Dancing in the Time of Corona

By Allison Abra, University of Southern Mississippi

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

A couple of weeks after the social distancing and lockdown measures designed to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus in North America were first implemented, a good friend of mine in my hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, turned 40 years old. Given the prohibitions on celebrating this milestone in any of the customary ways, she invited people she knew all over the world to participate in a virtual dance party over Zoom. Friends from Asia, Australia, Europe, and across Canada and the United States logged on at the same time, and we danced together for about 45 minutes to music she played from her laptop. From my home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, I danced along with her and her family, and 65 other screens worth of people, to many of our old favorites, including  “Home For A Rest” by Spirit of the West (which basically makes any Canadian around 40 go completely wild on the dance floor… or living room carpet). Still only at the beginning of our strange new reality, with the shock of the abrupt changes to our everyday lives created by the pandemic feeling really visceral, this virtual dance party lifted my spirits, and helped me to feel connected to the friends, and the strangers, also on the call.

Dancing during World War II

Dancing has served this same purpose at many moments in history. In my book Dancing in the English Style, I discussed the ways that this artistic and leisure form was put to work in Britain during the Second World War – in service to the war effort, and to help people grapple with the life-altering events that erupted around them. When the war first broke out in 1939, Britons talked of a “dancing boom,” and public dancing spaces continued to do a robust business throughout the war. Military personnel often received free or reduced admission to dances, which were also used to raise money for wartime charitable causes or to build airplanes and tanks. New songs and dances were written around war themes, from the “Black-out Stroll” to the “Tuscana,” which was designed to mock the military setbacks of the Italian Army in Greece (“one step forward, three steps back”). Both of these were so-called “party dances,” which were simple and accessible to even the most amateur dancer, and all performed together in a group (think “hokey pokey,” another example from this era).

These group dances and dancing in general helped to forge and express the good cheer and community spirit that became such a part of Britain’s self-image during the war. As a magazine correspondent described the scene in a Manchester dance hall one night, “before a few dances were over, I found quite happily that all the dancers were singing as well as dancing – in fact, it almost became community singing – and it really did help us all to feel more cheerful.”

Perhaps most evocatively, dancing became one of the most visual and dramatic expressions of the so-called “Blitz spirit.” Britons sang and danced in Tube stations and public shelters, or refused to leave the dance floor even in the midst of an air raid. As one report described it, ‘Dancing has often continued while bombs were falling and when the crash of anti-aircraft guns has almost drowned the music.’[i]  People also danced in rubble-strewn streets after a raid to display their fortitude and resolve, such as in the case of the photograph that serves as the cover image for my book.

Dancing during the Covid-19 Pandemic

With this history in mind, I have been struck by the ways people around the world have danced their way through the pandemic, and the expressions of feeling that have been conveyed in these moments. As “shelter in place” orders spread across the world, people danced to alleviate cabin fever, cheer themselves up, and feel connected to others. Residents of the Italian city of Turin performed the 1990s song and dance hit the “Macarena” from their respective balconies. A professional dancer in Britain danced down the road in an exuberant parody of Tina Turner performing “Proud Mary,” entertaining onlookers and thousands of YouTube viewers. A large number of professional and amateur DJs have hosted socially distant dance parties for their neighbors, while professional dancers have staged at-home performances online, and thousands of housebound people have participated in virtual dance classes, or tik tok dance challenges. A simple google search of “dancing during the lockdown” yields countless results.

Nor has dancing remained confined to those enduring the lockdown: it has been an inspirational and moving part of the experience of patients and medical professionals on the front lines of the pandemic. Back in February, patients and medical staff danced together to raise their spirits in one of the temporary hospitals established in Wuhan, China. When an 84-year-old woman in Massachusetts recovered from the virus, she  danced a few ballroom steps as she made her way back to her room in a nursing home. And there is a hospital in Ontario where health care workers dance in the halls to celebrate each occasion when a Covid-19 patient is removed from a ventilator. Similar stories about dancing health care workers abound.

It should be noted that in both contexts, people have danced despite – or sometimes in response to – profound social fissures and conflicts that have transcended the root crisis of global war or global pandemic. For all of the ways that Britain’s World War II experience produced predominant and long mythologized ideals about national unity, equality of sacrifice, and community spirit, it has been well established by historians that significant social inequalities persisted or were even exacerbated by the war. Social unity could be tested even by events in dance halls, where, for instance, tensions or even violence occasionally erupted over interracial dancing.

It has been a similar story during the Covid-19 pandemic, where we have witnessed unequal levels of suffering owing to job losses and food insecurity, differing access to quality health care, disproportionate burdens placed on frontline workers, and higher rates of infection and death within communities of color. Just as during Britain’s war experience, dancing itself has sometimes produced additional tensions, if it has caused people to breach social distancing regulations, or when it has been associated with affluent celebrities who were accused of being tone-deaf or out of touch. It’s worth noting too that participating in a Zoom dance party is dependent on reliable internet access, which not all people have.

Dancing during Protests

Even as I have been developing this post, the current global crisis has deepened in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, with feelings of grief and anger being expressed, and protests erupting across the United States and around the world. But significantly, this too has induced some to dance, as a part of marches (which have sometimes become spontaneous dance parties), as a specific form of protest, or in a bid to inspire and “spread joy.”

Why People Dance in a Crisis

So what is it about dancing that has moved so many people to, well, move during this current crisis, and during other moments of great challenge across time and place? First of all, it’s just fun. As one of the DJs providing socially distant block parties suggested, dancing brings people “a lot of joy.” It’s physical, and provides exercise when other options for that might be limited. It can often involve interaction with other people – face-to-face or virtually – creating feelings of connection and camaraderie. It offers a way of celebrating cultural traditions and expressing identities. In all of these ways, dancing can be a form of escapism, and provides a distraction from the anxieties of the moment. And yet, I would argue that a desire to dance is not simply about disconnecting from or forgetting the crises that swirl around us, but rather about finding ways to absorb, acknowledge, and ultimately power through and resist them.

Earlier this month, Adrienne Burns, a 38-year-old North Carolina woman who had been hospitalized for 43 days battling Covid-19, including periods on a ventilator, recovered and was released from the hospital. As she left the building, she danced alongside some of the nurses who had cared for her, and later explained this impulse to dance in a local news report: “It’s fun. And you want people to know you overcame something.”

I think the idea of overcoming – but also perhaps to be witnessed overcoming – is key here. Following a description of the raucous scene at a New Year’s Eve dance at the height of the German bombing campaign against London, journalist Phyllis Warner recorded in her diary: ‘Would that Hitler could have seen us. I think he’d have found it darned disheartening.’ As the comments of both Adrienne in 2020 and Phyllis in 1940 reveal, in times of historic crisis, dancing offers a very visible and whole-bodied display of continued existence and resolve, whether it’s in the face of a dangerous disease or of an enemy leader, or outside a hospital or in a bomb-ravaged street. Through the feelings of fun and joy it bestows, it enables people to dance out or through some of the fear, suffering, and grief, and expresses their hope and their determination to survive.

Allison Abra is Associate Professor of history and a Fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. In 2018-2019, Dr. Abra was honored as the Mississippi Humanities Council Teacher of the Year for Southern Miss. She was also recently named 2019-2021 Blount Professor in Military History in order to support the research and writing of a new book on gender and emotion in British espionage during World War II.

About Douglas Bristol

Douglas Bristol is an Associate Professor of History and a Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. In his teaching and research, he focuses on the beliefs, institutions, and strategies that ordinary Americans developed to exercise control over their lives. In his first book, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (reissued in paperback in 2015), Bristol examines the relationship between black barbers and the prosperous white men whose throats they shaved with straight-edged razors from the colonial period to the Great Migration. He co-edited Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II, to which he contributed a chapter on understanding the resistance of black soldiers during World War II. His current book project, Khaki Globe Trotters, explores how black GIs used military service in World War II to claim the New Deal's promise of security. The Art of Manliness podcast and the PBS documentary, Boss: The Black Experience in Business, featured his work.
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