When to push through them and when to stay home
By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
One thing is certain in the dance world: the show must go on. It’s all about delivering the product. But sometimes your body doesn’t cooperate; like everyone else, dancers and teachers do get sick. And sometimes this means having to make a decision about whether it’s time to stay home.
As we come out of one of the worst cold and flu seasons ever recorded, it’s a good time to think about how to handle illness in a way that’s best for your colleagues, your students and their families, and yourself.
You’re facing competing sets of concerns. You don’t want to disrupt your students’ training, create scheduling difficulties for other faculty members, or suffer financial losses by staying home sick. At the same time, teaching when you’re ill can spread germs that might easily fell a good portion of the studio population. And those classes you’re staggering through are probably not going to earn you any teaching awards.
A good rule of thumb is to take a whole week off for a flu outbreak, but with a simple cold you might be able return to the studio after a few days.
For the most part, dancers have a high threshold for physical pain and discomfort, plus a killer work ethic. But sometimes these qualities make it difficult to make wise decisions about our own health and the health of others.
I never once missed a day of grammar school. At the same time, I know that during that time I had the mumps, measles, and colds. Was my perfect attendance really necessary? In retrospect I can see that I was probably spreading germs like a junior Typhoid Mary.
Here’s a guide to help you sort out when to stay in, take your ibuprofen, and eat your soup, and when you should stick it out, put on your game face, and teach.
Dance teachers are often hired as contractors and often don’t have insurance policies that encourage them to see health care practitioners when necessary. Not only that, but they don’t usually have paid sick days that allow them to feel that they can take needed time off. So although studio owners are sometimes willing to find substitutes or cover classes themselves, teachers may suffer unexpected income loss, even if they’re out for just a few days with the flu.
It’s important to understand your organization’s policies on illness and injury as well as its contingency plans for covering absences. It’s also important to understand the studio’s ethos and attitudes regarding these matters.
Obviously, a person who continually calls in late or sick quickly earns the reputation of being unreliable. And even if someone has legitimate reasons to call in sick, one too many absences may push her to the bottom of the scheduling totem pole or even endanger her job.
But before you consider whether it’s a good idea to take a day off in terms of your boss’s impression of you, whether the teacher competition is too stiff to take time off, or whether your bank account can handle the loss, consider the ethics of the issue in terms of contagion.
You may not look sick. Most performers know how to fake it. Even if you’re so tough that no one can tell when you’re really ill, look at the telltale signs. Vomiting and diarrhea will make teaching inadvisable, if not impossible. But even less severe—and less obvious—symptoms such as headache, exhaustion, chills, dizziness, or a persistent cough will interfere with your reflexes, level of patience, and decision-making ability.
Most important, though, is the possibility that you’ll make others sick. A dance teacher is in a position of responsibility. So while many students, parents, administrators, and staff personnel are counting on you to show up and do your thing, contagion can ripple out exponentially in a school program. Also, keep in mind that many students are picked up and dropped off by grandparents, and seniors can be especially susceptible to flu and colds.
Many people erroneously believe that once the symptoms of a cold or flu have subsided, all is clear for contact. According to the Centers for Disease Control, most adults may be able to infect others one day before flu symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children can infect others for longer than seven days.
A good rule of thumb is to take a whole week off for a flu outbreak, but with a simple cold you might be able return to the studio after a few days. But don’t come back until your fever is gone. While normal body temperatures vary—from about 98.6 for most people up to 99 for others—fever occurs when the body is contagious. That means you should stay home until your temperature returns to your normal baseline.
Remember too that illness can recur if antibodies have not fully eradicated the assaulting virus. The infection hits you hard at first, and it can resurface in another couple of days, before your body has built up full immunity.
Although there is no known way to shorten the duration of colds and flu, symptoms can be alleviated with over-the-counter pain relievers. Vitamin C provides energy, and chicken soup really can be relied upon to offer relief. It’s soothing, provides rehydrating fluids, and is easy to digest.
If you feel you are truly no longer contagious, but minor symptoms are lingering, consult your doctor, advice nurse, or even a pharmacist for help. Most pharmacists can offer great advice on which over-the-counter medications will alleviate residual symptoms. If a child’s symptoms don’t seem to be going away, by all means call her pediatrician. And consult your health care practitioner if you display persistent symptoms, which could become dangerous infections.
First, try to stay healthy. It’s not always possible, of course, but eating right, getting rest, and washing your hands often can help. If you’re not allergic to eggs, I recommend getting a flu shot to immunize you against the three most virulent flu types. It takes a couple of weeks to build up immunity, so it’s best to get one as soon as vaccines are available.
Encourage your students to wash their hands, and teach them to sneeze and cough into an arm or shoulder rather than their hands. Wiping down barres with disinfectant can also help prevent the spread of germs.
You should also prepare backup plans before illness strikes. Talk to your studio owner or employer and see how they cover absences. If necessary, find teachers who might be available to fill in for you—and be willing to return the favor.
Find a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare practitioner. If you are out of the medical healthcare loop, find low-cost or no-cost clinics or other alternatives before you get sick. Many exist. Learn what resources your county health department provides; ask friends and colleagues, and do some research on the internet.
Be smart, be considerate, and plan ahead. You can’t prevent illness, but you can help prevent it from getting the upper hand.
I have faith in you.