When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, Broadway went dark and theaters across the country closed, forcing performers and dance companies to figure out how to navigate the unknown circumstances ahead of them.
According to the old adage, “The show must go on,” and that’s just what Louisville Ballet has been able to do thanks to the efforts of its dance medicine team, including athletic trainer and KORT Physical Therapy Director of Sports Medicine Kevin Brown, MEd, ATC.
“[In March 2020] we shut down like pretty much everyone else,” said Brown, a member of the NATA Council on Practice Advancement’s Performing Arts Committee. “The good news for our dancers was that we were weeks away from the end of the season. They lost their last performance of the year, but they got paid through the last three weeks of the season and have been on regular contract this year.”
Caring for 26 full-time company members and 30 to 35 second company members, the Louisville Ballet dance medicine team had to ensure the roughly 60 dancers could return at the start of the fall season in the safest way possible. To do this, they utilized pods, a practice introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic that consists of small groups of people who interact in-person while following strict COVID-19 protocol in their everyday lives.
“We’ve broken everyone into pods – two pods at our main studio and two pods at our secondary studio, where our school is,” said Brown, adding that each pod consists of 12 to 15 dancers. “So, I’ll go to one of those studios during the day and see those two pods.”
Brown said the pods are formed based on the current show’s needs, ensuring each component of the performance has a dedicated pod.
“Each pod only rehearses amongst themselves; they only perform amongst themselves,” Brown said.
Adjustments have also been made to costumes to allow for built-in masks.
“Most everyone is in masks,” Brown said. “Those who aren’t are either roommates, married or in relationships – so people who have already been exposed to each other.
“We’re [also] doing COVID-19 testing once a week during rehearsals. When we go into filming weeks, we then do testing twice a week.”
All of these efforts have allowed the Louisville Ballet dancers to return to the stage – digitally.
“It’s all been digital,” Brown said of Louisville Ballet performances. “They’ve taken one of our studios and turned it into a soundstage. They go in and film multiple angles and create digital content.
“[The reception from the community] has been really good. The majority of our season ticket holders from last year went ahead to do the online season ticket this year. And we’ve had a lot of great response from those doing one-off tickets. Everyone loves ‘Nutcracker.’”
While the safety measures instituted by Brown and his team have helped keep dancers safe, they also have protocols in place if a dancer tests positive for COVID-19.
“Every pod has had at least one positive test,” he said, adding that the biggest challenge has been community-acquired COVID-19, resulting from members who have to hold outside jobs. “When this happens, we shut the pod down and retest everyone while the positive person is out for 14 days.”
Brown said the dancers have responded well to the new health and safety regimen and appreciate the medical team’s efforts to keep them protected and performing.
“We had a dancer who has just really been struggling returning from COVID-19 – a lot of lung, breathing, coughing issues,” he said. “We were able to just pick up the phone, and she was in to see a pulmonologist the next day and is now on steroids and doing a lot better.
“I think the fact that they see us doing everything we can for them to make sure they’re safe, but at the same time keep them working and dancing as safely as possible, has been hugely beneficial.”
Building Trust and Rapport
Brown said one reason the dance medicine team has been able to successfully return the Louisville Ballet dancers to the digital stage is because the ballet’s artistic staff and administration have made health care a priority.
“They’re all very supportive of everything we’re doing from a dance medicine standpoint,” he said. “Both of our company physicians have been with the company for more than 30 years, so they’re well-respected among the dancers and artistic staff, and everyone defers to them. It’s very much, ‘If that’s what you say we need to do, that’s what we need to do.’
“[Also], they recognize that there are a lot of companies around the country that are laying their dancers off for the year. So being able to keep our dancers in house, being able to keep them dancing, even digitally, is huge benefit to us.”
When Brown joined Louisville Ballet in 2009, he was the ballet’s first athletic trainer. During his 12 years with the ballet, Brown has been able to educate the dancers as well as visitors about the athletic training profession and how he works with this particular patient population.
“I’ll have Broadway shows come through, and they’ll usually say, ‘You’re the [physical therapist], right?’” Brown said. “I’ll tell them, ‘No, I’m the athletic trainer,’ and I’ll explain the difference. After, they’re usually like, ‘Why don’t we have an athletic trainer all the time?’”
His athletic training skill set has allowed him to tackle the array of injuries – from ankle sprains to concussions and fractures – his dancers may encounter as well as create specialized plans specific to their needs.
“We do a screening at beginning of the year to assess each dancer, any weaknesses, anything they may need to work on,” Brown said. “They then each get an individualized program. We’ll repeat that screening at the end of the year and develop a plan for the summer for dancers who will be returning during the fall to address any needs they may have during that time.
“We’ll also do repertoire-specific prevention programs. Depending on the choreographer, we may know if they love certain movements – a lot of head, neck and shoulder. So then we’ll do an injury prevention program for the dancers to work on leading into that. We’ve pulled from the industrial setting, so it’s more of a job task analysis and then we build an injury prevention program around that.”
Part of the reason Brown and the dance medicine team have been able to tailor preventative measures to each dancer and performance is because of how closely they work with the Louisville Ballet artistic staff.
“Up until this year, we would have monthly medical team meetings with our company doctors, the PT that comes on-site, myself and the artistic staff,” he said. “We are in constant communication with each other. … They can come to us if they need anything and that has translated to making sure the dancers are well taken care of.
“I think it’s about building rapport. I think it’s about listening. The other half of my job as director of sports medicine is overseeing 60 high school contracts. I tell my folks the same thing. We can’t go in and dictate what’s going to happen, even if we know what needs to happen. It’s going in and explaining what you think needs to happen and how do they picture us making that happen. It’s a give and take and mutual respect to understand what everyone wants.”
For more information and resources, visit the NATA COVID-19 webpage. There, members can also access exclusive member-only content, including resources for state leaders, health care providers and telehealth as well as committee-created resources. NATA also provides information and resources for those in the performing arts setting.
You can follow along with NATA’s National Athletic Training Month coverage and exclusive resources for members on showing that AT’s are essential to health care. Visit the NATM webpage for all the details.