When Ballet West performed The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center last year, they couldn’t fly every Academy student who played a party girl or soldier from Utah to Washington, DC. So the company arranged for auditions in DC and left the staging to a local ballet mistress. They soon discovered one girl had a peanut allergy and required an EpiPen, an autoinjector used to control a life-threatening allergic reaction, on-site. “The ballet mistress called,” says Ballet West Academy’s Cati Snarr, “and said, ‘I refuse to do this. I don’t even want this kid in my cast.’”
Though you don’t regularly provide meals, food allergies are a studio-wide concern: For kids with allergies, fun activities like birthday treats, bake sales and snacks between classes and at recitals can quickly turn into a near-fatal emergency. A recent study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 20 students have a food allergy. With allergies on the rise, it’s important to establish policies to prevent an emergency and prepare a response plan should one occur.
Pediatric allergist Dr. Michael Pistiner, who is chair of the medical advisory team at the Kids With Food Allergies Foundation, says it should be standard practice to ask about medical conditions on enrollment forms. If a parent indicates a child has an allergy, ask them to draft an emergency care plan with their doctor, including specific reaction symptoms, as well as emergency contact information. Momentum Music & Dance Academy in Burien, Washington, asked board member and parent Melanie Carver, whose son is allergic to peanuts, milk, eggs, soy, sesame, bananas and wheat, to help create studio allergy strategies. She helped come up with a plan in which each teacher is given a binder with information about the 35–40 students who have food allergies, outlining emergency information and treatment.
If a dancer experiences a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, their life will depend on getting a dose of epinephrine, a hormone that regulates the body under shock. Giving an EpiPen shot sounds intimidating, but the device isn’t difficult to use as long as you’re familiar with its mechanics. Pistiner says it’s important that teachers learn how to handle each child’s autoinjector—each functions differently depending on the brand—to ensure the dosage enters the body correctly. (See sidebar for information on what to do in an emergency.) Autoinjectors should be kept in a secure but easy-to-access location, never locked up.
It’s also important to carefully consider what snacks you sell and serve at parties or recitals, as well as how they’re managed. At The Dance Club in Orem, Utah, co-owner Allison Thornton says the studio snack bar keeps a list of students’ food allergies with their photos—some are too young to decipher if allergens are in a processed food. The method helps staff double-check before they sell a snack.
Spreading the word to parents will help control what foods come into the studio. Even a batch of homemade cookies that doesn’t have nuts but touched a surface with traces of peanut butter “can cause a severe reaction,” says Pistiner. Restricting food to certain areas of the building and posting signs remind visitors of this policy. To further avoid cross-contact, ask students to wash their hands with soap and warm water before class. (Note that hand-sanitizing gels do not remove food proteins from your hands.) And make wiping down the barres part of your regular cleaning routine.
Pistiner urges teachers not to single out students with allergies in class or to other parents. “Sometimes kids with food allergies can feel responsible for unpopular classroom policies,” he points out. “I think people forget how it feels to be a kid sometimes.”
In the instance of the young Nutcracker dancer, Ballet West suggested that her mother attend rehearsals so that everyone felt comfortable. Before each performance the mother handed Snarr the child’s EpiPen, which she kept backstage until the curtain went down. And while she never had to use it, Snarr says the experience made her think about the policies in place at Ballet West Academy. “Now I have a far greater interest in making sure an allergy doesn’t keep a kid from performing a role.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She frequently contributes to Dance Magazine and Pointe.
In Case of an Emergency
Pediatric allergist Dr. Michael Pistiner says severe allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, vary, but may include hives, swelling, itching, vomiting, cramping, coughing, wheezing, voice changes, sneezing and itchy eyes. “The longer a person waits before getting appropriate treatment,” says Pistiner, “the more difficult the reaction can be to treat.”
+ Consult the student’s emergency care plan and use their EpiPen. The injection should be administered to the outer thigh. Do not, under any circumstances, give the shot through a vein.
+ Ask someone to call 911 immediately, then the student’s parents, as you help the student.
+ While waiting for help to arrive, lay the student flat and elevate their feet. If they’re nauseous, vomiting or having trouble breathing, lay them on their side.
Photo by and courtesy of Caitland Corbridge; ©iStock.com