Sister Kate Dance Company member Robin looks at the camera smiling

Article written by dance company member, Robin Nunnally

From the Southeast to the Northwest, Women in Jazz dance are paving an important road of awareness and bringing joy to dancers across the country

Screenshot from a recent NOLA Chorus Girl performance video, with 12 lovely ladies dancing
Screenshot from a recent NOLA Chorus Girl performance video

Blog Post By Robin Nunnally, Director of Sister Kate Dance Company

The year 2020 has not been easy for dancers and dance teams. The emergence of Covid-19 and subsequent need for safe social distancing, while super important, resulted in performance and in-person class cancellations starting in March 2020.

While chatting with another dance friend recently, I had a realization; it is so awesome that chorus girl teams are clearly some of the major leaders remaining present online and producing art during these challenging times. Jazz dance women are really paving the path in so many ways for their communities, both on a local level, but also on a national level, keeping the art alive during dark times.

Like many teams, Sister Kate has had to make some major changes this year as to what we are doing and how we accomplish it. I wanted to take this blog opportunity to talk about how we, as an organization, have pivoted during the pandemic to keep making art in positive ways, but I also really wanted to take the opportunity to highlight two other groups that have kept super active as well during 2020: The Denver Diamond Dolls of Denver, Colorado, and The NOLA Chorus Girls of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Sister Kate is based in Washington, The Denver Diamond Dolls are in Colorado, and the NOLA Chorus Girls are in Louisiana.

So of course, I jumped at the opportunity to feature both of them here in this blog article. Amy Johnson (NOLA Chorus Girls) and Delilah Williams (The Denver Diamond Dolls) have been longtime peers and inspirations to me, and I couldn’t be more elated to get to share their voices and perspectives here for everyone to read.

Images of the Denver Diamond Dolls, NOLA Chorus Girls, and Sister Kate Dance Company
Left to Right: Denver Diamond Dolls (photo by GarPro Studio), The NOLA Chorus Girls, Sister Kate (photo by Priya Alahan Photography)

Each of us sat down to answer the same 6 questions, dealing with plan adjustments, pivoting to meet new guidelines, and how our groups have grown for the future.

1. How did the pandemic affect or disrupt your regular team schedule and plans for 2020?

THE DIAMOND DOLLS: The Denver Diamond Dolls have been meeting every Tuesday in person for practice for years. We schedule out the full year in advance, and also for the first time this year, opened up registration for all sessions. We were all so excited about having so many interested ladies, especially far in advance for sessions that were not set to start until this summer and fall. However, of course once the pandemic hit, we immediately paused in person practice and went virtual. We hoped it would be temporary, but soon The Dolls Board realized that we were not going to be able to safely meet in person for a long time. So, we continued on the virtual train! We not only do virtual practices and performances, but we also offer free get togethers and classes virtually for all members to ensure that if someone wants to participate they are not barred by monetary constraints. 

NOLA CHORUS GIRLS : We had just wrapped up Mardi Gras and were about to start rehearsals for our end of session performances back in March. I managed to deliver the entire choreography to the gals and I’m grateful to have at least completed that before lockdown. But now there’s a choreography out there that I did (that I really love!) that has never seen the light of day!

SISTER KATE: Well, for us, our main dance company had two major full length self-produced shows this year that we had to cancel – one in May and one in October. Each show would have had a run of 6-9 performances, and we usually end up having 400+ people come to see us perform during each run. We had JUST finished teaching/learning all of our May show’s choreography (and had just started working on costuming) when the pandemic really hit and social distancing was (thankfully) enforced in WA state.

We were definitely financially hit as well (old ticket company owing us lots of money, loss in theater deposits that we haven’t heard from, etc), but thankfully, Sister Kate isn’t a full time income for any of us, so I knew we’d be okay there.

On top of that, we hold seasonal Boot Camp classes for the general public to attend, and we had our final one of the 2019/2020 season scheduled for April. At first, I rescheduled it for June, thinking in February that it would hopefully be safe then to meet in person by June, but of course, that wasn’t the case. We ultimately ended up having the class completely virtual in June and turning it into a socially distanced music video.

Screenshot from Sister Kate's Beach Ball Beauties dance video this year.
Sister Kate’s first virtual boot camp music video: Beach Ball Beauties (June 2020)

2. Has the situation caused you to have any revelations/realizations about your team/business or the nature of chorus line dancing in general ? If so, what? 

THE DIAMOND DOLLS: We always knew that Dolls was expensive for some women, which did not allow them to participate. We offered volunteer hours, however some people may work multiple jobs, so while we thought we were offering a way to participate we were still not empowering some people with not only a monetary constraint, but a time constraint, to not participate. So while we are virtual we have a full scholarship option, no questions asked for anyone that needs it. We would rather people have a community they can thrive in, even if they are unable to afford it at the moment. 

Screenshot showing some of the many amazing dancers of the Denver Diamond Dolls
The Denver Diamond Dolls and some of their awesome virtual dancers!

NOLA CHORUS GIRLS: I wouldn’t say I’ve had any revelations about the nature of chorus line or jazz dancing because if the pandemic. But it has definitely allowed time to reevaluate the process of how we deliver material to folks and what we can do to make things better when things get back to “normal”. It has definitely forced innovation in terms of how we do our classes.

SISTER KATE: I’ve felt a real drive to keep things going for Sister Kate, not only for my own sanity as an artist and creator, but also realizing how “essential” it is to have art and community during times of stress and depression. Sure, we can’t meet every week for dance practice or dance class with our students, but we’re all still here, and we all still need to dance and take our minds off of the chaos of the real world.

With all of the different political movements happening at the same time, it’s also made me sit back and ask myself, “What DOES MAKE a Chorus Girl in 2020? What DOES that look like in modern times, and what SHOULD it look like in modern times? Are we doing it ‘right’? What unifies and identifies a chorus line team. Is it just the group synchronized choreography, or is it also the costumes? What do we want the future of Sister Kate to look like?

Part of that thought process has caused us to really examine the idea of “accessibility” for folks, especially when there’s a lot of financial uncertainty during the current pandemic. We’ve started to offer a handful of “pay what you can” passes for our boot camps, which I’m really proud of.

3. How has your team/business “pivoted” to adjust around public safety precautions surrounding Covid-19? 

The Diamond Dolls: The Diamond Dolls no longer meet in person, for anything. Practices, performances, workshops, and extracurricular activities (baking classes, crafts, yoga, game nights, etc.) are all on zoom and we connect with our members in a private facebook group. Prior to the pandemic, we usually only did a once a session outing as a group and then special event stuff for holidays here and there. However, once the pandemic hit we realized the importance of not only dance in people’s lives, but the sense of community and connection to each other. This allowed us to pivot into learning more about each other by teaching about our hobbies and special skills, as well as providing new ways for us to connect.

NOLA Chorus Girls: I’ve personally been running online dance classes for The NOLA Chorus Girls since April and I’m still doing them. Laura Manning (the other NOLA Chorus Girl boss lady) and I only just recently started up in-person classes again. We take covid precautions VERY seriously. Classes are outside, everyone has to wear a mask, and we space everyone 7-8 feet apart. So far so good. It so nice to be dancing with people again!

Amy Johnson teaching chorus girls outside in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The NOLA Chorus Girls practicing outdoors socially distanced and with masks on.

Sister Kate: We no longer meet in person at all – we’re a team of 22 after all (not including our student groups, which tend to also be 20+ different dancers)! Every video project we have completed has been 100% socially distanced and solo remote. We have teammates who are doctors and teammates who are immunocompromised, so we put health and safety on the team very high.

We are currently holding all of our boot camps virtually, and I have been so incredibly thankful to our core group of students who continually sign up time after time and make the best of it. It’s SO MUCH HARDER (way more work) to film yourself well with proper framing, lighting, etc, than it is to go out and perform the routine once in front of a live audience with all your teammates by your side. I give them huge props because they have been killing it!

4. How has 2020 changed your team/business moving forward for the future? 

The Diamond Dolls: Our mission has always been to empower women through dance. As we move forward we will continue to strive to make Dolls a more welcoming space for all women regardless of skill level, physical appearance, or socioeconomic class. 2020 has given us the time and space to see where we need to grow, and continue growing, in pursuit to make our mission a reality.

NOLA Chorus Girls: Right now we are really just taking it one day at a time. I’m all about not trying to force anything that doesn’t feel comfy for us as a group and there isn’t much we can do until most of the country is vaccinated. Laura and I are going to stick to our distanced, masked, outdoor classes with no performances and focus on making the gals better dancers. And of course there is always the online option for those who need the performance goal in their life.

Sister Kate: OMG SO MUCH! The social impact and political movements this year have definitely caused us to re-examine how we present ourselves as an artistic group in exciting and (I believe) positive ways moving forward. We’re still learning and growing everyday, and trying to do better as we gain more education and insights and have those conversations.

The BLM movement has certainly also been impactful for us, not only as individuals wanting to support our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) friends and peer artists, but as a team we’ve also made some decisions and changes on how we celebrate their art moving forward and realizing how important it is for us to give back financially to local BIPOC orgs here in Seattle.

Screenshot of a Sister Kate dancer with a mask performing.
Still from Jeepers Creepers dance video by Sister Kate

I’ve thought a lot, too, about what Nina Simone said once: “The duty of an artist is to reflect the times.Because of that ideology, I was really proud of our music video, “Jeepers Creepers”, which celebrated the importance of mask wearing + dancing socially distanced. Amidst so many anti-maskers on social media, it was important to me to share artwork that reminded dancers that you can keep dancing, but we must do it responsibly and distanced.

5. What is your advice to other solo jazz teams who are struggling to find their place amidst the pandemic? 

The Diamond Dolls: Start small and don’t be afraid to reach out to other groups for help, or even join other groups for a session to see how they are doing things. All of us are in this together, and supporting one another will just make us all, as a community, stronger. Have an event you need help promoting? Reach out and ask other larger groups! Most people would jump at the opportunity to help another group out, and possibly have some of their stuff cross promoted as well. 

Promo for a Diamond Dolls music video
Promo for a socially distanced dance video, Teach Me Tonight, by The Diamond Dolls

NOLA Chorus Girls: My advice is just to do what feels good to you. It really depends on the nature of the group and what its goals are. The way The NOLA Chorus Girls operates is not the same as the next group so what’s good for us might not work for the next group. Ultimately, the best advice I can give is to accept and adapt. Working within restrictions of any kind whether it’s a global pandemic or something as simple as space issues in a venue, it’s all about figuring out how to work creatively within those restrictions. Honestly, that’s where the magic happens anyway.

Sister Kate: Since nobody from our generation (or heck, the past two generations, really) have experienced a pandemic like this before, we’re all just kind of figuring out what feels right to do.But a good friend of mine (who was a business advisor) many years ago gave me one of the most powerful pieces of advice I’ve ever heard: “know when to pivot”. The pandemic has certainly caused every team (and dancer), I think, to have to “pivot” from their prior plans – whether that be to take an extended break to focus on personal life stuff, or to push on with doing things virtually. I think that both are okay, so just be gentle with yourselves as a team, and as human beings.

6. Any shout-outs to other orgs, groups, or teams doing amazing things during 2020?

The Diamond Dolls: A local Denver organization, The Gathering Place, has been a favorite organization of ours for a long time. This outstanding place services women, children, and transgendered individuals. Dolls usually does a yearly feminine product drive from our members for them. They did amazing work before the pandemic, and now during it they are doing absolutely crucial life saving work and always need help with funding and other donations.

NOLA Chorus Girls: I have seen great work from the Diamond Dolls in Denver. Like the NOLA Chorus Girls, they’ve been pumping out online classes and videos throughout the entire pandemic. They do a variety of different musical feels and use different teachers. It’s very impressive!

Sister Kate: Oh man, too many to list here! We have a list of orgs we support online.

Besides the Denver Diamond Dolls and NOLA Chorus Girls, there are a number of other solo jazz teams around the WORLD doing great work. As the founder (Robin) of The Sugar Sweets in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, I can say it’s been really inspiring (and I feel super proud) seeing them work on material socially distanced outside with masks on, and taking part in their first competitions this year as a team! There’s a lot of love in what they create.

Image of The Sugar Sweets performing
The Sugar Sweets competing (virtually) at ILHC for the first time ever!

We’ve definitely been keeping a close eye on everything The Diamond Dolls have been creating and sharing on social media – it’s all been amazing to see the workshops they’ve been holding (and suggesting) on inclusivity and anti-racism (which a number of our teammates have attended), and their acknowledgements surrounding the history of the dance and continuing the awareness of education surrounding jazz’s history. We’re learning a lot from them as peer artists.

Going back to the concept I was mentioning of “pivoting”, I have to give a shout out to fellow dancer/artist, Nikki Marvin, down in Orange County, CA. It is so clear how hard she has been working pivoting her dance business into opening Atomic Skate Shop (and other business ventures). Seeing how she has adapted is like “Wow, what a fighting Queen!”.

On top of that, I’ve LOVED seeing the creativity of other artists using the medium of video. There have been some incredible works that have arisen out of the restrictions of the pandemic (I’ve been especially inspired by a lot of our local Seattle cabaret and burlesque artists here). People playing with new camera angles, adding in interesting video filters, introducing bigger storylines to their performances, etc. I love it and find it super inspirational. If you can’t perform live, why not really take advantage of the medium of cinematography??

A HUGE THANK YOU to Amy and Delilah for sharing their insights for this blog post.