NYC dancer moves back home to Bristol during COVID-19

When dancer Danielle Mumpower flew home to Bristol, Virginia, on March 19, she thought she would only be there for two weeks before returning to New York City.

At the time, she did not realize how long she would stay in her hometown during the COVID-19 outbreak. Almost three and a half months later, she is still Bristol – where her love for dance first began.

Danielle Mumpower (Contributed)

Mumpower began dancing at the age of 3, taking tap and ballet classes at a studio in Blountville, Tennessee. At 5 years old she moved to Ballet Arts Academy in Bristol, Virginia, which has now merged with Bristol Ballet. She danced there until she graduated from high school.

Her studio brought in a contemporary instructor her senior year, but before then Mumpower had only taken ballet. She arrived at East Tennessee State University as a bunhead, she said, and it was her time there as a dance minor that she broke out of her ballet shell. One specific class, Dance as a Human Experience taught by ETSU Theatre and Dance Associate Professor Cara Harker, was Mumpower’s first exposure to new styles of dance.

“It just opened my world up to so many different styles of dance,” Mumpower said. “I’ve always been really drawn to African dance, and Cara kind of sparked that in me as well. Yeah, just that class in general. I’m so glad that it’s a class, and that it’s a class that is still available because I think that I love that anyone can do it because I truly do believe anybody can dance. But even if you do come from a dance background, it just opens your worldview in such an important way.”

Harker took Mumpower under her wing and pushed her to use her skills and creativity in ways she had not done before. With Harker’s encouragement, Mumpower performed in dance concerts and plays, and she choreographed her first dance piece. She said Harker taught her that dance is a form of storytelling, not just a form of athleticism – a lesson that still impacts her today.

“She really pushed me in college because I think she could,” Mumpower said. “I think Cara is one of those people that can seek out opportunities and can show you what is possible because I feel like so much we’re told – unless you’re on Broadway, it’s not going to [happen], or unless you dance with Alvin Ailey, you’re a failure, and Cara really showed me that not only is creating your own work important and valuable, but if you don’t go after it, how will you ever know?”

Mumpower went after it – moving to New York City in 2012 with two friends and fellow artists after she graduated from ETSU. At first, she thought she made a big mistake, but after reaching out to Harker for advice, she started going to auditions.  

Her first gig was dancing for an all-female company called ChEckiT!Dance that showcases modern and contemporary work by female choreographers with a feminist point of view. She danced with them about three years. During that time, she also danced for Silva Dance Company, an Afro-Brazilian Company that combines capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, and Brazilian dance with contemporary ballet.

In need of more money, she moved to a devised theatre company in 2015 called Improbable Stage. She is now a company member and helps run their social media. The company consists mostly of actors with dance training and they create work based off a technique called ‘drafting.’

“It’s all pretty much born out of dance improv,” Mumpower said. “But I would maybe bring in a quote like something—we tend to work from different authors and playwrights. I would bring in a quote or poem, we would have three minutes, somebody would put on music, no planning and we would just dance improv together. And sometimes, you know, that means dance, sometimes that means movement.”

She also joined a dance company called eSKay Arts collective – a space where dancers and choreographers can come together to dance and create projects without having to go through bigger companies. She has been an official member with them since fall 2019.

For her rent job, Mumpower teaches at a baby ballet studio in Manhattan called Dance with Miss Rachel. Before COVID-19, she had also been teaching dance, theater and music in public schools in an after-school program called Wingspan Arts.

Danielle Mumpower (Contributed)

Though she is now in Bristol, Mumpower has still been able to create with her companies and teach during quarantine. Improbable Stage’s Instagram has started ‘Wednesday Words’, in which they give a word and people create based off that word. She has continued dancing with eSKay Arts collective through virtual classes led by company members, and she has continued to teach dance virtually doing private lessons and ballet classes via Zoom.

Mumpower had originally hoped to move back to New York in August, but with Broadway performances canceled through January 2021, she is doubtful about performance opportunities for smaller companies in the fall. Right now, she said she is taking it week by week, trying not to plan too much ahead.

“As long as I can work virtually, you know, I’m saving a lot of money being here,” Mumpower said. “So, I’m just trying to squirrel away as much as I can, at least until September, possibly till the end of the year. I just don’t know.”

Mumpower said one of the biggest differences between dance in New York and dance in smaller, southern cities like Bristol is a lack of opportunity in the latter. This is something she said she has been grappling with as she has lately contemplated her time in New York.

“I think that one thing I’ve always felt is that the arts world forgets that there’s other places,” Mumpower said. “And I think that is a massive injustice, because even the arts that we create here in the Appalachian Mountains – that has such a rich art history, and it’s sad to me that it’s not discussed more, and I think that there’s even a rich history in dance and obviously a rich history in storytelling.”

She believes that contributing factors for this lack of opportunity are a lack of funding and a lack of awareness about dance among the non-dance community.

“It’s hard to actively seek out something you don’t really know about and maybe don’t care about,” Mumpower said. “But if it’s there and you’re able to access it, that’s kind of the world of difference in the arts. And I think that sometimes the arts seem like something frivolous to people or like a luxury, but I think if anything, during quarantine, it showed us that it’s a necessity.”

Mumpower said she would eventually like to move closer to home. However, she has gotten creative opportunities this past year with her theater and dance companies in New York, and she is not ready to leave just yet.

“It makes no sense for me to leave right now,” Mumpower said. “Our theater company got a residency, and this dance company came along and so I was like, ‘Okay, these are things I’ve been working toward. It doesn’t make sense for me to leave now,’ but a more mobile, back-and-forth thing is something I would be really interested in. “

She would eventually like to travel back and forth between New York and home, teaching classes during the summer. She said she is working on a business plan to offer dance and creative movement classes to ages 5 and under because there are not many opportunities for those ages. A creative movement-based mommy and me class is also on her list of ideas.

“That would be like an ultimate dream for me is to be able to teach in the summer or even come back for the whole month of December and do workshops,” Mumpower said. “Because my family is really important to me, and I’m coming back and forth to see them anyways. And I have really considered relocating to like Nashville or somewhere just a little bit closer.”

Mumpower is currently reaching out to people about doing pop-up classes and workshops this summer and fall. She is seeking a space or a studio owner willing to work with her – somewhere or someone she can build something with.

“I’ve been trying to seek out how I can take what I’ve learned and kind of invest it back into the place that built me,” Mumpower said. “Because I think that’s really important. Like if those of us who have gotten the chance to go out there and learn more don’t bring it back to the places that foster that love, how can we expect it to ever change or ever grow?”

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