It was a gray Wednesday afternoon when I stepped onto my Brooklyn rooftop, balanced my phone gingerly on a tub of tar and a chimney railing, and began to dance.
Debbie Allen was guiding my moves. “Head to the right, to the left,” she said warming up, as she blasted the theme song from “Fame.” Ms. Allen, the choreographer, director, producer and actor — she does those last three on “Grey’s Anatomy” — was in her studio at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles. In loose black sweats and a white ball cap, she was running her first Instagram Live dance class. It lasted an hour, and more than 35,000 people tuned in. “I see you, Ellen Pompeo!” she shouted to the camera.
The moves were mostly basic — slides and two-steps that wouldn’t be out of place at a wedding reception. But the aspiration was to connect on a much bigger scale. “Give something to the world,” she called one move, as she stepped a foot back and reached her outstretched arms forward, in a gesture of bounty. I raised my arms to the sky.
A floor below me, my apartment — arguably too small for my family of four on a good day — was extra crowded with anxieties. My 3-year-old and his babysitter were sick, with alarming symptoms that somehow didn’t warrant getting tested, our doctors said. We were quarantined nonetheless. (A week later, they were feeling better, but we were still locked indoors.)
Then there was the whole working-from-home-while-running-a-sudden-preschool scenario, with my husband hustling double-time in an industry, restaurants and food service, that was among the hardest hit. And the prospect, of course, of all of this continuing, grimly, for months. We are fortunate, over all — we have jobs, insurance and a support system — but it was still an onslaught.
Hip rolls didn’t seem like they could help. And yet. “There’s a party going on in your living room, in your bathroom, wherever you are,” Ms. Allen cheered. “Put your hands together!” At a moment of panic, when everyone was focused on survival, just enduring, I hadn’t thought much about fun or joy, or about the bawdiness that comes out of a funk beat. But Ms. Allen had.
On the roof, I was alone, mercifully and surprisingly, with a squinting view of the Manhattan skyline. As Ms. Allen moved from a bouncy backstroke to a glide, with a soundtrack of Bruno Mars, Chaka Khan and Beyoncé, I noticed that cherry blossoms were in bloom on a tall tree in a neighbor’s yard. Birds traveled in formation above me. There was a sense of release — nature! — and the confidence that comes with choosing to move a body, actively, through space. I felt, for the first time in days, hopeful.
“That makes me so happy,” Ms. Allen said, when I called her a few days later to talk about the class. “We can stop the interview now — it’s about that idea right there: At peace and confident, feeling like we’re going to be OK. That’s the goal.”
“I could just cry right now,” she added, and I could hear her getting teary. “Because you know, we all have to do what we can, and this is what I can do.”
That first class, archived on Instagram, now has more than 105,000 views, with many commenters awed about participating, calling it an experience they would otherwise never be privy to. That thousands of others followed along too gives it a double distinction: It is both communal and rarefied, like virtually partying with Michelle Obama on DJ D-Nice’s feed. No matter your speed, there’s a dance pro online for you now: The pop choreographer Ryan Heffington (who has created dances for Sia and FKA Twigs videos) is also teaching on Instagram.
Ms. Allen has planned lessons for Wednesdays, when she leads — a salsa class was her latest spin — and Saturdays, when she gives space to her staff to teach kids. The idea came to her a couple weeks ago, on the day she temporarily closed her dance academy, which serves about 300 children, and thousands more at one-off events.
“I was sitting with my staff, coming up with my verbiage,” she said. “And I just decided, I’m going to do a class on Instagram.”
“Everybody’s going to be so bottled up, and feeling compromised and insecure, and not knowing what’s going to happen,” she added. “But I always say, there’s light on the dance floor. I call my dance academy my church. It’s a very spiritual thing to do, to come together, to push and sweat and keep plowing.”
Her staff helped her set it up — Ms. Allen had never done anything like this before, and there were the attendant technical glitches. At one point in that first class, her phone rang. Grumbling — “Who’s calling me now? Go away!” — she rushed to a laptop to turn it off, which took longer than it should have. (“I’m going to become technologically literate after this experience,” she said later. “I thought I turned off all the devices. Your phone is ringing on your computer? Come on. It’s enough already!”)
Then she returned to her spot in front of the mirror and her step turns. She thought more about her playlist for the class, she said, than the choreography. “It was in the moment,” she said. “Nothing was rehearsed.”
Like millions of artists around the country, Ms. Allen has seen her professional trajectory shift because of the coronavirus. Shooting on “Grey’s Anatomy” was suspended on the same day she closed up her studio, and the inaugural Los Angeles International Dance Festival, a major 16-day affair she was creating with the producer Nigel Lythgoe (“So You Think You Can Dance”), which was scheduled for April, is on hold. “We had worked for two years,” planning it, she said.
Her main concern now, she said, was for others in her dance community; dancers, she noted, often don’t have insurance or any kind of conventional safety net. “We dance anywhere for a hot meal and a per diem,” she said.
“When I closed my studio I gave everybody a week’s salary,” she added, “and now I’m trying to figure out: What is the new model?” Online classes might factor into that, but for now, hers are free.
“I’ll do it as long as I need to,” she said, “until they tell me I can’t. Even if they tell me I can’t drive to my studio, I can do it in my backyard if I have to.” She imagined a tap class, flamenco, Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics. “We’re just gonna keep going.”
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