Embarking on a career in dance is never easy. In these days of pandemic, class of 2020 college dance graduates find their original plans to enter the profession have all but derailed. Our changing times have forced four Chicago area rising professionals into finding innovative ways to keep in shape, shifting gears entirely or remaining in holding patterns. Challenges they face are great, but these former students look toward the future with determination and they aim to prepare for whatever it may bring.
After spending most of the summer in Ann Arbor following her graduation from the University of Michigan (UM), Annelise Senkowski moved to Chicago in August. “I came here with no prior connections,” she says from her Lakeview East apartment. It might have been easier for her to go home to her native Savannah, Georgia. But wanting to pursue a professional performing career, she had lined up auditions for DanceWorks Chicago and Visceral, among others. “The pandemic upended a lot of those things,” she says, “But I stuck with my plan of going to Chicago so that when things open up again I'm well positioned to engage with the action.”
In the past few months, Senkowski has diverted her movement training away from her rigorous ballet background. She followed a personal interest in health, wellness and instruction, which lead her to Tai Chi. “Now I'm not performing, but I work full time for Chicago Tai Chi in the Loop both as a studio manager and a teacher,” she explains. Teaching both online and in person at the studio, Senkowski is doing Tai Chi 4-5 hours a day. “But I have a square of Marley floor at home and still do ballet whenever possible,” she says.
For newly minted MFA Sherry Lin, a return to Lincoln Square following UM graduation was not part of her original plan. After several years of dancing with Hip Hop ConnXion (Chicago) and pursuing commercial dance opportunities, Lin wanted to launch her post-graduate career in Los Angeles. “Technically I'm not out of my plan,” she says. “But right now, moving there is pending.” Luckily for Lin, she's been building an extensive background in the nutrition field. She now spends time looking for nutrition counseling and dietician work in either LA or Chicago. “I'm keeping my options open and definitely not moving without a plan,” she says.
During this unwarranted intermission, Lin is staying ready for performance possibilities. Connecting with west coast dance artists, she recently studied with LA-based break dancer Randi Freitas' online Omega Flow floorwork training program. Lin also taught classes through the Dancing Alone Together website. Even though it's all online, she says “it's been really great to be in community with others.”
After finishing up an undergraduate dance degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Julianna Hom planned to move to Chicago. Instead, she found herself back at her parents’ home in suburban Wilmette. “I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do,” she says, “I just planned to try to dance as much as possible and establish a network here.” Hom feels uncertain about how to continue pursuing her interests in choreography and in exploring her Asian-American identity through dance.
“Probably the biggest impact (of the pandemic) is that now I'm not sure how to connect to the community,” Hom says. “I don't feel comfortable going to in-person classes. Living with older parents, I try to limit exposure to the virus.” To keep herself moving, she's begun studying yoga remotely and is considering yoga teacher training. She's also been revisiting a recently choreographed solo with the hopes of presenting it as a live-streamed event. “I first performed it in a parking garage, and now am mainly working on it in my bedroom,” she says.
Further north in Bannockburn, Kaitlyn Soloway has also found herself back home living with her parents. Her plans to move to New York City following her UM graduation have been scrapped in exchange for a temporary substitute art teacher position at Bannockburn Elementary School.
Soloway says she hasn't gone into a studio yet, but has taken online classes at Visceral and via Instagram, gleaning from master teachers whenever possible. “I was open to performing on Broadway, in company work or in the entertainment industry,” she says. “So, I'm still training myself to be ready when things open. I'm trying to take advantage of what's available online now.” She also has continued to choreograph, recently making a solo that was selected for Zoom sharing as part of Dance Chance facilitated by DanceWorks Chicago.
Soloway is also taking a U-turn to prepare for whatever may be next by starting a masters program in elementary education. “Teaching is something I see doing later in life. So why not start working towards that now?” she says.
Keeping positive and hopeful about what might lie ahead is tough for all four dancers. Lin says taking daily walks and checking in with close friends is what helps her stay grounded. For Hom, focusing on the present is paramount. What she longs for most is the social life that's tied to dance. “I try not to think about what I am missing out on,” she says. “Everyone has missed out on things. I try to make sure my days are full and have a lot of variety.”
“I feel the ups and downs more than ever,” Soloway adds, so she also keeps her days full of activity. “A positive part of this is that my family has been all together. If it wasn't a pandemic, we'd all be in different places.”
Maximizing time outdoors brings balance for Senkowski. She rides her bike to work and walks to the lake as often as possible. “Being outside is a source of calm for me,” she says. “And I'm spending time getting acquainted with the city,” with unique first impressions of Chicago, given that many activities and businesses are closed. “It's a risky time to meet new people, so I've been reaching out to distant friends and family often. But so far, the people that I have met here have gone above and beyond to make me feel welcome and supported. Chicago is such a welcoming place.”
As performing artists and arts institutions navigate the coronavirus pandemic, we at See Chicago Dance are curious about what's happening in other parts of the Midwest. This story is part of a fall series of regional features exploring how other dance communities are coping with COVID.
Guest writer Maureen Janson is a choreographer, a former dancer, a photographer and a writer. She has contributed to Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, Dance Teacher, and The Capital Times among other publications. She was the founding editor/publisher of Scoliosis Quarterly magazine, and with her mentor Anna Paskevska, she co-wrote the second edition of Getting Started in Ballet (2016, Oxford University Press). In 2019, Maureen made her playwriting debut with Beautiful View-a collection of monologues that may or may not have something to do with the moon. Details about her work can be found at maureenjanson.com.