whole of it.

I cannot believe I will never make those particular movements again. I know them so well, and yet I know I will forget them, as I’ve forgotten all the other choreography in all the other pieces we have made. I know too that even when I have forgotten them, I’ll still miss them. Another thing I’ve learned, in dance—that forgetting doesn’t mean the end of missing. That forgetting doesn’t arm one against loss or against longing.

The film, Spatula, will be released in April.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Michelle Herman’s ninth book, the novel Close-Up, is due in autumn 2021. She teaches at Ohio State, writes a weekly parenting advice column for Slate, and spends the rest of her time dancing.


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