One day, before the coronavirus pandemic, a river of pedestrians — half manic, half clueless — was feeding onto the escalator at the West Fourth Street subway station during rush hour. Blocking the escalator entrance were people gazing at their phones. Once they finally stepped on, they planted themselves on the left. It was a mess.
You stand on the right; you pass on the left. This is the choreography of everyday life.
I found myself directing people where to stand and when to move. As the bottom half of the escalator started to organize itself, I noticed that something similar was happening toward the top. I recognized the voice up there: It belonged to Ori Flomin, a dancer, teacher and choreographer. We saw each other and giggled.
“Of course,” he said, “we are the ones arranging people in space.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about choreography lately. Not the kind performed onstage, which we won’t be seeing for the foreseeable future, but the choreography of space: How are we using our bodies to navigate a pandemic?
In this time of confinement, we have been given one immeasurable gift — the freedom to go outside. In exchange, we must abide by a simple rule: Stay six feet away from others. As choreographic intentions go, that’s not remotely vague. Yet during my runs and walks in Brooklyn over the past few days, I’ve noticed that six feet doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody.
Spatial awareness, like coordination, isn’t a given. Watching the choices people make when they move in public, much less in this time of social distancing, can be shocking, from the much-bemoaned tourist who comes to a grinding halt in Times Square to the woman with a yoga mat knocking people aside to get her spot on the floor. (It’s OK; she’ll still feel good about bowing her head and saying namaste.)
Now the choreography of the streets has taken on higher stakes. It’s the difference between health and sickness, life and death. Inside we’re alone. Outside, a new alertness is in order, one that demands a deep connection to the position and movement of the body — or proprioception, sometimes referred to as the sixth sense. Close your eyes and balance on one foot: However much your proprioception, or sensory information kicks in, it will help you to remain upright. Wobbles and falls are normal, but that means it’s time to work on balance.
That feeling and control of where we are in space is important right now; dancers, through years of training and sensorial alertness, grasp this inherently. If this pandemic is teaching us anything, it is that we need to return to our bodies. Life is precious, and so is movement.
“It is appalling how we disuse the body,” the postmodern choreographer and dancer Steve Paxton once said. “Dance reminds us about that. Dance explores some of the physical possibilities; dance refocuses our focusing mind on very basic existence, and time, space, gravity open up to creativity. This seems to me a reminder of nature, of our natures.”
Dance is no longer being shown live on proscenium stages, but its materiality haunts New York City. It might be a friendly ghost. Are the proliferation of dance classes being offered on Instagram a sign that dance might be the kind of medicine our bodies need?
Along with that comes mindfulness, a word that has become too synonymous with self-care. But focusing on the present moment is a necessity. When I’m walking or running — and I’m about to buy a jump rope — I bear witness to a lot of mindlessness.Why is it that the person wearing a mask — practically full ninja, as if about to dispose of radioactive waste — is often the one who heads straight at you? What makes the couple jogging side by side on the Williamsburg Bridge think it’s OK to pass an older man by a matter of inches? What are the runners wearing marathon finisher shirts thinking when they spread across a path for a bro chat, their saliva and sweat misting the air?
Either a new entitled breed has revealed itself, or people are showing how oblivious they are to their bodies in space.
When you walk outside, you are responsible for more than just yourself. We are in this together, and movement has morals and consequences — its own choreographic score, or set of instructions — in this age of the coronavirus.
Walking or running in the middle of a sidewalk is no longer acceptable. Pick an edge. If passing someone from either direction, make an arc with six feet between you — just as soon after you’ve made sure the coast is clear behind you. As for running or walking side by side on a narrow path? You have to be joking. Single file.
If you’re standing in a line, make some space. Feel the floor. Play with gravity. Get to know your feet. Start to recognize that even in stillness, there is movement.
When you look where you’re going, you see things. It used to be that condoms littered the sidewalks; now, the pavement is littered with used disposable gloves. Both objects of protection are of great importance, it seems, until it’s time to find a garbage can. But what we can’t throw away — especially on the street — is the protection and grace of social distancing. The pandemic has created something fascinating: a new way of moving, a new way of dancing in the streets.
It can feel like a game of chicken. Who will be the first to make space? What is the latest swerve or hop to become a step of survival?
One thing seems certain: It will be awhile for duets to regain their place in dance culture. (After the world rights itself again, I predict years of solo dances, just as after Sept. 11, choreography was full of dancers gazing upward.) But in real life, duets have cropped up everywhere. Your partner is a stranger; the stage is the sidewalk.
Mr. Paxton was right to say that we need to refocus our minds, to get back to basics. Social distancing isn’t just about honoring space; it’s also about celebrating it. An odd thing happened when I was running the other day — my random playlist went to Bach, the same music used in the first section of Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade,” his 1975 masterpiece based on the everyday or found movements. There isn’t one dance step in it, just as there weren’t any in my run. But running, like walking, is moving in time in space. And suddenly it felt like a dance.
In the 1960s, a generation of experimental choreographers were forward-thinking enough to embrace the beauty and wisdom of pedestrian movement: standing, sitting, walking, running. As we find ourselves in a position of cherishing what we’ve always taken for granted, we need to retrain our minds as well as our bodies because right now we’re all dancers, and we need to start acting like it.