As stay-at-home orders were announced to help slow the spread of COVID-19, much of the art world quickly pivoted. Classes turned to the Zoom videoconferencing platform, museum exhibitions moved online, and live concerts were swapped for livestreams. But for social dance — including well-attended weekly offerings in salsa, zouk, blues, English country dance and much more — little could replace the cheek-to-cheek aerobic workout.
Most social dance idioms are performed with a partner and, in most cases, partners change with each new song. It’s a COVID conundrum.
“The majority of the board [of directors] and the group feels it’s just probably not going to be safe until at least the end of this year,” says Cathy De Troia, a board member of the Asheville-based contra dance group Old Farmer’s Ball. “I think the majority of us in the organization believe we might have to wait for a vaccine.” The Summer Soiree — a weekendlong contra dance event also held at Warren Wilson College’s Bryson Gym (though not sponsored by the Old Farmer’s Ball) — isn’t happening in 2020. The Old Farmer’s Ball has already decided not to hold its popular New Year’s Eve party, and weekly Thursday night dances in Bryson Gym have been on hold since mid-March. The website of the Country Dance and Song Society (a national organization, of which the Old Farmer’s Ball is an affiliate) has closed its physical offices, while its online calendar hosts an extensive list of cancellations.
The initial pause for the Old Farmer’s Ball came, De Troia explains, when the college closed its campus to outside groups. “We are now effectively [unable] to hold the dances on Warren Wilson’s campus through the end of the year,” she says. “We’re reassessing every couple of months to see when we might feel comfortable trying to come back.”
Meanwhile, the Asheville Monday Night Contra Dance (held at St. George’s Episcopal Church in West Asheville) has parlayed its dance community into an outlet for socially distanced happenings and events — such as a conversation on racism — led by the host congregation. “Want to stay connected to your dance community and continue to build it and make it stronger especially during these times? Want to share a talent you have? Or just wanna talk to your dancing buddies?” asked a recent post on the group’s Facebook page. “Come on out and say ‘Hey’ at The Asheville Monday Night Dancers Cafe!” The recurring Zoom meeting takes place in lieu of the on-hold dance.
“The digital age that we’re in right now does make it pretty easy to keep up with your dancing,” says Annie Erbsen, a local multi-instrumentalist and member of swing dance collective Swing Asheville. She points out that as national and international dance workshops have been canceled, many turned to online platforms. “People still pay, and the teachers, especially those who are couples and live together, will stream workshops from their homes or studios.”
Solo dance workshops are especially accessible for quarantined dance enthusiasts and, Erbsen points out, “There’s also still a lot of music being streamed.” Local stride pianist James Posedel, a regular on Asheville’s swing dance scene, recently released the album Premiere Strut with his band Posey Royale, of which Erbsen is a member. Posedel also shares a weekly livestream of traditional jazz and ragtime songs from his living room. “I tune in every week and get my dance on,” Erbsen says.
Unfortunately, there are no immediate plans to bring swing dance back to the live, group format. Swing Asheville’s Tuesday dance takes place at The BLOCK off biltmore, which also hosts the Saturday Night Salsa at The BLOCK and the monthly Sunday Blues (both currently on hiatus). Russ Wilson’s Big Band (another ensemble Erbsen is part of) played a standing Thursday gig at The Foundry Hotel pre-quarantine; Erbsen’s other appearances included periodic shows at The Crow & Quill, where she says “swing dancers would show up.”
But for now, “none of us are comfortable saying when” social dance will return to public spaces, Erbsen says. “Part of the issue is COVID-19 is a new disease, and we’re still learning about it.”
It’s not all bad news, though: Efforts such as the Rhythm Relief Fund, led by the Pacific Swing Dance Foundation, are raising money to provide scholarships to full-time swing dance musicians and teachers who are out of work. Closer to home, the OFB Spread the Joy Fundraiser benefits local musicians, singers, callers and technicians who’ve shared their talents with the Old Farmer’s Ball. And, Erbsen points out, the website iDance.net, which originated in Asheville, “offers a lot of online dance lessons and is a really good resource.”
Other opportunities off the dance floor are also arising. For those interested in blues dance — a genre rooted in African American movement and music idioms — online workshops and discussions delve into that history, as well as of-the-moment applications to race and social justice. While the moderators may not be based in Asheville (Colorado-based writer, speaker and dance instructor Grey Armstrong is a leading voice among blues workshop presenters), many Asheville dancers — De Troia and Erbsen among them — are tuning in and gaining skills both physical and intellectual.