Studio Owners

Why Having an Emergency Action Plan Is More Important Than Ever

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This year, dance educators have had to think through an unprecedented number of new concerns and policies as they've transitioned to teaching virtually or socially distanced.

But there's one consideration that may have fallen by the wayside in the frenzy of taping off squares of marley and enclosing the front desk in plexiglass: What will you do if there is an emergency at your studio or while you're teaching? What is your emergency action plan (EAP) in this new normal?

Even in the best of times, many studios don't have EAPs, which puts dancers, staff, faculty and anyone else who uses the space at risk. But today, with a pandemic threatening a second wave and many teachers offering classes on Zoom or in unconventional spaces, having a specific and up-to-date EAP is essential for studio owners, dance department heads and other dance leaders.

What Is an EAP?

Lauren McIntyre, licensed athletic trainer and emergency management expert at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Health, describes an EAP as "the choreography of an emergency." In the event that someone is injured or ill, or there is a problem with the facility (like flooding or fire), an EAP allows everyone to know their role in accessing appropriate help as quickly as possible, because the midst of a crisis is no time to deliberate over complex decisions. As McIntyre explains, in the case of cardiac arrest, you could have as little as 10 minutes to deliver lifesaving support.

Once an EAP is established, it should be written up with clear steps for various scenarios and all the necessary phone numbers. The plan should be shared with faculty and staff, and it should be printed, laminated (to keep it dry should sprinklers turn on, for example), and securely hung in a very visible place in every studio and office. Keep in mind, your EAP considers not only dancers but also parents, siblings, audience members and other bystanders who may be engaging in your dance environment.

As you begin to design your EAP for these challenging times, there will be many new concerns to consider. If you're teaching in a park, do you know how to describe your location to a 911 dispatcher? Do you know who you'll call if there is a problem in the studio and no one is at the front desk due to new social-distancing protocols? Are your virtual students in a safe space to dance, and are they supervised? In some cases, you might take for granted all that your normal space provides, like security staff (one of your first calls in an emergency), first aid kits, AEDs (defibrillators), staff with CPR certifications and more. When you're teaching from unconventional spaces, you don't have these resources and a standard EAP will need to be modified.

Ordinarily, many people come together to design an EAP, including studio owners, department directors, facility managers, security staff, even local emergency-response services. However, since so many dancers are still at home, you might consider including students and parents in this dialogue as well.

Where to Start

It might feel a bit macabre to think through all the unpleasant events that could occur in a dance class or performance, but it's a helpful first step to building an EAP. Just remember, thinking about these things now could help you keep more people safe later.

McIntyre identifies two key questions that should guide your plan for any circumstance:

1) In an emergency, how can I get help as quickly as possible?

2) What are my legal and moral obligations?

Figuring out how to get help to a dancer in need will depend on many factors, like your student population, your teaching context and your proximity to your students. If you're working in a conventional setting, you might send for someone on site who has emergency training, or call 911. However, if you're teaching virtually, these plans won't necessarily work. As McIntyre explains, calling 911 in New York City isn't going to help a dancer who's training in Denver!

While exploring hypothetical emergencies, you might conclude that the best way to get help to a far-off student involves reaching out to their emergency contact. In that case, you'll likely need all students to complete an intake form that provides this information. Then, you'll need to think about who can access that information. Does every teacher need a contact sheet, or, in an emergency, will the teacher reach out to a staff member who can place the appropriate call? Will all other students log off of the virtual class, or will they be involved in implementing part of the EAP? What if the teacher is the one in crisis? You can see how you'll need to work backwards to choreograph your plan once you answer the first of McIntyre's questions.

While you'll need to speak to a lawyer to fully understand your legal duties, you might also want to think about what sits right with your conscience. If you're hosting a large group of students from around the globe on Zoom, you may or may not have a legal duty to act if someone suddenly falls unconscious. But how would you feel if you were only able to helplessly watch a dancer in crisis because you didn't have the appropriate information to help them? Would you feel more comfortable providing a safety reminder or asking students to privately chat their address and emergency contact information at the start of class? Or, if you teach minors, do you want to require that students be supervised while training at home? Whatever plan you decide on, McIntyre emphasizes the need for transparent communication about emergency protocols.

COVID-19 Concerns

An EAP should consider general emergencies as well as those specific to your situation. If you're training in a park, you'll need to think about weather. If you teach elderly dancers, you'll think about the risks that are specific to that population. During this pandemic, we all need to anticipate risks related to COVID-19.

Though much is still unknown, research suggests that even asymptomatic young adults can experience serious complications of COVID-19. While tragic scenarios are not particularly likely to occur in your dance class, an EAP should consider them.

It's more likely that dancers will be vulnerable to risks associated with dancing in unfamiliar environments and deconditioning due to quarantine. For example, you might consider EAPs for things like concussions, serious wounds, asthma attacks, ACL tears or severe sprains.

Any dancer (or teacher) who has had COVID-19 should be cleared for dancing by a medical professional before returning to training. Keep in mind, though, that by law, sharing medical information is an option, not a requirement, so you may not have a complete picture of your students' health status.

Calling 911

Calling for emergency medical services (EMS) is often part of an EAP. However, McIntyre says that she's only called 911 once in 10 years because not all alarming situations require EMS. For example, while a student having a seizure constitutes a call to 911 in many cases, it may not if the dancer has a known seizure disorder. Painful injuries may need urgent but not immediate medical attention, and a car ride to the ER will suffice. However, calling 911 assures that a medical professional will arrive on the scene, and if you're not an expert in emergency management, like McIntyre, it may be an appropriate choice.

Attitudes about emergency services vary among individuals and communities, which might be something to discuss with your student population. For example, if a student or their family member is undocumented, calling 911 to their home may bring unnecessary risks. Similarly, you might hesitate before calling 911 if a Black student is unresponsive while training at home in their predominantly Black neighborhood due to concerns about police brutality. Or, a student with limited means may opt to turn down medical care, no matter the severity of their situation, due to fear of financially crippling bills. These are all complicated issues that likely require transparent dialogue with your community before an emergency occurs.

Emergency Preparedness Best Practices

Here are some actions that every teacher and student can take to mitigate their risks while dancing—especially in unique environments.

  • Keep your cell phone charged and close by
  • Know your exact location
  • Have a first aid kit with you
  • Know the location of any additional medical supplies you might need (inhaler, glucose monitor, EpiPen, etc.), and make sure they're accessible
  • If you'll be dancing alone, tell the instructor, or create a buddy check-in system with friends/family
  • Keep any important phone numbers in your phone and on paper (in your first aid kit, for example)
  • Identify the nearest exit and all other emergency egress routes
  • Know your internal and external risk factors (your health profile, fatigue level, and the dangers in your environment, for example)

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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