Dealing With Death in the Dance Workforce
By Steve Sucato
Dancer Pedro Pupa, a Brazilian native, couldn’t have been more excited about Sarasota Ballet’s upcoming season he told the ballet’s assistant director Margaret Barbieri after a class on the morning of June 4th this past summer. Tragically, within hours of that conversation the energetic and amiable 20-year-old’s hopes for the new season ended after the bicycle he was riding hit a delivery truck that had pulled out in front of him. While the accident that claimed his life happened just a block away from the ballet’s home at Florida State University Center for Performing Arts, the shock and sorrow over this heartbreaking loss reverberated throughout the company, Sarasota, and the dance world.
Pupa’s unexpected death and the untimely deaths of others in dance companies nationwide in recent years have persuaded many dance organizations to develop or assess a preparedness plan that they can implement in the event of a tragedy.
So how does one plan for a tragedy? You really can’t. You plan for your organization’s response to one. That is to say, put in place the information, guidelines, training, and materials needed to help company leadership and staff deal with a most difficult and often chaotic time.
Company members and staff from Sarasota Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Culture Shock Dance Chicago, and Chicago Dance Crash spoke with Dance/USA’s From the Green Room about those they lost and their experiences in dealing with those losses as an organization. Their insight and advice may prove useful in preparing your organization for the unthinkable.
The reality, says June Vining, executive director of the Trauma Intervention Program of Portland/Vancouver, Inc., is, “Whether you’re talking about a dance company, a group or a business with employees, most [organizations] don’t have a plan.”
For those in charge, says Vining, from the moment an incident happens, “Whether you know it or not, you’re being watched. Everyone involved will want to know how you are taking care of those in the organization affected by the tragedy and the victim’s family. You need to be able to say to them: ‘Here’s what we know and here’s what we are doing.’”
Being blindsided by a tragedy and being unprepared to respond to it often leads to panic and uncertainty, says Vining. That is what ensued at Chicago Dance Crash following the suicide death of 21-year-old Chicago Dance Crash dancer Laura Elizabeth Maceika in 2009, says company dancer Daniel Gibson. A close friend of Maceika, Gibson described her as having a “superstar personality” and that the shock of her death sent the small contemporary dance company into disarray. Questions over what to do and how to move forward left the company scrambling.
Taking Initial Steps in a Crisis
In many instances the chain of command in an organization will dictate who it will fall to take the initial steps in a crisis, including notifying fellow employees and, if needed, the person’s family.
After being informed about Pupa’s accident Barbieri called her husband and Sarasota Ballet director Ian Webb, who was in London on business, and company managing director Mary Anne Servian, who was on her honeymoon, about the accident. Since the company was off for the summer and many of the dancers were not in Sarasota, they had to be contacted individually about their colleague’s death. Because of the language barrier, fellow Brazilian Ricardo Graziano, a principal dancer in the company, was given the difficult task of informing Pupa’s family back in Brazil.
Making sure up-to-date emergency contact information for everyone in your organization is accessible 24/7 and that others in the organization are prepared to step into vacated roles and duties can save time and added stress during a crisis. That proved vital in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s handling of the deaths of two of their most senior production staff during a 2014 company tour to California. On March 30, technical director Edward James (E.J.) Corrigan, 54, died of a brain aneurysm while the company was in Costa Mesa and just a week later, on April 6, senior director of performance and production, Calvin Hunt, 59, died of a heart attack while the company was dancing in Berkley.
In both instances, says Ailey artistic director Robert Battle, the production crew, company manager and the stage manager stepped in to take care of the situation including contacting the family and making sure the performances went on as scheduled. That meant that Hunt took on some of Corrigan’s duties. Battle, who was traveling with the company, informed the company’s dancers. “It was amazing,” says Battle. “There was a certain kind of choreography that took place. People didn’t have to ask, they just took over doing this and that.” The tour continued with everyone pitching in and the company contacted and temporarily hired former production staff to help fill in.
Vining also suggests that every preparedness plan should designate a company spokesperson to control the release of sensitive information and to address the tragedy with the press and public, saving staff members, dancers and sometimes the person’s family from having to constantly repeat the details of the tragedy. Controlling the message is of utmost importance. Problems can arise when company members or staff post on social media, for example, about the death before official notification has been given to the organization as a whole or to the person’s family. They might also post sensitive information about the circumstances of dancer or staff member’s death that the family or organization does not want released to the public.
Culture Shock Dance Chicago artistic director Christopher Courtney took on the role of company spokesman after the death of 26-year-old company dancer Stefan Staev in motorcycle accident in 2009. The not-for-profit professional hip hop dance and entertainment company was preparing for a showcase in San Diego, when Courtney says he got a call from Staev’s sister informing him of Stefan’s death. It then fell to a stunned Courtney to inform the company’s other directors and dancers, who were gathering for a rehearsal for the San Diego trip, which Courtney says they canceled to mourn Staev’s death.
“The dancers lost it when they found out,” says Courtney. “I also had to repeat the details of Stefan’s death over and over to everyone who contacted the company.” For Courtney, who is also a staff member at Chicago Dance Crash, the deaths of Maceika and Staev months apart were sobering. “It was surreal,” says Courtney. “As dancers we try to take care of our bodies and live healthy. Then to see dancers like Laura and Stefan, who were so very young, die that was the hardest part.”
One of the highest priorities in any preparedness plan is dealing with the grief of those affected by the tragedy. The plan should include a comprehensive list of emergency services numbers and contact information for grief counselors.
“The most important thing is getting support,” says Linda Hamilton, PhD, a former dancer with New York City Ballet and a wellness consultant for the company. Hamilton notes that everyone grieves in their own way. Some choose to isolate themselves, others need to commiserate with other colleagues affected by the loss, while some find solace in throwing themselves into their work. All can be good coping strategies, says Hamilton, but she cautions that individuals can get burned out by them. Counseling can provide resources, tools and assessments that can assist those left behind in coping and regaining a sense of normalcy on their own time.
Hamilton also indicates that going through the grief process may not just have an emotional toll but could involve a physical one as well. “People often feel fatigued, have backaches, headaches, insomnia, and can suffer from overeating or under eating,” following the death of a friend, colleague or loved one. “The risk for substance-abuse to escape their pain is also higher,” says Hamilton. “If you are religious you may want to use that as support,” Hamilton suggests. “The key is to recognize that you’re going through a stressful period and not to judge it or try to push the feelings away. Let people help you.”
Some individuals may need guidance on choosing the kind of help they need. That help may also include lightening their workload or pursuing individual counseling. “In dance being stoic is part of who we are and understanding how profoundly a death affects everybody is important,” says Hamilton. “Management should have some protocol established about how they’re going to share information with the company. I think it’s really crucial that the whole company is included and they get the feeling that management really cares.”
After Maceika’s death, Gibson says: “There were some emotional times when we thought we might lose other people.” Hamilton says company members, staff, and management need to watch for signs in others of unusual behavior. Things such as a person taking the loss more personally, a dancer or staffer not showing up for work, or someone normally extroverted becoming overly introverted may indicate an individual needs additional help.
Gibson describes Chicago Dance Crash as a pretty social company and notes that the company became even more closely knit after Maceika’s death, having more company get-togethers to try and cope with her loss. “Talk about it,” says Hamilton. “Every time you talk with someone about it, it becomes more real. That is what we have trouble with in the beginning of a tragedy, wrapping our heads around [the idea] that this person is gone.” If feasible, you can reach out to other individuals or organizations that have gone through a similar situation for advice.
Social media can be a powerful communications tool after a tragedy, but Vining, the trauma specialist, cautions it can be a double-edged sword. On the positive side, those affected by the loss can express their feelings and support for that person. Members of Sarasota Ballet replaced their Facebook profile pictures with one of Pupa after his death. The company also, says Webb, received an outpouring of support on social media and through cards and letters from around the world. The downside can occur when company members or staff post sensitive information about the circumstances of person’s death that the family or organization may not want released to the public. Another equally important element in the healing process for everyone interviewed was organizing some type of memorial or remembrance for the person(s) they lost. “We had a celebration of Calvin and E.J. at (New York’s) City Center that was an opportunity for people to grieve, share memories, and celebrate these two men who meant so much to us,” said Alvin Ailey executive director Bennett Rink. “We created other vehicles for people to leave messages and dedicated a part of our website to the two of them.”
Chicago Dance Crash also has a section of their website dedicated to Maceika and The Laura Twirls Suicide Awareness Foundation (lauratwirls.com) was begun by her mother, Jeri Pulver in her honor.
Sarasota Ballet organized two memorials for Pupa. The first happened within days of his death for company members and staff who were in Sarasota at that time, along with the public. Another memorial was planned for August when the entire company and staff returned from summer hiatus.
“The memorials allowed the company to remember and speak their mind about Pedro,” says Servian. The company also included a tribute to Pedro written by Webb in its annual program book.
In addition to a memorial for Culture Shock Chicago’s Staev, his memory lives on in an image that features him used in one of the company’s logos.
For many dance organizations a tragedy preparedness plan may be viewed as just one element in an overall preparedness strategy. In the case of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Sarasota Ballet, their ordeals led them to tweak procedures they already had in place. For Sarasota Ballet that meant collecting additional information about their employees in case of an emergency, such as workers’ primary care physicians, their known allergies, and blood type. It also means en suring that their emergency contact information is kept up-to-date. In addition, the red tape involved in returning Pupa’s body to Brazil left the company management better prepared to handle a situation involving another foreign dancer.
Developing a Plan
Many dance companies, especially those with affiliated schools, already have safety plans and procedures in place, as well as procedures to cover non-fatal accidents or injuries that can beadapted to cover an unexpected tragedy.
Proper insurance coverage should also be looked at as a part of any preparedness plan. Todd Whiteman, a nonprofit insurance specialist with EnscoeLong Insurance Group, says there is no one-size-fits-all plan, but that your organization’s coverage needs should be based on your operations, location, frequency of travel, and other variables. Insurance options include:
- Workers’ Compensation – to cover the cost of severe and long lasting medical costs and lost wages for a significant injury, which may or may not ultimately result in death.
- Crisis expense coverage – for example in the event of a shooting or explosion, not only are there injuries but there is mental anguish for other employees, families and potentially the general public.
- Health Insurance – typically covers external factors, not typically work related.
- Group Life Insurance – this would be a death benefit for surviving family members like a spouse, child or parents, and would be provided by the employer as an employee benefit.
- Group Accident Death and Dismemberment – this would pay benefits in addition to life insurance in the event of accidental death.
- Long Term Disability and Short Term Disability – can provide benefits for a determined period of time for a disability.
- Voluntary Life and Accidental Death and Dismemberment – this would be above and beyond what the organization offers employees and is purchased separately as an out of pocket expense.
Yet another way of integrating a tragedy preparedness strategy into your organization’s thinking is to include it in an overall plan your company has to react to man-made or natural disasters such as fire, flooding or an earthquake. One resource available to help in that planning is South Arts’ ArtsReady tool (ArtsReady.org). The tool says ArtsReady director Mollie Quinlan-Hayes, helps arts organizations assess and ready themselves for a potential crisis or disaster.
Working in Crisis Mode
“When you’re working in a crisis state you are working with about 40 percent of your cognitive capacity, so you are not able to make great decisions in that moment,” says Quinlan-Hayes. “If you plan things ahead of time you will have made good decisions and people will know what their roles are and can focus on what is important.” The tool, says Quinlan-Hayes, asks organizations among other things about an emergency succession plan; who can sign paychecks or accesses the Internet server, etc., how to go about accessing counseling services should employees need them, and how to get connect with other emergency and social services, if needed. Quinlan-Hayes says the tool has basic elements in place that address a sudden and tragic death, along with a user area for additional information important to each organization can be stored.
She also suggests keeping copies of your plan and emergency contact information in different forms (electronic and paper) both inside and outside the office. “The best readiness plan helps you get through any crisis,” says Quinlan-Hayes. While each of the dance companies interviewed navigated their situations differently, they all felt in hindsight that some sort of preparedness plan or strategy would have been of value. They offered some final advice. With regard to an initial reaction to a tragedy: “Panicking doesn’t help,” says Battle. “Understand that within an organization there are always people who better handle stress and it doesn’t matter who they are in the organization, look to them in situations like these.”
“Go to your network of people who know the company and can help the company get you through any immediate needs,” says Rink. “We were able to put together a plan that involved putting former production staff to work on a temporary basis to help us get through that difficult time.”
Finally, with regard to the emotional toll, “Give people options,” says Gibson. “Allow them to be involved in social gatherings where they can talk about and work through their emotions and the offer individual counseling.” Says Courtney: “Make sure the [deceased person] lives on.” Whether that comes in the form of memorials, dedications, scholarship funds, or raising awareness for a related cause, keep their memory alive. “Honoring these people’s lives more than focusing on their deaths,” says Battle, “helped us move forward.”
A former dancer turned writer/critic living in Ohio, Steve Sucato studied ballet and modern dance at the Erie Civic Ballet (Erie, Pa.) and at Pennsylvania State University. He has performed numerous contemporary and classical works sharing the stage with noted dancers Robert LaFosse, Antonia Franceschi, Joseph Duell, Sandra Brown, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His writing credits include articles and reviews on dance and the arts for The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), The Buffalo News, Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.), Pittsburgh City Paper as well as magazines Pointe, Dance Studio Life, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, Stage Directions, Dance Retailer News, Dancer and webzines Balletco, DanceTabs, Ballet-Dance Magazine/Critical Dance, and Exploredance.com, where he is currently associate editor. Steve is a chairman emeritus of the Dance Critics Association, an international association of dance journalists.
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