Dancer Health

How to Keep a Student with a Chronic Health Condition Safe and Happy in Class

Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Ingrid Vordermark got to partner with principals from Pacific Northwest Ballet for a day. Now she's 21, and her illness has been in remission for two years. Photo by Ashley DeLatour, courtesy of Vordermark

Last year, dance teacher Elaine Mannix of Commonwealth Dance Academy in Walpole, Massachusetts, learned a 10-year-old student had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The dancer had just added hip hop and lyrical to her class schedule and would sometimes dance three hours a day, building toward participating in more competitions as she approached middle school. The news was frightening to Mannix and the dancer's parents, but thanks to technology and communication, the dancer has been excelling in her classes and learning—along with Mannix—to monitor and manage her disease.


As a teacher, you're in a caregiving role to your students, and those with chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, autoimmune illnesses and even cancer may need customized support to keep enjoying class. Here are some steps you can take.

Learn what's going on.

When Jennifer Leone Vordermark's 11-year-old daughter Ingrid started intensive treatment for juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM), an autoimmune disease that causes skin rashes and muscle weakness due to inflammation, Vordermark met with Ingrid's ballet teachers. She gave them literature from Ingrid's doctors and explained what support her daughter needed—permission to rest when chemotherapy sapped her energy and a heads-up if other students at the studio fell ill (Ingrid's immune system was suppressed as part of her treatment, so she was particularly susceptible to getting sick). Vordermark also let them know what kinds of worst-case scenarios they should plan for, like her increased risk of breaking a bone if she fell, due to the high dose of steroids she was on.

Similarly, Mannix met with her student's mother shortly after the diabetes diagnosis. “Her mom came in with some paperwork for us to read over just to have a better idea of what she was going through," she says. The mom also brought an emergency toolbox containing contact information, apple juice and Skittles to keep on hand for the student.

Understand there isn't a one-size-fits-all plan.

Part of the reason it's important for you and your staff to read up on the illness and to communicate with the student's guardian is that there isn't one umbrella formula for accommodating a sick child at your studio, and the same dancer won't have the same needs every day.

Students like Vordermark's daughter Ingrid might just need to sit down and rest if they're feeling side effects of heavy treatment. Occasionally, the steroids would give Ingrid major mood swings. Her mom has a sad memory of a teacher who kicked Ingrid out of class. “They said, 'You need to leave the class. You're acting ridiculous.' They knew she was sick, but because she could dance most days and they didn't see what was going on behind closed doors, they didn't believe her. They thought she was this overdramatic kid."

A dancer with type 1 diabetes might simply need to grab a snack when her blood sugar levels drop, but she could also act confused if her levels are too high. Whether it's easy access to a bathroom, an inhaler on hand or something else entirely, having flexibility will help you learn the nuances of your student's needs over time.

Vordermark with her PNB partners. Photo by Ashley DeLatour, courtesy of Vordermark

Plan for absences.

One of the most comforting things Vordermark saw teachers do for her daughter was give her an understudy. “She would feel stressed and say, 'What if I don't make that show? I'm going to ruin the whole dance,'" Vordermark says. But the teachers had a plan. “They always had a backup: 'If Ingrid's not here, here's how we're going to do this.'" That took away the pressure to be there for her classmates.

Some of Ingrid's teachers also sent work home—summaries of exercises they were working on, so that she could keep track of what she'd missed.

Help them feel normal.

Mannix's student wears a blood glucose monitor that checks her levels constantly and beeps when she's high or low. The dancer's mother has an app on her phone that alerts her to any changes. And it lets the student know, too. “There were a couple times when I'd hear a beep and I'd look at her, and she'd go to her bag and eat something," Mannix says. “I didn't realize it could be so managed." She says the student hasn't shown any signs of distress. “It never stopped her. She was here for every class, alert and eager." The glucose monitor is invisible under a leotard, so Mannix says there hasn't been a need to tell the other students. She even built in a journaling and snack break during class blocks that run past two hours, so that everyone gets a chance to eat something. It doesn't have to be about one student's condition.

The difference in Ingrid's case, however, was that telling people helped her feel like less of an outsider. “Year after year they moved up together and became a tight-knit group," Vordermark says of Ingrid's ballet friends. “Everybody knew what was going on with her, and if she was out, they knew why."

Let older students own their condition.

Living and dancing with a chronic illness will be a journey for the student and everyone who cares for her. But as a dancer matures, ideally she'll develop a routine for living with her illness.

Katelyn Prominski found out she had type 1 diabetes when she was 28, after a career performing with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. She started dropping weight like crazy.

She thinks some teachers didn't believe that she was eating normally, but those who did, including Farrell, urged her to figure out what was wrong. Since then, she's valued the support of directors and stage managers. “My stage managers, choreographers I've worked with and peers I've danced with always want to make sure I'm feeling OK," she says. “They really put the ball in my court," she adds, and she prefers it that way.

On a show day, she sets juice boxes at either side of the stage and lets her director know if her blood sugar is running high or low that day. She wears a glucose monitor, just like Mannix's young student, and stage managers watch it during her performance. But, she says, a beep doesn't mean she's incapacitated. If she's smart about it, she can still perform with her blood sugar running a little high. That's because she knows her body and her disease. For a younger dancer, she says, ongoing communication with teachers is essential for the student to continue learning her limits while devoting herself to classes.

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

When the news broke that Prince George, currently third in line for the British throne, would be continuing ballet classes as part of his school curriculum this year, we were as excited as anyone. (OK, maybe more excited.)

This was not, it seems, a sentiment shared by "Good Morning America" host Lara Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox