By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau
When COVID-19 struck, one of the hardest hit industries was the arts. Overnight, the curtain closed on live performances, leaving theatres and concert halls empty -- and Grand Canyon University alumni without jobs.
The only thing on GCU Dance Director Susannah Keita's mind was helping her students, so she organized virtual meet-ups to do just that.
On the second Monday of each month over the past few months, except in July, Keita has helmed a monthly Zoom session for dance alumni. She wanted to find a way for alumni to offer support and advice on how to navigate the arts during a pandemic. Attendees have discussed how to safely stay active in dance and cope with mental health issues, among other topics.
The meetings offer a safe space to communicate with others who may be in the same boat.
“Like everybody else, we’ve figured out that life can resume on Zoom, and we could even gather more participants across the country, wherever our alumni have landed. So that’s really cool,” Keita said. “The focus is strategies for finding jobs and making progress in your career in the middle of this (COVID-19).”
Keita started the calls to help recent alumni who we’re just getting into the field, but she said she also has seen older alumni join in. And it's available for current dance students who want to hear how their peers are finding their way through the pandemic.
“It was so shocking and scary for students to emerge in this and have internships withdrawn and suddenly be, ‘I need to move back home for safety,’” she said.
Former graduates who are now residing in New York and Florida have had to get by while they wait for the dance industry to resume.
Keita said, “I think it’s given our most recent graduates hope. Like, look, they have no choice, either. They’re out there approximating a life and getting through it. Just to hear that their outlook has not soured, and they haven’t become cynical, that was a lot.
“We talk a lot about how we will be back. The arts will be in demand, and we will be a vital part of healing society, not just because of the pandemic but because of the unreal level of division.”
One of the alumni present in several sessions is Alissa Huff, previously Alissa Dill, a 2015 Dance Education graduate who lives in Florida and has worked as a Disney character performer at Walt Disney World and a dancer in the Sesame Street Party Parade at Sea World. When theme parks shut down, Huff was furloughed, forcing her to adjust to the rapid changes.
“I think it’s really helpful because a lot of us have now dispersed all over the country, so being able to kind of come back and connect and see what’s happening in different locations in the country ... helps (spark) new ideas” she said. “It’s also just really nice to have that support system.
“I think Susannah has always really cared about helping her students adapt and change to new environments and new challenges, so when this came, I’m sure she was thinking that this was something that we could come together on and try to figure out together.”
Huff said it was nice having something to look forward to on her schedule.
Keita sees leading another two sessions before the start of the semester, one on Aug. 3 and one in September. If the Zoom meetings continue beyond that, Keita said they most likely will be more topic-oriented. She also has developed a Linkedin group for dance alumni to further the conversation on a career-driven platform.
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].