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Playing it safe: teachers consider ways to protect their students and themselves.

Every day when we get out of bed, we take risks. We could trip over the cat, eat a bad egg, crash the car--but generally, to prevent a paralysis of fear in our lives, we don't think about these possibilities. Likewise, dancers--whether students, professionals or educators--assume a degree of physical risk daily that they generally don't think about. That is, until an accident or injury occurs, as happened last year when one of the two students who fell through a third-floor dance studio window while rehearsing at Bennington College died.

Particularly when dancing operates beyond the conventional boundaries of the studio or theater space--whether by moving outside these spaces or by using them differently--it treads the line between safety and danger. In these cases, a teacher/choreographer has less control over the environment in which dancers learn, experiment, and perform. Given the expanding interest in boundary-breaking, genre-blurring, and site-specific work, both practical and philosophical issues arise--especially for educators. How can we keep students safe, yet provide an environment for making dance that embodies our highest ideals of courage, innovation, and beauty?

"Dance is dangerous; life is dangerous," acknowledges Susan Glazer, director of dance at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Sometimes accidents are unavoidable, she says, but rigorous physical training can help counteract the danger inherent in aerial or other forms of site-specific work. Though awareness of risk is crucial for dancers, she says, "you don't want to make them overly afraid or paranoid."

Indeed, choreographer Elizabeth Streb actively courts this fine line between safety and experimentation. Her company, STREB, is well-known for intense physicality. Her dancers might slam into walls or throw themselves off cranes.

"When you walk into a room to generate new movement, you have to agree to get hurt," says Streb. If not, you're being careful and then you're not moving. Streb perpetually seeks out new ways to bring visceral experiences to her audiences and students. This experimentation comes at a price, however. Streb notes that the company pays about $50,000 in insurance premiums per year, between STREB and educational and outreach activities of the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics space in Brooklyn.

The care, maintenance, and inspection of facilities may seem an obvious place to start with safety considerations. But, says Laura Emert of the Whitmore Group, an insurance brokerage that works with dance schools and instructors, "most people aren't thinking this way when looking for space." Emert has compiled a "Dance School/Dance Educator Risk Management and Exposure Guide" ( that includes simple tips like checking outside lighting and keeping a first aid kit. It also touches on the need for "pre-employment physical exams" for teachers, and demystifies "liability due to off-premises activities" clauses.

When working with young students, whether inside or outside the studio, many safety concerns can be addressed by teaching increased spatial awareness. Melissa Braswell, director and owner of the Village Dance Studio in Richmond, Virginia, tells her youngest students, "The dance studio is a special place to come to; it's not a football field or a playground." Monitoring a child's energy and holding their attention is key.

Give clear instructions, says Victoria Fink, in her work with Richmond school children through Partners in the Arts. Staying grounded herself helps keep students' attention. "Get them in a circle," she says. "It's the best way to see everyone and for them to see you." Especially with large groups, says Fink, keeping an eye on the big picture "like when you drive" helps keep the class together.

"My dancers and students sign waivers, as you might at a climbing gym," says Amelia Rudolph, founder and artistic director of the aerial-oriented Project Bandaloop in Oakland, California. "I do this in part so that they think clearly about the potential risk of their participation. I also ask that each dancer keep health insurance current at all times."

In Renee Wadleigh's class in site-specific work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, students study the history and background of the genre before making their own work outside theater space confines. She notes that all students have university health insurance, and they must secure permission from the owner of their chosen site before they begin.

Ray Eliot Schwartz, a co-founder of the Zen Monkey Project, hosts an annual summer dance intensive in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a teacher, he has explored issues of safety and risk on many levels-physical, emotional, situational. He says new questions can arise out of spontaneous performance experiences in public spaces when the performers "act outside the normalized social contract." What does it mean, for example, when dancers lie on the floor of a bank lobby without announcing it as a performance event, or cage themselves off with velvet rope as he and several other dancers did for First Night in Austin, Texas, in the Wells Fargo Bank Building? "If you haven't been given permission to take risks, i.e. within an accepted theatrical context," he says, "then you put yourself and others at risk, perhaps not physically but emotionally, by upsetting the expected order of things."

It is this "order of things," that, when juxtaposed with the wildness and freedom that ideal art embodies, presents the greatest challenges for teachers encouraging students to learn and grow, but to do so within a relatively safe environment. Studios, universities, and companies can manage risk by keeping facilities safe through planning, maintenance, regular inspections, and carrying sufficient insurance. But on a more intimate level, each student, each dancer, must understand and, as stated in a liability waiver from Temple University, "acknowledge that there is an unavoidable risk of injury associated with the practice of dance."

Lea Marshall has produced or performed work in abandoned warehouses, old foundry buildings, gardens, parlors, and art galleries. She is also producer for VCU Dance and executive director of Ground Zero Dance Company.
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Author:Marshall, Lea
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
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