When COVID-19 hit, 24-year-old Arianna Menzies was living in New York City trying to make it as a professional dancer—and making progress. However, like so many other artists, Arianna found herself forced to abandon the city when pandemic restrictions shut down the arts and the cost of living became unaffordable. Back home in Pennsylvania, she was forced to reconsider the goal she’d dedicated the past nine years of her life to achieving. She embarked on a number of ventures before finally deciding to go back to college and pursue her lifelong interest in communications.
Arianna Menzies’ story is the first in an occasional Work Shift series talking to everyday Americans about the impact the pandemic has had on their education and career plans. Read on to hear Arianna’s story in her words.
‘Trying to hold out to the last minute’
“I decided to be a professional dancer when I was fifteen. I trained for like six hours a day and made sacrifices that a lot of American high schoolers don’t make. I didn’t go to a real high school; I went to high school online because I was focusing on dance. And that intense focus on dance enabled me to, when I was nineteen, move to New York and attend the Alvin Ailey School. I spent three years in New York City training in dance, and the year before I graduated, I started teaching dance. I was going to auditions during the week…it’s a very competitive environment, so you have to put yourself out there. It was really hard, but it was what I was focusing on for years of my life, since I was a teenager.”
Then the pandemic hit. “The dance world doesn’t have a lot of money, so dance studios and dance companies were definitely trying to hold out to the last minute. Some places started closing once cases started showing up in the city—dance studios tried to stay open even if it wasn’t the smartest decision health-wise just because they needed the income. I remember the last day that I worked was March 13. It was a Friday, I think. I went to company class at the Jennifer Muller/The Works modern dance company in Chelsea, and then I got home, and one of my wedding choreography couples canceled. I was like, ‘Okay, I probably should be socially conscious and cancel the rest of my classes.’ By then the city had shut down, so there wasn’t anything to do anyway. I spent the next three weeks with my boyfriend, who is a violinist, in our tiny little New York apartment.”
‘Should I start this and commit to it?’
Once it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t ending any time soon, continuing to live in New York was unfeasible. Unable to collect unemployment until at least July 2020, Arianna and her partner made the decision at the end of March to move in with her parents outside of Philadelphia, though they still hoped to return to New York in a few months. As Arianna’s father drove them out of the city, they were all struck by the quiet.
“Manhattan is always super busy, but it was like a ghost town. It was so creepy.”
Arianna tried to stay connected to professional dance by moving her salsa and wedding choreography classes online. But demand was low. She then began teaching Pilates online—even starting a holistic health business and fitness blog—but after a few months found that the market was too saturated to make the venture sustainable.
A few years back, Arianna had started a communications degree but never finished, intending to do so near the end of her dance career. Now, she began to seriously consider whether the time was now.
“Communications, public relations, journalism-type things always interested me. I started exploring the idea of getting a degree. I was still nervous. I was like, ‘Well, what if things open up? Should I start this and commit to it?’ But I decided to go for it—I’m super glad I did.”
She decided that the best option would be to save money on room and board by completing an online program, which would also allow her the flexibility to work part-time. As a dual U.S.-Australian citizen, she considered both American and Australian universities, eventually choosing an online communications program through Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.
Discipline: The universal skill
She quickly found that her dance experience was more relevant to communications than she’d thought. Her discipline and the skills she learned in marketing, self-advocacy, networking, and organization have all come in handy both in her classes at Griffith and her new job managing ads and social media for an arcade gaming company.
“Long-term, I am definitely more interested in public relations than in marketing. Building relationships and working with the media, or even writing for newspapers and stuff, is interesting to me because you get to connect with people more instead of just trying to sell something. But in terms of what specific areas, I’m not sure. I’m really into politics and social issues, so maybe communications for a medical healthcare organization or a law firm. I’m still honestly trying to figure it out. But definitely something in the field of public relations or business communication.”
She still intends to make dance more than “just a hobby.” She now sees it as a secondary career, and hopes to perform professionally on a more flexible basis through Latin dance competitions. She has no plans to return to New York City.
She laughs: “My life is a jumble. Covid-19 completely turned my life upside down, which has been very rough. But at the same time, I’m not mad that I’m on a new path, as difficult as it is. I feel like the things I’m doing now are creating a more stable financial base for me, and I love academics, so it’s cool to embrace that other part of me as well. So, yeah, it sucks, but I’m honestly one of the lucky ones that can go to school and who has parents who said I could live here. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in my life in the future.”
Editor’s note: All quotations are direct. Some were condensed or edited slightly for clarity.
Gabriela Rivero is a Miami Public Interest Scholar at the University of Miami School of Law and produced this story through a micro-internship with Work Shift.