It’s been more than a year since the world shut down unexpectedly. It’s been a tough adjustment for everyone. But arts organizations – perpetually underfunded – and athletes used to training and performing before a crowd had their lives and livelihoods pulled out from under them.
Dancers fall into both those hard-hit categories. They are artists and athletes. Doug Singleton, Charlotte Ballet’s executive director, recalled, “A few weeks into it, I think we all realized this thing wasn't going to go away quickly.”
Charlotte Ballet was going to have to marshal its forces to keep the dancers – and the organization itself – healthy. Early on, they turned to longtime partner Novant Health.
On-site asymptomatic COVID-19 testing, close contact exposure testing at Novant Health Charlotte occupational medicine clinics and medical consulting related to return-to-work guidelines were among the services Novant Health provided, said Dianne G. Thomas, a Novant Health corporate health account executive for the greater Charlotte market.
Perhaps no one at Novant Health knows the Charlotte Ballet dancers and staff better than Dr. Jerry Barron, an orthopedic surgeon who has served as the company’s doctor for more than 20 years. “There has always been a special relationship between Novant Health and Charlotte Ballet,” Barron said.
“The dancers are like pro athletes,” said Barron, of Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine – Cotswold. “They're very disciplined. They’re company- or team-oriented. They want to entertain their fans or patrons.”
Singleton affirms that. “Charlotte Ballet is a lot like a professional sports team; our talent is so high performance. They are in peak physical condition. We are constantly thinking about health, nutrition and how we can connect our dancers to experts. That’s where Dr. Barron comes into play.”
Ballet dancers are very prone to injury, Barron said. “Injuries like shoulder dislocations, knee ligament injuries, knee cartilage tears, stress fractures. There's a lot of overuse injuries to the foot and ankle. So, we – the physical therapist and I – are always on call, for all injuries. We treat them just like we do any of our professional athletes.”
But Barron serves as much more than an adviser after a dancer has an injury. He’s interested in preventing injuries in the first place. And he provides health and safety guidance, too. Barron helped Singleton and staff put safety protocols in place.
Singleton said, “We asked Dr. Barron: Are our mitigation strategies the right ones? What happens when somebody in the institution tests positive? He helped us think through all we could do to keep everyone safe and what to do if and when somebody inside the organization caught COVID.”
It was last October when Novant Health began providing weekly, on-site COVID testing for asymptomatic dancers and team members. “We do on-site swabbing,” Thomas said. “The specimen collection is performed on the loading dock as a best practice from an infection prevention perspective.” Initially, results were returned within two to three days and later, within 24 to 48 hours.
Now, the testing mode has been changed to antigen testing with results coming back within 15 to 20 minutes.
Despite every precaution, it happened.
Two Charlotte Ballet employees tested positive for COVID-19. “They were identified through our surveillance testing protocols, which Novant Health helped establish,” Singleton said.
“And when it happened, those COVID-positive individuals went into immediate quarantine. And we immediately shut down – as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) outlined. I mean, the second we found out, everything shut down.”
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Funding the arts
Charlotte Ballet is a nonprofit, and the leadership was concerned not just about the health and safety of dancers and staff, but about the viability of the organization. “It's important for the community to know that dancers are not full-time employees like most of us,” Singleton said. “The industry standard is that dancers are employed per week.”
While Singleton and the board were working on keeping the dancers physically and mentally fit, they also had to figure out how to keep paying them. “The board was emphatic that we were going to keep them employed,” Singleton said.
It was a pre-lockdown fundraiser on March 8, 2020 that “helped them make it through the pandemic,” Barron said. The annual “Dancing with the Stars” competition, dreamed up and orchestrated by Barron’s wife, Midge, has raised $358,000 for Novant Health-related causes since 2010, Barron said. (The event takes place at the Knight Theater now, but the first one was in the Barrons’ backyard!)
The 2020 fundraiser couldn’t have happened at a better time. “Dancing with the Stars took place literally the weekend before everything shut down,” Barron said. It gave the organization an infusion of cash just before the stage went dark for a full year.
The event, patterned after the TV competition, pairs a Charlotte Ballet dancer with a community leader who raises money for a cause important to him or her. Half the proceeds from the event go to support Charlotte Ballet, and the other half go to the community organizations represented. Many years, Novant Health is among those organizations. “It’s a great karma circle,” Midge said.
A number of Novant Health team members and board members have been celebrity dancers over the years. Paula Vincent, retired president of the Novant Health Foundation; Jesse Cureton, executive vice president and chief consumer officer; and John Fitzhugh, former chair of Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center Foundation are among those to take the stage – and raise money for Novant Health-related causes.
It was money raised from Dancing with the Stars that helped pay for weekly COVID-19 testing. “Novant Health covered 75% of the overall testing expense that allowed them to continue to be together and dance,” Barron said.
Novant Health and Charlotte Ballet have had a special partnership for a long time. But Charlotte Ballet belongs to the entire community – and a number of Ballet board members and other leaders “really stepped up and gave very generously,” Barron said, when the financial outlook was grim.
Like the professional athletes they are, dancers train hard. And they’re always preparing for their next performance. “If you think about any sports team, you're always working toward the next game or the playoffs or the finals,” said Singleton. “I think that psychology for the dancers is very similar because they're always working toward opening night.”
“And the payoff comes,” he continued, “when they hear the roar of the crowd.”
They finally got to hear it, although the crowds were – due to safety protocols – smaller than usual. “Innovative Works” ran at Charlotte Ballet’s home in late March through mid-April. “They’re always working toward that endorphin rush of completing a show and receiving feedback,” Singleton said. “Even if it's 25 people, it can get loud in a small venue.”