Safe Spaces

Studio owners looking to create a backstage area that’s safe and organized might limit access to teachers (such as Stacey Yuen with California Academy of Performing Arts).
Photo by Kate Efimova

Smart ways to handle backstage access during recitals

by Heather Wisner

With so much happening onstage during recitals, it could be easy to miss what’s happening backstage. But for the sake of security—not to mention organization—it’s vital to have a plan in place to control backstage access. Dance Studio Life spoke with studio owners across the country about how they handle the issue, and discovered some innovative solutions.

 “All of our backstage helpers are licensed teachers or childcare providers because they’ve already had background checks.” —Paula Kochert

Background check? Check!

When it comes to security, knowing that your backstage monitors have cleared official background checks can offer you and your studio parents peace of mind. But if you don’t want to take the time or pay the cost of a check—which typically requires researching a person’s criminal, employment, and education history through public records—there are other options.

Trusted moms (here, Amanda Pryce at Dance Scene Studios) are also a good option for backstage help.
Photo by Brooke Emken

“All of our backstage helpers are licensed teachers or childcare providers because they’ve already had background checks,” says Paula Kochert, co-founder of The Talent Factory Arts and Dance in Lebanon, Indiana. “All background checks are formal and up to date through the schools they work for, as the schools require these. This is something I personally felt was important from working in the public school system for so many years.”

Kochert chooses these licensed teachers or daycare providers from people she knows personally, such as her own family members, former students, or their parents, who volunteer their time.

Helpers wear crew T-shirts so that dancers and parents can easily identify them, and “fill the gaps backstage that our faculty cannot meet since we are in production mode,” she says. Crew tasks include lining up dancers to go onstage, double-checking that dancers are wearing the correct costumes and shoes, supervising dancers and leading organized activities backstage to keep them busy between numbers, and supervising scheduled bathroom breaks. Each room has someone who is CPR certified.

Kochert and her husband, Jim, the studio’s co-founder, decided three years ago to limit parental backstage access based on what they had experienced working for other studios that allowed parents backstage at competition. The only parents Kochert allows backstage have dancers under age 10 with costume changes: a backstage helper monitors changing areas and checks off each parent’s name from a master list before allowing them in. Those parents must return to the auditorium immediately after changing their children’s costumes.

“Babysitters aren’t going to lose money if they stand their ground. They really don’t have anything to lose.” —Crystal Stewart

Bring in the babysitters

Crystal Stewart, who has owned studios in Maine and North Carolina, takes a similar approach. “I hire background-checked babysitters,” she says. Because her husband is in the military, Stewart has moved around, which has made establishing long-running relationships with available teens, young adults, or parents difficult. So, “I looked for background-checked people in my area on Care.com or Sittercity.com, whichever is more popular in that area, and paid them their babysitting fees,” Stewart says.

Backstage parental restrictions allow CAPA teachers such as Marjorie Ortiz to concentrate on students without unnecessary distractions.
Photo by Kate Efimova

She calls it the best decision she ever made. Paid babysitters don’t have children in the recitals, she says, “so they just do their job; they’re not distracted. Parents know that the women working are safe. A lot of parents said they liked it the first time I did it. They liked knowing people were vetted, that it wasn’t some random parents backstage with their kids.”

How she makes it work: the sitters are all women (her son and a studio dad work backstage with the studio’s male dancers). The number of sitters hired is based on how many kids sign up for each recital. “I try to do two people per class, a lead and an assistant, from the rehearsal through the show,” she says. Both the sitters and the kids are coached through the process: “When I’m interviewing babysitters, I have them come to where we’re dancing. I introduce them to the kids and see how they interact. I have them come to dress rehearsal so they can rehearse also. I type up a sheet with everything: the numbers, the hair bows, the shoe changes, where students need to stand, who’s coming to pick up the kid. We have a sign-in/sign-out sheet.”

Some of the sitters have enjoyed the experience so much, they have returned after their first year. And Stewart enjoys their professionalism. “I warn them that parents can be rude or pushy and tell them how to handle it,” she says. “Babysitters aren’t going to lose money if they stand their ground. They really don’t have anything to lose.”

 

Control those access points

Highlights Performing Arts Gymnastics & Dance students enter the recital venue through one specified access door where they are checked in on a master list. (They are checked out from the same location.)

There’s a large area to the side of the auditorium stage that’s accessible only by crossing the stage itself once the show starts. After dancers change into costumes in the backstage dressing rooms, instructors and assistants line up dancers in performance order and seat them in rows in this side-stage area, where they watch the other numbers until it’s their turn to go on. “There is no time when they are not supervised,” says Kimberly Bartlett, administrating director of the Johnstown, New York, studio.

Talent Factory insists on background checks for its teachers, such as Marigrace Kochert.
Photo by Cammi Wahl, Bram Photography

All of Bartlett’s backstage monitors are trusted alumni or teachers; pay is $100 for dress rehearsal and $100 for show day. She says the investment has paid off. “My job as director is to provide a recital for the parents to enjoy, and this has worked out great,” she says. “It alleviates stress for the parents, so they can sit and watch the production.”

 

Parental passes

Many studio owners would prefer to keep parents away from the backstage area. AJ Brown, general manager of the California Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA) in Moraga, California, only allows parents backstage with a studio backstage pass, which they apply for ahead of time if their kid has a quick change. Passes are handed out at dress rehearsal, and a few additional ones are given on an as-needed basis.

Parent volunteers who handle the backstage area during Dance Scene Studios recitals have all passed background checks and are current on CPR and first aid training. Some, school nurses or teachers, already meet those requirements—the Aurora, Colorado, studio pays for the first aid/CPR training and background checks of others.

Six weeks before the show, Dance Scene owner Jennifer Emken hosts a mandatory meeting with these parents to review recital protocol. On recital day, “We don’t allow any backstage visitors during the show, and all dancers stay backstage until the show is over and the parents check them out,” Emken says. If a backstage parent worker wants to watch her child’s dance from the auditorium, she has to alert another worker to take over her post. Parent volunteers wear lanyards (indicating whether they’re helping with hair or costumes) that allow them to enter and exit the backstage area. No lanyard, no backstage access.

 

Access denied

CAPA issues a limited number of backstage passes to assure the safety of dancers such as Sophia Braden.
Photo by Kate Efimova

It used to be that a dad would run and hide rather than put his daughter’s hair in a bun or change her into her tights. But with so many split families—plus the relaxation of traditional parental roles—some dads are pushing back at established boundaries.

“I’ve had to kick a couple of dads out over the years. No matter how many emails I send, there’s invariably a dad who says his daughter needs help,” Brown says. “I have to tell them, ‘Your daughter may be 6, but there are 16-year-olds getting dressed in there.’ ”

One female caregiver per child is allowed in Brown’s main dressing room, and a volunteer parent is positioned at the entrance. “Anyone even remotely suspicious is stopped there,” Brown says. Neither moms nor dads are allowed in the advanced teen dressing area (except in case of emergencies, such as to sew an errant costume).

Kochert has solved this problem by putting a pop-up tent in the hallway where dads of girls or moms of boys can handle costume changes.

Inevitably, at least one Dance Scene Studios parent will want to take his or her child mid-show. A worker will alert Emken, who will meet the parent and explain that staying for the whole show is a courtesy for the students who dance last. “Of course we can’t keep them there: it’s their child. But if you talk to them nicely, usually the parents will comply,” she says. “The ones who do push back don’t tend to sign up the next year.”

 


DSL managing editor Heather Wisner is a former associate editor at Dance Magazine. She has written about dance for SF Weekly, The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, Pointe, and Dance Teacher, among other publications.