If a dance program at the University of Illinois can find a way to carry on, so can our country
Dear Dr. Anthony Fauci,
I sympathize. It must be demoralizing to deliver scientific data daily and watch in horror as our country slips into nonsensical debates about personal freedoms. I could hear the exasperation in your voice in a recent New York Times interview in which you stated that practicing the rules of COVID-19 mitigation “…doesn’t mean shutting down the country.”
Unfortunately, the stories you’ve had to tell are about our country’s massive failures.
If I may be so bold, I think you need a success story. I have one and it comes from the most unlikely of places — a dance program on a college campus.
Dancers on a college campus are the least likely folks to return to work during a pandemic. Sweat flies and germs spread as dancers rev up the body. Campuses are Petri dishes as young people, prone to parties and socializing, gather together in a bubble of contagion.
As a recent New York Times survey found, U.S. colleges and universities have already reported more than a quarter of a million infections.
All these factors should have made us go home. At first, back in March, we did. As head of the Dance Department at the University of Illinois, I watched students gloomily pack up their dance bags last spring when Gov. J. B. Pritzker declared a stay-at-home mandate.
As dancers struggled to jump, leap and roll in their kitchens and bedrooms, it was clear that dance classes over Zoom were less than ideal.
Come this fall, we had to try to come back.
Luckily, Illinois scientists had begun to build the COVID-19 Shield program, which would allow us to safely come back to in-person classes. This program includes multiple layers of protection: Target — extensive modeling to guide how, who and when the community tests; Testing — a saliva test, which is low cost, easy to use, with high accuracy and fast notification; and Tell — an app called Safer Illinois, which provides fast notification and contact tracing.
Public health experts used an appropriate metaphor, Swiss cheese, to describe the plan: the more layers, the fewer holes.
As last summer wore on, building layers and adaptability were critical in gaining collective buy-in for students to return. In the dance department, we created ten-foot squares in studios, set up elaborate cleaning schedules and reserved an outdoor basketball court so we could dance freely when weather permitted.
We built technology stations that allowed teachers and students to honor their choices, live or online, based on their health and their own sense of risk and safety.
Multiple layers of cheese were needed. Currently, the university conducts more than 10,000 tests per day and the Safer Illinois app has 40,000 users. Near the end of November, the campus’ seven-day positivity rate stood low at .5%, while surrounding Champaign County is at 9%, and the State of Illinois at 10.4%.
With everyone testing two or three times a week, and with measures to ensure compliance, we know that everyone entering our classrooms is, in all likelihood, free from COVID.
As our students returned to campus, human behavior was the wild card. Everyone hated wearing masks while dancing at high aerobic capacity, but it began to seep in that this was the only way to continue our lives and practice our art.
Our biggest challenge was presenting a live concert. Fortunately, artists, like scientists, embrace limitations as the doorway to creativity. Set designers built ramps and platforms that naturally separated the dancers, and costume designers learned to fit costumes while physically distancing.
At times, when we lost valuable rehearsal time to solve problems, adaptability came into conflict with our desire for excellence. But, Dr. Fauci, I heard your voice whisper, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
The students wrestled with the uncertainty of everything. But because they didn’t know if they would ever perform, they embraced every moment as if it were the last dance. A life lesson like no other. Grit, determination and a sense of collective purpose settled into the sinews of our bodies.
In early November, we live streamed a concert to thousands of people, and 40 enthusiastic fans sat in the balcony of a 1,000-seat theater for each performance. Their cheers energized the performance, which sparkled with the enduring will of the human spirit.
I tell this story because if dance on a college campus can return to work, the nation can too.
Campuses are privileged environments, yes. They often have the economic and scientific resources necessary to invent and support coronavirus mitigation in a manner that the nation is not yet equipped to handle.
Yet their inventions can lead the way, making it possible for our essential workers and most vulnerable citizens to gain access to best practices as quickly as possible.
Even once the vaccine has arrived, coordinated governmental actions, collective resolve and individual responsibility will be necessary. By engaging with the challenge, we have the opportunity to build a more resilient and creative nation.