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June 2, 2020

When nothing is better than something

Austin choreographer Kathy Dunn Hamrick works collaboratively, intuitively communicating with her dancers via sensory information. The pandemic has eliminated all that. So for now, the dancemaking has (mostly) ceased. "So be it,” she says.

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Kathy Dunn Hamrick had a sudden urge to start moving her body while out with her dog one Saturday in mid-March. It was, after all, time for class. The energetic 60-year-old has been teaching modern dance at Café Dance on Saturday mornings for nearly 25 years, but with everything canceled until further notice, the lifelong dancer and choreographer needed to try something new.

“I know how much better I feel when I can move around,” she tells me over the phone. “And since we are all suddenly in this situation, I knew a lot of people could benefit from the same thing.”

Hamrick is a mover and a shaker in the truest sense. An integral part of Austin’s dance community, she is the executive and artistic director of Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, which she founded in 1999, producer of the Austin Dance Festival which she founded in 2014, and a dance educator who has taught thousands of area students, many of whom came through arts outreach programs.

So when stay-at-home orders were put into place, Hamrick found a way to cope with being cooped up.

She began posting three-minute segments online, simple moves which involved bending and stretching, a way to manage the monotony and uncertainty of a virus which wasn’t going away anytime soon. Kathy’s Warm-Ups During a Pandemic are intended for dancers and non-dancers alike, each video offering diaphanous dance moves designed to loosen things up, all while admiring Hamrick’s lovely stone fireplace or verdant backyard.

The homey quality to the videos feels rather therapeutic — if not for her soothing voice and yoga-ish living room sequences, then for her dog’s tail happily whipping back and forth at the bottom of the screen.


Yet despite her newfound knack for making such videos, Hamrick is eager to get back into the studio. Zoom has proven challenging, both as a choreographer and a teacher. (In addition to her modern class at Café Dance, Hamrick instructs ballet at Austin Community College.)

“Right now I can’t hear a dancer’s breath, or sense changes in air pressure or temperature,” she says. “I’m not able to experience the ‘give and receive’ feedback which informs my own way of working.”

Despite the constraints of an 11-inch computer screen, Hamrick has managed to make it work for her teaching. She rewrote her ACC ballet curriculum, for instance, and adjusted her speakers and home lighting — all in an effort to adjust to the new way of doing things.

“I have been teaching for over 40 years and I feel confident in a studio,” she tells me. “But now I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to deliver the most effective virtual dance class that I can.”

Zoom rehearsals with her company did not go as smoothly as teaching, on account of slippery floors, ceiling fans, and awkward camera angles. When restrictions were first put into place, Hamrick had initially hoped to continue choreographing both pieces her company has been working on — one for the Austin Dance Festival and another which was set to premier in June — but the logistics weren’t safe and her dancers couldn’t fully move around in their own spaces.

Hamrick often makes material up on the spot, she tells me. Her work is spontaneous and sensorial, movement which gets molded once it takes shape. She wanted to preserve what had already been choreographed earlier this spring. But by the end of the second week, she discontinued the company’s rehearsals on Zoom.

“The dancers I work with are real pros, and they’ll do their best to retain the material without slippage,” she says. “And if I have to start anew, so be it.”

Even her husband was surprised by this decision: isn’t something better than nothing, he asked her? No, she countered, nothing is better in this case. The collaborative nature of her work, the way she intuitively communicates with her dancers, had shrunken into a solo practice stuck in a vacuum.

“My dances come into being through a live, real-time process of movement and experimentation,” she explains. “There’s this rapid-fire exchange of sensory information between myself and the dancer.”

Hamrick had found herself becoming increasingly irritated after each Zoom session. Finally, she realized the problem: Virtual rehearsals were a reminder of all the things we cannot do right now.

“We’re cursed with all this time when we could be creating, but I’m just not in the mood. My energies are dormant and there is a sort of dullness to everything right now.”

So for the time being, she simply enjoys creating new material each week for her modern and ballet classes, sequences that can be done in small spaces. It’s a different kind of creativity, she notes, when you’re dancing in your kitchen or foyer.

But Hamrick is already making plans, even if she must break them later. Her June premiere (titled “Caesura” a literary term which denotes a pause within a poetic line) has been moved to November and the Austin Dance Festival has been rescheduled for September 25-27.

“When you run an arts organization, and you’re writing grants and renting venues, you get into the habit of working 1.5 to 2 years out. So I’d rather take the chance than not plan at all,” she says.

The Austin Dance Festival might be moved outdoors, for example, with both performers and audience members socially spaced. Or perhaps only the film portion would be screened. It isn’t clear if international artists would be able to attend, and even if they could get to Austin, they might need to undergo a two-week quarantine.

“That’s the thing about this endlessness,” she sighs, “there is only right now.”

Hamrick possesses a bit of Zen grit when it comes to letting go, teaching in a new way, and being okay with not knowing when we will all be able to come together again.

She admits that social isolation at first was very busy, addressing time-sensitive priorities, cancelling the dance festival, preparing her online classes. But now everything has slowed down, and the mover and shaker is learning to sit with stillness.

“My neighbor said suffering comes from not accepting the way things are,” Hamrick says with a slight caesura. “But acceptance certainly doesn’t happen overnight.”

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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