For a long time, prior to the pandemic, I did not dance except for the occasional silly dance in my living room—even though dancing has been part of my life since I was a kid. I had stopped taking dance classes, but part of me always wanted to jump, dance, and swallow the sky.
Back when my job trapped me in an office under fluorescent lights, I promised myself I would go outside more often. In 2019 I seized the chance to move my body, taking comedy improv and joining a rock-climbing gym. I met people and explored different spaces, discovering a more expressive side of myself. But just when I wanted to spend more time outside, the pandemic hit. It’s possible the universe was playing a joke on me.
The need to move
During those first months of quarantine, my mind and body could not be still. I joined a virtual poetry reading that turned into an electro dance party. Purple and pink lights emanated from a Zoom screen. Pets and puppets were joining in, and I added my own funky moves. Everyone appeared on tiny screens, part of a collective experience, trying to make sense of the reality. In another Zoom call, I found myself dancing with family members from my native Peru. After a while, I was the only one dancing, but I felt no shame.
For most of my life, I’ve been an introvert who was an aspiring extrovert. I did not anticipate that staying indoors would awaken my need for expressive movement, but in 2020 I tried many forms of movement, including belly dance, West African, AfroCuban Folklore (Yoruba), contact improv, and restorative contact. Some I had previously encountered; others were less familiar and challenged me.
From ballet to vogue
When I started taking ballet lessons in childhood, my mom thought I would dedicate my life to this dance, but I found it torturous at times. Instead, I wanted to learn cultural dances from Peru, including Huayno, Marinera and Afro-Peruvian (Negroide). In high school, I tried out modern ballet and tap, and I danced in talent shows, mostly to songs from Aaliyah and TLC. During college and the few years after, I took belly dance and salsa classes in New York, and later tried swing and Cajun in New Orleans.
Just as the quarantine began, I tried vogueing online, inspired by Pose, the Netflix series about the 1980s drag ball scene. Vogue is a stylized dance that originated in Harlem with Black and Latinx LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming folks. When taking a class with Cesar Valentino, who has been voguing since 1983, I enjoyed elaborate arm and hand movements that created geometric shapes, like boxes that moved around the body. While dancing and creating various angular frames, I discovered I was playing a version of myself, one who was fiercely confident. It felt like an expression of the dramatic self.
The roads of life
Remembering my Afro-Peruvian dance moves as a kid made me try AfroCuban Folklore (Yoruba), a dance tradition of the Regla de Ocha-Ifá, a religious practice that arrived in Cuba from the Yoruba people of West Africa. Through the percussion beats of a Batá drum that accompany the sacred dances of orishas (deities), dancers can express the deities’ characteristics through movement.
In one class, I learned about Elegguá, an orisha known as a trickster who has the power to open and close the roads of life (here’s a video). The movements consist of paced steps, arm swings, and twists while stepping forward and upward. Instructor Nadia Issa (pronouns they/them) a dance educator and researcher who teaches the class through Freeskewl, explained the orisha’s significance before getting into choreography, mentioning Elegguá's habit of carrying a stick, known as a Garabato, that is integrated into the moves.
“Learning about the orishas and the Patakis [the Yoruban sacred stories], [is] intrinsically tied to the dance,” Issa said. “Each dance and chant represents a Pataki, which helps to embody the orisha in their dance.”
Movement in contact
Several years ago, I tried contact improv (CI) at an artist collective in New Orleans, and I was surprised by the fluidity and openness. It’s a dance between two bodies in a type of dialogue as they move around each other, touching, resisting, and discovering the subject. CI has been evolving since 1972 and was influenced by aikido, a martial art form. Trying it once again through Movement Research, I felt that similar sensation of being liberated to exist without choreography, instead seeing what invented, stacked movements revealed.
I later tried restorative contact (RC), an evolved concept created by Philadelphia native and longtime dancer Gabrielle Revlock (BSR reviewed a performance of her SEX TAPE at the Barnes in 2019). The practice blends somatic techniques including CI, yoga, and mindfulness-based stress reduction, with a focus on touch. During RC, I was able to find moments of introspection and alternate stories through improvised dance moves and meditation. (Revlock is currently offering weekly sessions of an RC movement class called Joytime.)
The pandemic has not deterred dance educators from transforming their practice to fit a virtual reality. Originally, Revlock intended for RC to be a partner dance, but seeing the pandemic challenges, she allowed solo participants and changed the structure of the class, adding hand-clapping fast movements, exploratory questions, and games that include how objects, words, and noises affect our emotions and thoughts. Dancers indulge in abstraction as they connect to their senses, taking the time to notice details and memories that surface.
“There is always so much to explore at any given moment that limitations are welcomed,” she told me. “What is gained is stepping into the unknown—a place ripe for discoveries. I felt a lot of freedom as a teacher. It was fun to experiment.” Revlock sees dancing not just as movement, but as a chance to play, tell stories, make jokes: “Play is the feeling of freedom, and that never gets old.”
Before I revived my dancing life, something in me had been dormant. Dancing is a way to tell stories, albeit messy ones, that do not always require a structure, and can be shared through a screen. These dance techniques allow me to be present in a sacred place where I can express something vulnerable. They changed my perspective on what it means to be fulfilled, and how limitations can often present themselves as moments for transformation.
Image description: Cynthia Via, situated on a wooden bridge with summer greenery in the background, jumps into the air. Her arms extend in one diagonal line and her knees bend so the soles of her feet are turned upward in midair. She wears a pink shirt, a blue skirt, and pink pom-poms in her dark hair.
Image description: A scene from the TV series Pose shows four performers in a ballroom scene in extravagant outfits holding their arms and hands around their faces in the shape of a box. In the background is a stage with a glittering curtain.
Image description: Three photos show Cynthia Via, wearing a long-sleeved pink dress, in contemplative poses.