On an evening at Riverside Park’s Boat Basin marina, a dozen people in their 20s and 30s gathered for a dance social. Leaning against a stone wall, the group watched intently, as two couples performed a Bachata routine, most noticeably without wearing masks.
Among the spectators stood Annie Nissen, a 25-year-old dance instructor, who moved to Queens last January from East Hampton, to teach Bachata full-time, which is a partner dance from the Dominican Republic. But since the coronavirus pandemic hit, many dance studios have shut down, with instructors opting to hold outdoor classes in parks instead. However, safety concerns plaguing close-proximity dancing, such as Bachata, have left instructors like Nissen with fewer classes to teach and diminished personal savings, creating a high degree of uncertainty about their future, as the colder months approach, threatening to end outdoor instruction.
“Dancers now are taking advantage of being outside, but they are still touching. So, it is not like we have found the secret of dancing with the coronavirus,” said Nissen.
Between rent, food and health care expenses, making it as a dance instructor in the city is a challenge. Even before the pandemic, many Bachata instructors fell short of New York’s median individual income of $50,825, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. A May survey of 1,166 local dance workers by Dance/NYC, an advocacy group for dancers, showed the average annual income of dance workers is just $32,886.
To make ends meet, Nissen said she has some catering gigs and could always use her degree in Spanish education to teach if she needed to. But her dream, the one that she uprooted herself for, is to make it as a full-time Bachata instructor. She currently has four regular students, all of whom she teaches individually, either on Zoom or in person, she said, adding that she would need 10 or more regular clients to survive on her dance instructing alone. But Nissen said she won’t offer larger outdoor group classes because of health concerns related to COVID-19.
“Now that we are back to dancing outside, it feels like we can’t live without it. So when things get cold…” said Nissen, hesitating for a moment. “It feels like there is a slight rebellion in the dance community. It is up to the individuals to decide their comfort level.”
If there is indeed a rebellion in the New York Bachata community, Patrick Mozo may just be the leader.
“I’ve danced with 30, 40 or 50 different people in the last three months and didn’t get it,” said Mozo, about the risk of contracting COVID-19. On his social media profiles, Mozo has photos and videos of himself dancing with different partners without wearing a mask. He said that no one he knows has gotten sick through social dancing.
“If people are scared and don’t want to come out, that’s great, don’t do it. I am not forcing anybody.” The 28-year-old is the acting manager of Sensual Movement dance school, which holds classes around the city. He started teaching indoors again in mid-September, hosting two back-to-back classes at Ripley-Grier, a large event space in downtown Manhattan that offers studios for rent.
Another New York Bachata instructor has found two surprisingly effective methods of staying afloat amid the pandemic: Avoid partner-style dancing and teach in New Jersey. Washington Heights resident Ana Sofia Dallal, 27, began teaching on Zoom in April, focusing on a “lady style” form of Bachata where students dance alone.
“It is focused on your styling, your arms, feeling comfortable,” she said. “I made it donation-based and the response was surprising. At the beginning, people were paying more than the usual rate.” In early September, she taught her first in-person class since the pandemic.
Azucar Dance Studio, the main location where Dallal teaches, is in Englewood, New Jersey. Due to local regulations that differ from those in New York, Azucar reopened comparatively early, on July 20. Before the reopening, Englewood city officials visited the studio space for a safety check, said Azucar’s administrative director Jorge Palacio.
“We are allowed to dance at 20% capacity,” he said. “The studio has room for 60 to 80 people, now we have 15. We spray everyone’s shoes with Lysol and spray dancers’ clothes down with alcohol when they enter.” Classes are also streamed live for people who want to dance at home, something that Azucar offers due to many parents’ concerns for the safety of their children, said Palacio.
Dallal is hopeful for her industry’s survival and unconcerned about the potential health effects of the coronavirus. “Clients are starting to reach out, they don’t care, they are less afraid and feel more open,” she said. “They are just desperate to do stuff… They feel like, ‘If I die, I die happy.’”
With Zoom fatigue and colder weather approaching, New York dance instructors must weigh different plans for the future, or no plans at all. “There is no sense in thinking about what comes in November,” said Nissen. “We have to take it one week at a time. Planning gives a lot of unnecessary anxiety. For me, I do this because I love it and that’s that.”