Sydney Zeve, 21, hadn’t heard of Dance Church, a dance studio now streaming its classes online, until five weeks ago, when her sister insisted that the whole family try it. Zeve is quarantined in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in an apartment with her dad, while the rest of her family is quarantined together in her hometown in southern California. Nearly every Sunday since lockdown began, the family has been coming together via FaceTime to tune in to an hour-long session of Dance Church.
When Zeve tells people about the family activity, they are a little scandalized. “Everyone thinks it’s religious affiliated—because we’re Jewish—and they’re like, What do you mean...you’re going to church online?” Zeve told VICE. “I haven’t been home in over six months, and having this time together on Sundays, where I feel like we’re doing something together, has been really nice and light.”
Up until recently, Dance Church was hosted by instructors at studios in six major cities around the United States: Seattle (where it started in 2010), Portland, Los Angeles, New York, etc. Classes, which cost $15 for drop-ins, moved online (for free) in early March after the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures closed most gyms. Now live-streamed twice a week—Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings—Dance Church is more accessible than it’s ever been before, which is why you’re probably seeing more and more people in your Instagram feed flailing their arms around in their quarantine bunkers, not unlike evangelicals in their church pews... if their churches blasted Robyn.
Dance Church sits somewhere in the nebulous air space between fitness class and free spirited groovin’. It’s not Zumba, exactly; more like if the DJ at your favorite club periodically made all the partiers do glute work. (Zeve’s brother, Blake, 27, said he works out “almost daily” and still finds Dance Church to be strenuous.) Zeve has no dance background and describes her style as “definitely uncoordinated,” but said doing Dance Church in her dad’s living room during quarantine has been both energizing and a nice way to take her mind off everything that’s going on.
The first and second rules of Dance Church are: You have to tell everyone about Dance Church. Not literally, but it seems that way. Telling can look like emphatic texts sent by friends (“you have to try dance church!!!”) or, lately, like several slides in an Instagram story, showing your friend the evangelist jumping and bopping and twerking in their socks on their bedroom floor.
Zeve isn’t the only one turning to dance as a form of stress release during the pandemic. An unexpected side effect of a nation under quarantine is an absolute boom of online dancing. Celebrity choreographer Ryan Heffington has been streaming lessons on Instagram to upwards of 4,000 people, according to The Verge. Professional dance companies like Martha Graham in New York City are teaching anyone with an internet connection the basics of ballet and contemporary dance. A choreographer I follow on Instagram posts stories at least once a week of people performing her work in driveways and living rooms with pushed-aside coffee tables. Clubs and DJs are hosting Zoom dance parties, broadcasting bass drops to tens of thousands of isolated dancers, raving their way through the pandemic.
Dance Church’s virtual attendance has steadily soared during the isolation period. Kate Wallich, the founder of Dance Church, told VICE that the first virtual class in early March had around 1,000 participants, per their internal analytics. The most recent class on Sunday, April 19 drew around 12,000. The Zoom classes are being led by Dance Church instructors from around the country, and are offered for free or for whatever participants can donate.
The only person a viewer sees on the screen during a Dance Church virtual class is the instructor, rather than a shuffling of 10,000 dancers in tiny digital tiles. Though a lot of people are choosing to make their own group streams over FaceTime, like Zeve, and Zoom, so they’re “dancing together” with other people, instead of totally alone.
Kate Kipley, 28, has been doing Dance Church for six years, first in Seattle, then in Los Angeles, and now alone with her cat in her home. She met Wallich while out dancing one night in Seattle; Wallich enthusiastically invited her to a class, and Kipley has been a regular ever since. She was initially hooked on the energy of dancing freely (there are no mirrors at Dance Church) around a bunch of happy strangers, but said she’s coming back every week in quarantine because it feels incredibly good to move her body around.
“I’m out of work at the moment, so I don’t even have work consistency, and there’s something calming about having a dance class every Sunday,” Kipley told VICE. “The past couple weeks, I’ve been like, I don’t want to take a class, I’m hungover from a Zoom call, I don’t want to move. But then I take it, and I feel this release. Like, Oh, my shoulders have been so tight and I didn’t realize it. I just feel so much lighter after I take a class.” Kipley takes the class every Sunday now, along with a Zoom call of 15 or so of her friends, all dancing alone but together.
“The past couple weeks, I’ve been like, I don’t want to take a class, I’m hungover from a Zoom call, I don’t want to move. But then I take it, and I feel this release."
Another Dance Church veteran, Julie Logan, 33, also usually takes the class in Los Angeles, and was a bit more reluctant to join the virtual party once the city went into lockdown. Like Kipley, Logan spoke glowingly and abstractly about the general energy and vibe of in-person Dance Church, which she describes first as a “mood,” and later, more reluctantly, as “aerobics dancing, but so much more than that.”
“A huge part of it for me is I love watching everybody, just looking at their faces and seeing how sweaty and happy everybody is; I’ve met people in class because we make eye contact and both grimace or smile,” Logan told VICE. “I’ve been tired on a certain day and look at somebody, and their energy pumps right into me. There are people in class who are just little beacons of joy. It’s like, OK, I can’t be sad right now, I can’t be tired, because this is amazing.”
Logan had been a regular attendee of LA classes for about a year and skipped the first live stream, not yet ready to accept that quarantine was really happening. She dipped in to her first virtual class alone and vowed never to do it again—dancing completely by herself didn’t feel right. The next Sunday, like Kipley, Logan set up a Zoom call with 15 or 20 friends who could watch the stream and dance together. This was much better. People lingered after, like a regular class, to talk and decompress; people sometimes bring out guitars; one time a bunch of people commented on a stranger’s really good mustache. It’s not quite the same as smiling across the room at a stranger, but it’s a close enough quarantine-approved alternative.
Dance Church founder Wallich said she’s heartened to hear that people in places like Duluth, Minnesota—in other words, not probable spots for a new physical Dance Church location—are able to join in, given the circumstances. She said she plans to keep virtual classes available, even as studios are able to reopen, as it becomes clearer that “there’s no just going back to normal.”
“I think in times of sadness—or, not sadness, just newness—we have to redefine what normal is,” Logan said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in that. The consistency of Dance Church and these people that I really care about—even some of the people that come through [the Zoom group] that I don’t know—it’s nice to have that.”
Unlike Kipley and Logan, Sarah Histand, 38, came to Dance Church only in the past month, and does it totally alone. Histand lives with her husband in Anchorage, Alaska, where they’re in “hunker down” mode. She found out about Dance Church through Instagram after a friend shared a post with her.
“I don’t have a background in dancing, I just love it; it’s something I do often on my own, just put on a fun song and dance around the house,” Histand, who leads online fitness classes herself for a living, told VICE. “I love the idea of there being a little more structure, and other people to virtually do it with, not just me and myself. It’s been a good emotional release. I think we hold a lot of our emotional content in our bodies and it’s just a way of releasing built up stuff.”
Histand blasts each class on Sunday through speakers and dances along in her living room, sometimes laughing at the image of herself grooving alone, surrounded by her furniture. After a class, she said she feels like her anxious energy has dissipated, and like she has a bit of a buzz from the loud music and thrashing around.
“With having so many of our options limited, I think we’re craving movement and freedom,” Histand said. “If you think about what we’re allowed to do right now, which is a lot of staying at home and feeling really contained, what they’re getting us to do with Dance Church blows that all open. You can have a super amazing dance party in your living room, like you were at a club or something. It opens up a bunch of possibilities with what we can do from home.”
Screenshot gifs courtesy of Julie Logan.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.