My First Month as a Professional Dancer in the Age of COVID-19

September 28, 2020

This is one of a
series of articles
following one young dancer as she starts her career in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

I moved to Eugene, Oregon, in August, brimming with nerves and excitement to launch my career as an aspirant with Eugene Ballet. After months of quarantining at home in Pittsburgh because of the coronavirus lockdown, transitioning to my new life on the West Coast marked a rapid shift. But in time, it granted me newfound feelings of security. For starters, the ritual of filling up my water bottle, packing my shoes and leotard, putting up my hair and walking into the studio reintroduced a much needed flow of normalcy into my life.

A blue sign taped to a window says "Please stay six feet apart. Stay safe and healthy by practicing physical distancing."

Social distancing signs like this one dot the hallways and studios of Eugene Ballet.

Courtesy Kyra Laubacher

Throughout August, Eugene Ballet offered studio sign-up times so that we could give ourselves maintenance classes during the week. Dancers could choose from three 90-minute time slots per weekday to ensure availability without risking having too many people at once. As a new dancer entering the ranks after months of training in my basement, I could easily acclimate myself with the studios, dancers and overall environment without the pressure of an instructor at the front of the room. After class, we sprayed the floors with vinegar and swept them clean with microfiber towels, wiped down the barres and sanitized any other surfaces we may have touched.

Feeling welcomed by my fellow dancers, I gradually sensed my stamina gaining ground, muscles firing fully and placement reestablishing itself, and by the third week I even worked up to taking center on pointe again (hallelujah!). I became accustomed to the white squares taped on the floor designating proper physical distance, and after two weeks of dancing in a mask my cardiovascular system adjusted to the extra respiratory challenge.

A male dancer stands in the center of a studio with his arms held up, with three female dancers crouched around him.
Clockwise from far right: Laubacher with Savannah Cox, Nina Nicotera and Mark Tucker in rehearsal for #instaballet

Courtesy Laubacher

When Eugene Ballet’s artistic staff began offering optional company classes on August 31, I felt confident and ready. The classes, designed to help get us back into shape for our November 23 season start date, have been on a rotating schedule, split between two studios with two pods of up to 10 dancers each. By the end of the first week, my body had transitioned through yet another roller coaster of soreness, struggle, recovery and elation as I adjusted to new instructors and heightened drive. It was incredible—I hadn’t done a saut de chat in five months, and suddenly I found myself flying across a giant studio surrounded by fellow dancers, each of us infused with newfound energy. Outside the studio, too, I’d secured a part-time job at a dancewear store, which bolstered the developing sense of normalcy.

I even got to participate in my first professional performance with #instaballet, an interactive dance company co-founded by Eugene Ballet’s resident choreographer, Suzanne Haag. We rehearsed two brief phrases in studio before presenting it to our live outdoor audience in early September, building the rest of the dance piece by piece with the viewers’ input. This process of co-choreographing with the audience, while characteristic of #instaballet, felt quite new to me. But the experience rejuvenated me artistically. Even with masks on and physical distancing enforced, we were able to create something together with the community in real time.

A mountain in the distance is framed by pine trees and blurred by a smoky orange sky.
A view of Eugene’s smoke-filled skies. A recent wildfire forced Eugene Ballet to suspend in-studio classes for two weeks.

Courtesy Kyra Laubacher

Then the wildfires hit the West Coast, interrupting any sense of progress. Eugene’s air quality spiked to alarming heights as ash and smoke turned the sky an ominous orange and made it unsafe to breathe the air, even for a few minutes. This put in-studio classes on hold for two weeks (though Eugene Ballet has plans to unveil a spectacular new building in 2021, we rely on outdoor airflow in the current studios). The sudden switch from sauts de chat across the floor to intense indoor quarantine, for new reasons this time, challenged my patience. So when the air began to clear, rain began to fall and company class landed back on the schedule on September 21, I was reminded yet again how incredibly fortunate we are to have the opportunity to dance in the studios at all. Though the future remains uncertain, I hope to use this newfound gratitude to push myself further, learn to live with change and trust in my own capabilities.