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.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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