Skip to content

Social Choreography and Poetry during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Poetics and Politics of Distanced Movements

Johanna Pitetti-Heil

Pages 503 - 520



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0.

Creative Commons License

The COVID-19 pandemic has made visible the many ways in which moving (especially through urban spaces) is a matter of what I call, in reference to Andrew Hewitt, “social choreography”: the unwritten rules about how one moves through crowds, where one is able and allowed to go, and how one gets there. This article brings together aspects of social choreography, the movements within lyrical compositions, and the literal and figurative dimension of breathing in order to reflect upon individual and communal aspects of the force and power that is inhibited when people cannot move and breathe as a group. Examining Laura Mullen’s poem “Virus,” I concentrate on how breath and movement establish a sense of self; my reading of Claudia Rankine’s poem “Weather” turns to the racial inequalities that the pandemic has amplified and reinforced. Taking seriously the impact of bodily movements and rhythms of breath onto individual and communal identities, I explore the ways in which Mullen’s and Rankine’s poems present and enact shared breathing and shared movements as meaningful elements of individual and communal identities.

Key Words:social choreography; COVID-19; poetry; breathing; movements; White privilege; Othering; structural racism

1 Alvarez, Julia. “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?” Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic. Ed. Alice Quinn. New York: Knopf, 2020. 3. Print.

2 Bharucha, Rustom. “Theatre and the Coronavirus: A Speech-Act in Nine Episodes.” Freie Universität Berlin. International Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures.” Video Lecture. Web. 7 July 2022. https://www.­

3 Bieger, Laura. “Committed Writing as Common Ground: Jesmyn Ward’s Poetics of Breathing While Black.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 66.1 (2021): 73-79. Web. 11 Nov. 2022.

4 CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). “What Is Health Equity?” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 01 July 2022. Web. 28 Sept. 2022.

5 Cowen, Deborah. The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2014. Print.

6 Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. 1990. London: Pimlico, 1998. Print.

7 Desmond, Jane C. “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies.” Cultural Critique 26 (1993-1994): 33-63. Print.

8 Dick, Jennifer K. “Of Tradition and Experiment XIV: The Bodies’ Remains Return to Us (Poetic Migration in the Time of a Pandemic).” Tears in the Fence 72 (2020): 118-27. Print.

9 Forsythe, William. “Abstand.” 2015. Installation. MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt/Main.

10 ---. “Choreographic Objects.” n. d. Web. 28 Sept. 2022.

11 ---. “Towards the Diagnostic Gaze.” 2013. Readymade feather duster, engraved stone shelf from stone locally sourced for exhibition. Phot. Julian Gabriel Richter, 2015. MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt/Main.

12 Foster, Susan Leigh. “Choreographing History.” Choreographing History. Ed. Susan Leigh Foster. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 3-21. Print.

13 ---. “Choreographies of Protest.” Theatre Journal 55.3 (2003): 395-412. Print.

14 Frischkorn, Moritz. “Expanded Choreography between Entanglement and Logistics.” Gesellschaft für Tanzforschung. Symposium. Karlsruher Institut für Technologie. 6 Oct. 2018. Conference Paper.

15 Hayles, N. Katherine. “Novel Corona: Posthuman Virus.” Critical Inquiry 47.S2 (2021): S68-S76. The University of Chicago Press Journals, 17 Apr. 2020. Web. 11 July 2022.

16 Heil, Johanna. “Dancing Contact Improvisation with Luce Irigaray: Intra-Action and Elemental Passions.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 34.3 (2019): 485-506. Print.

17 Hewitt, Andrew. Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005. Print.

18 Jones, Leslie Kay. “#BlackLivesMatter: An Analysis of the Movement as Social Drama.” Humanity and Society 44.1 (2020): 92-110. SAGE Journals, 28 Mar. 2019. Web. 11 July 2022.

19 Lai, Chung-Hsiung. “Nietzsche’s Forgotten Umbrella—Memory, Life and History.” EurAmerica 34.2 (2004): 203-29. Print.

20 Mullen, Laura. “Virus.” Posit: A Journal of Literature and Art 24 (2020). Web. 12 Jan. 2022.

21 Museum für Moderne Kunst. “William Forsythe: The Fact of Matter. Film zur Ausstellung.” MMK. MMK Mediathek, 2015. Web. 12 Jan. 2022.

22 Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Merriam Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 239-49. Print.

23 Pathak, Elizabeth B., Janelle M. Menard, Rebecca B. Garcia, and Jason L. Salemi. “Joint Effects of Socioeconomic Position, Race / Ethnicity, and Gender on COVID-19 Mortality among Working-Age Adults in the United States.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19.9 (2022): 5479. MDPI, 30 Apr. 2022. Web. 11 July 2022.

24 Rankine, Claudia. “Weather.” New York Times. New York Times, 16 June 2020. Web. 28 Sept. 2022.

25 ---. “Weather.” Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic. Ed. Alice Quinn. New York: Knopf, 2020. 128. Print.

26 Williams, William Carlos. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1954. 280-91. Print.


Export Citation