Ballet Icon James Whiteside On Dancing Through Covid-19

“Nine months into a global pandemic, here I am…unsure of what to do with myself.”

james whiteside

Photo by Marty Sohl

James Whiteside is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Like other performers, the pandemic has profoundly impacted his career…and has left him wondering when he will grace the big stage again. He pens an essay about his journey….


I started dancing when I was nine and I never stopped. I’ve taken few vacations and thankfully never had a serious injury, leaving me with only a handful of days when I didn’t take a ballet class. Now, nine months into a global pandemic, here I am, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York City, in a small first floor apartment in Murray Hill, unsure of what to do with myself.

I live for the hustle. New York City speaks to and through me. Who am I if I’m not performing for (hopefully) adoring audiences at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center or touring around the world? Am I still a dancer if I’m not on stage? The answer is yes, duh. 

With theaters closed and audiences outlawed, I’ve treated this, as a test of mettle, of brain power. I ask myself, “How can I best use this time that I’ve never had?”

So, I’ve taught online ballet classes with my best friend and fellow principal dancer, Isabella Boylston. Instead of tuition, we ask each student to make a donation to an organization that we choose weekly. Some classes had over 10,000 participants — which is over twice the number of seats in the Metropolitan Opera House. 

I’ve made and released an album of pop music and directed and choreographed the accompanying music videos. I’ve partnered with The Trevor Project to raise funds and awareness for their LGBTQ+ crisis intervention organization. I’ve choreographed for commercials and musicians. Isabella and I launched a web series called “Cindy’s World” about being a professional dancer. I’ve even learned how to surf (poorly) at New York’s Rockaway Beach.

As an older, established artist, I have the great privilege of using my past experiences to hopefully foster new opportunities. I acknowledge my luck in this harrowing time. I feel for the young dancers who were either about to get their “big breaks” or were just starting out in a professional company or on a broadway show. 

I don’t know if I’ve accidentally retired as a result of the pandemic, since nobody knows when ABT will be back in theaters and performing for sold-out audiences again. But in the meantime, I’m unexpectedly thriving. I feel confused, curious, and content and if this is my new normal, I’m grateful and I’ll take it.