The constant hustle of professional dance life can make it surprisingly easy to forget what dance really means to us. Competitiveness, professional disappointments, and the monotony of dancing the same show or works over and over again can sap the joy and wonder that kept us committed to dance in the first place. For Hope Easterbrook of the original Hamilton cast, COVID was actually what she needed to remember why and how much dance is a refuge for her. It has also reaffirmed her commitment to keep giving back, opened up opportunities to learn and offered space to refine her vision.
It certainly brought significant challenges, and Easterbrook is honest about that. All in all, however, she found silver threads on the edge of what has at times felt like gigantic, stormy clouds. Dance Informa speaks with Easterbrook as part of our “Dance life in quarantine” series — how accomplished dance artists are making it work in this time, how they’re handling the challenges they’re facing through COVID, what they’re making, what they’re learning, how they’re giving back and more.
After stepping away from Hamilton, Easterbrook taught dance for boosting educational outcomes in Rwanda through MindLeaps. That was an incredibly formative experience for her, and reaffirmed her commitment to giving back through dance. That led her to create Dance4Hope, a non-profit organization using dance to empower underprivileged communities — through classes, fundraisers, awareness-raising initiatives and more. Easterbrook was also working as a full-time teaching artist: on staff at Ailey Extension, subbing and teaching in the children’s program at The School at Steps, teaching and creating through private clients and students, and collaborating with other artists.
Then came COVID. Easterbrook didn’t waste any time doing what she could to make teaching work despite the lockdown; she jumped right into teaching on Instagram. She didn’t love the format, however, and says that “it was tough for me to not be able to see my students and engage with them, and the comments section drove me crazy!” The important dialogue between teachers and students just couldn’t happen in a way that was satisfactory to her through Instagram. She then switched to Zoom, which suited her much better because the engagement between students and teachers is a lot more like that in a typical class.
She took a much-needed break from lockdown teaching at one point, and then came back with a bang. All in one week, she taught a street jazz class, a hip hop class and a Hamilton-themed class to raise funds for a friend-of-a-friend battling cancer. She does intend to take another break from teaching at some point soon, as fulfilling as she’s found it and as much as she’s learned, she says. A memorable moment for her was calling a friend and bemoaning how she couldn’t make the classes “perfect.” Her friend offered her perspective, saying, “You realize that anything you offer is everything right now, right?” That really hit home for her.
Teaching and being part of the Leaders for Change program, from Growth and Development Services (Inwood, NY), also had a lot to teach her. Through Dance4Hope, she became involved with the organization, which usually runs summer camp, last year. They went virtual this summer, and offered personal growth and wellness services such as yoga/mindfulness and public speech coaching. For her classes, Easterbrook’s task was to nurture the artistry within these youth over Zoom, many of whom had very small spaces to move in and several other family members with whom to negotiate that space. All in all, it was a challenge that taught her a lot; that combined with what she picked up from the other teachers, “I learned just as much as [the students] did!” she affirms.
This time has also refocused Easterbrook on Dance4Hope generally, reigniting her passion to use it to make positive change. “It’s something I can use my time doing to give back,” she shares. It’s also something that she’s been able to make a schedule around and feel good about in this topsy-turvy, unpredictable time. Overall, this work has deepened her passion for serving youth, particularly with what they’re having to handle these days. Easterbrook recalls how her junior and senior years of high school were incredibly formative for her as an artist and as a person, and she “can’t imagine doing and learning all of that over Zoom.” Those challenges considered, she’s serving in all of the ways she can, even beyond dance — such as helping one of her students with her resume so that the student can work while going to college.
Easterbrook is also admirably clear about where she wants her career to go on the other side of COVID. She wants Dance4Hope to be a national organization within five years, for example. She also wants to keep performing, as well as choreograph and direct — and have the work she creates have the potential to bring positive change on social justice issues. “I want to be on both sides of the table!” she says with confidence and joy. “COVID made me see how much I love to create, and also how much I’m worth!” Easterbrook can’t wait to once again get those calls to come in to the studio and work on choreography during pre-production, to be in those rooms where creativity happens, she says.
At an even deeper level, this time has made her remember just what dance is for her. At a time of life filled with loss and grief, dance was a safe place where all of that would melt away. “COVID reminded me that dance has always been that place for me,” she shares. Easterbrook describes a day, this past Labor Day, when she deeply felt this wonder and safety that dance is for her. She managed to book studio space at Ripley-Grier Studios and teach choreography to a friend. They then went down to the water to film what they were dancing.
“When we first got into the studio, we were running around and screaming, like it was the best thing ever to be back in the studio again. It was so liberating!” she describes and laughs. “That day…it was like COVID didn’t exist.”
COVID or not, the joy and safe place of dancing and creating will always be part of who she is, what she does and what she gives to the world. She offers a powerful affirmation of gratitude for health and physical ability — a perspective that COVID helped bring her. “If I can get up and move my body,” she says, “I better do it.”
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.