Commentary: As COVID-19 Separates Appalachians, Art Can Bring Us Back Together

Valerie Guido Bailey, center, during the premiere of Porch Swing Melodies in New York City in 2018. Photo: Jody Lynn Jackson/Provided

Art has been my close companion since I was a child. What began as a simple dance class evolved with time to become an integral part of my identity; it is always with great pride that I share I am an artist. 

Its involvement in my life has grown with me over the years. As I began to learn more about the world, I found art became a guiding hand, helping me navigate the myriad of experiences I encountered. It has been an outlet to process pain and a means of celebrating joy. It is where I retreat when I need time to myself, and it is what I use to genuinely connect with others.

I am a dancer and choreographer. I am also a storyteller, embodying stories and retelling them through movement. My most recent work, Porch Swing Melodies, tells of my family’s personal stories of immigrating to, living and growing in Appalachia. 

Through movement, I share the story of my paternal great-grandfather’s journey across the ocean from Italy to West Virginia to work in the coal mines; of what life was like for my mother growing up on a 200-acre farm in rural West Virginia; of my own childhood with my brothers, roaming and exploring the beauty of the state’s hills. These stories are authentic, allowing my work to be as well.

Porch Swing Melodies was created while I was living and dancing in New York City. I premiered the work there in 2018 in an effort to push back against the negative Appalachian stereotypes I encountered, instead shining a positive light on the region and on my home state.

The audience consisted of New Yorkers and some West Virginians; other Appalachians, including friends and family, attended virtually. The premiere included a performance of the dance, as well as shared conversation with the audience, further detailing the stories used to inspire the work – further illuminating the West Virginia I personally know.

On that evening, art connected us. It provided a mutual entry point for those with varying familiarity of this region to converge over something meaningful, open and real.

A little over a year ago, the West Virginia hills welcomed me home. Upon my return, I knew I wanted to share Porch Swing Melodies with the people and places that inspired its creation. I began working with other local artists to reset the work and planned to perform it in Morgantown in May. 

 However, months before our scheduled premiere, deep in the throes of preparation, our world slipped into the new and unknown realm of the COVID-19 pandemic. The uncertainty of the virus during those beginning weeks resulted in the cancellation of our rehearsals and, ultimately, the May performance. Before we understood the magnitude of the pandemic, the performance was rescheduled for August. It went from an indoor venue, to an outdoor space, and then, ultimately, as positive cases in my community of Morgantown began to spike once again, had to be reimagined. 

During the digital performance in Morgantown, West Virginia, Guido Bailey talked her audience through the symbolism of portions of her work while local artists Stacey Romano and Olivia Allen performed. Photo: Ashton Marra/100 Days in Appalachia

Wearing masks and limiting the space to just the participating artists, a host and my tech-guy husband, we shifted to a pared back social media performance. Viewers from West Virginia, as well many other states, tuned in from the comfort – and safety – of their homes to watch as we shared portions of the dance, taught them about movement storytelling and joined in further discussion.

Once again, art connected us. During a time when larger, in-person activities are nearly impossible, individuals from different locations and walks of life were able to gather together to share an honest and authentic experience. On that evening, art was the catalyst of joy, learning and – most importantly – connectedness.

We’re currently living in a time of uncertainty and evolving circumstances. While we’re asked to limit our exposure to each other, cut back on travel and do what we can to keep our communities safe, it may be easy to experience feeling trapped, frustrated or alone. As I shifted and adjusted and altered my plans to share something so near and dear to me with my community, I felt those feelings too.

But if you look closely, you’ll notice art has been a ray of sunshine piercing through the clouds. We’ve all been leaning on it to live through this time. Perhaps you’ve picked up a book to propel you into another world. Maybe you’ve turned on music that helps you feel understood. You might’ve completed a puzzle, danced in your kitchen, or turned on a favorite movie to evoke joy.

Art has become your companion, too. It’s given you its hand to lift you up through these uncertain times. It’s allowed you to escape into it, taking you on adventures without leaving your home. It has provided your family with something to pass the time and things to discuss with your friends. Art has given you the power to continue feeling like yourself through an experience none of us have ever encountered.

Do you see it? Once again, art is connecting us. This time, it’s connecting us with our humanity.

 Valerie Bailey is a dancer, creator and movement storyteller originally from Clarksburg, West Virginia. After seven years of living and dancing in New York City, Valerie returned to her home state with a continued passion to connect to the community through art. With Tinkered Dance, which she established in New York City in 2016, Valerie strives to break down barriers individuals may feel between themselves and art, inviting them to collaborate, encouraging them to ask questions, and welcoming them into the beautiful limitless world of dance.

100 Days in Appalachia helped to financially support Tinkered Dance’s digital performance of Porch Swing Melodies digitally in Appalachia.

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