Dominique Atwood, 29, spent days transforming her two-bedroom apartment in Hyde Park into a temporary dance studio. After rearranging sofas and making necessary floor space, Atwood was prepared to attend virtual dance rehearsal five days a week, 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., from her 300-square-foot living room. 

She would normally rehearse with Deeply Rooted Dance theater at the studios of Ballet Chicago, located in downtown Chicago at 17 N. State Street. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, she and other dancers with Deeply Rooted had been restricted to virtual rehearsals and no-show performances during the spring and summer. She, like many other dancers, have been forced out of their comfort zones, not being able to rehearse at studios or perform in theaters — and losing money because of it.

Just this past Sunday, Oct. 4, Deeply Rooted dancers began rehearsing for their 25th anniversary show at Maywood Fine Arts Association.

The 25th anniversary show, titled “Deeply 25: Beyond Dance…The Celebration Begins,” will be held on Oct. 17 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Audiences can attend virtually or in person at the Athenaeum Theatre located at 2936 N. Southport Avenue. 

In-person attendees will receive non-contact temperature reading upon arrival, must wear masks, must comply with six-foot social distancing markers throughout common areas and use hand sanitizer available in the lobby, gallery and washrooms. Every other row in the theater will be blocked off. Seats will be assigned by household groups, with a minimum of three seats. The theater will have separate exits designated for attendees to depart after the performance. 

It’s Deeply Rooted’s first show since March, when Illinois underwent a strict lockdown to fight the pandemic. The show will reflect the company’s inspiration and evolution of Black dance and serve as a fundraiser to benefit seasonal performances and educational programming next year, since COVID-19 cut so much of the company’s finances.

Deeply Rooted performers. Photo by Michelle Reid

This past summer, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater was preparing for a production with Broadway in Chicago, “Goshen” —  a musical dance collaboration with historical themes depicted in the bible — and tour with Grammy Award-winning gospel singer, songwriter and producer Donald Lawrence. But performances were cancelled and rehearsals halted, according to Atwood.

“This is the longest a lot of us have ever been without being in the studio,” Atwood said. “It’s really hard because it’s not only about income, but it’s also the way we all express ourselves, the way we use dance as therapy and get through challenging times, especially times like this.”

This is Atwood’s fifth year as a dancer for Deeply Rooted Dance Theater — a Chicago-based theater rooted in Black dance and storytelling. The Ohio native is also the company’s grants and operations manager and a graduate of Howard University. 

Atwood said she began to take her career as a dancer more seriously when she took ballet and modern dance in high school while attending Stivers School for the Arts in Dayton, Ohio. Now, in addition to dancing, she’s also a part-time dance teacher for different studios, including Studio One Dance Conservatory and Ballet Chicago, where she’s currently teaching dance classes virtually and in person. 

Since March, Atwood has met her Deeply Rooted dance class of about 10 dancers online. Dancers from different cities, including New York, Atlanta and Milwaukee, would log into Zoom for class and rehearsal. The physical disconnect has made it even harder to manage when preparing for their upcoming show, she added. 

Creating space at home and virtual instruction had not been ideal, Atwood said. 

After virtual rehearsal, Atwood said the class would have “talk backs” to discuss how dancers were coping without traditional dance in their lives. 

“That was extremely helpful,” Atwood said about the talks. “We had breakthroughs and cries. As artists, losing our time in the studio during a pandemic was a huge emotional shift for us.”

Atwood said that the pandemic caused her to recently spiral into a deep depression and have panic attacks, making it harder for her to be away from the studio — the place that keeps her calm and at peace. 

“When I’m dancing, I can feel anything from joy to frustration to wonder or even curiosity,” Atwood said. This type of expression is important for Black folks, and it’s important for her to keep Black dance alive, she added. 

“I think dance is a relief,” said Atwood. “Black people hold on to so much, especially in our bodies. Dance allows us to release and embrace a different energy.”

It’s already a challenge for Black dancers, because there are very few of them in companies and on Broadway, said Atwood. She also pointed out that since Black people in Chicago are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and experiencing massive job loss, she’s fortunate to even still be able to work and dance. This after other local premiere dance academies, such as the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, recently closed its doors for the 2020-21 season and cancelled all its performances at the Lyric Opera House. 

During a normal contract season, Atwood said she can average between $500 to $700 per performance. Before the pandemic, she was bringing in more than double the income she’s bringing in now. Dancers get paid for virtual rehearsal, but the hours are shorter. 

Deeply Rooted currently has eight company members. Ongoing support will keep the doors open and dancers employed, said Kevin Iega Jeff, the dance company’s co-founder and creative director.

“This is a celebration that acknowledges the artists, families, friends, students, executive managers, staff, board members, consultants, funders and individual donors who have helped make Deeply Rooted possible,” Jeff said. “With their ongoing support, along with new supporters, Deeply Rooted’s future is inspired, assured and bright.”

Atwood is encouraging people to buy tickets to keep Black dance alive and Black dancers thriving during the pandemic.

“We have to dance,” Atwood said. “That’s communication for us. That’s our language. That’s why at cookouts, family reunions and church there is always dance. Dance brings joy, it’s an essential.”

To purchase tickets for “Deeply 25: Beyond Dance…The Celebration Begins”, visit their website. Tickets start at $25; in-person and virtual premium ticket holders have access to the Continuum, an exclusive, hour-long discussion after the show with the company’s artistic team. 

This story has been updated to clarify the location of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater and rehearsals for its 25th anniversary show.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.