The New Normal: What it Means for the Dance Community

After almost six months of being away from The Joffrey Ballet and all of the dancers, there was finally a plan in which I can return onsite in my role as a Performing Arts Physical Therapist to safely provide care to them. I have to admit that I was a little nervous about returning. This day almost reminded me of first-day-of-school jitters. Our jobs are already high stakes and high pressure, but now a deadly virus has been added to the mix. We must be careful and mindful in everything we do that could risk our own or our dancers’ health. So before I get into how the return to studio unfolded, let me back up and explain the many months of preparation that went into this possibility turned reality of going back to help The Joffrey Ballet.

Many weeks prior to returning, the physical therapists were in contact with the Joffrey managers, staff, and physicians regarding the best protocols to continue doing physical therapy in the studio. We reviewed our company and the Joffrey’s policies, including scheduling revisions, creating dancer pods and cleaning plans. Once we felt confident with our plan, we anxiously awaited the day to get back to work with the dancers. The week after Labor Day was the start of our new journey of safely treating dancers during COVID.

As I entered the studio on my first day back, I was greeted by the Joffrey building doorman, Michael, with his N95 mask. He was trained to properly take temperatures, and was checking every individual that walked through the door. The signs in and around the elevator were clearly marked – only two people to ride in the same elevator at a time. Once I arrived on the artistic floor of the building, the whole layout had changed. The coffee nook, the lunch tables, and the lounge areas have all been cleared out to prevent gathering. The kitchen is non-functioning at this point, but done purposefully to avoid cross-contamination of cups or Tupperware. Individual folding chairs lined the walls, at least 6 feet apart. Each dancer was assigned to a numbered chair, and had to put their belongings apart from their peers.’ The folding chairs seemed to be never ending, meticulously placed in any spare, socially distanced, space. I couldn’t help but notice the number of bikes and scooters in their designated areas as many dancers are getting to class via Chicago’s bike lanes instead of public transportation. “No gathering in this area” and “Only two individuals per bathroom at a time” signs are more sobering reminders of necessary social distancing.

As I entered the hallway to move towards the physical therapy room, I exchanged a few masked smiles and words with familiar staff members. There was a woman moving about, clearly executing the appropriate cleaning of high-touch areas. The space may be sterile, but the humans are still warm and comforted with needed greetings during an anxiety-induced time. The PT room, usually bustling with dancers using equipment and doing exercises, was eerily quiet. We have decided to allow only the dancer who were patients and the PT into the room. I yearned for the happy chatter that used to surround the treatment table, as I quietly awaited the first dancer to arrive for his/her treatment session.

When I saw the physical therapy sign-up sheet, I saw familiar names, and I got excited to do my job with these amazing individuals again. Instead of our usual physical therapy time slots with consecutive dancers, we enforced and are still enforcing 5 minute cleaning slots between each dancer. This additional time is spent washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, and cleaning of the room prior to the next dancer coming in. We also consulted with experts, and decided to wear a face shield over our masks while in studio to further prevent the spread of the virus while working on multiple dancers during our three hour shifts. At first, this extra layer felt cumbersome and foggy. But after wearing the shield for a few days, it just felt like getting used to wearing new glasses. Our new PPE is basically our work “costume” but is appropriate safety of all.

It feels almost disingenuous to ask how the dancers are doing. I hesitate to inquire about what they did for the last 6 months. I think it is because my own feelings have been so complex since the arrival of the coronavirus. For many in the world, things have not felt joyful since the beginning of the pandemic. However, I realize that my familiarity and candid conversation may be a little bit helpful for their mental health while I am working to improve their physical health. I haven’t worked with them for half of the year, but I got into a groove again. The conversation and manual work feel smooth. Most dancers have been training independently and virtually. Luckily no one had injuries on the first day, but most feel like they are just beginning to dance freely again. A few of us wonder when the next performance for an audience could be, but each dancer relaxes with my care, as if we haven’t missed a beat. I realize how much I have missed these lovely humans and human interaction

Between working with each dancer, I follow the flow of traffic signs to the sink to wash my hands. I get to indulge in socially distant waves and excited body language. I see that everyone on the floor is doing a great job of avoiding clustering in the hallway. I see that each Joffrey studio has a large “STOP” and “GO” sign. I know that this was created to avoid people coming in when a studio has not been properly cleaned yet. I see a massive grid that divides the dance studio floors. The dancers are only returning in pods of 10 per class, then they leave before the next pod begins. Each person gets a square on the grid to perform barre and center floor work. Conceptually, I wondered if this would feel remarkably restrictive, but through the open doors (to allow for air flow), I can see that it is working really well. The dancers are gracefully working hard with masks. I smile and feel like we will all adjust to this new normal whether it’s dancing remotely or in-studio.

As we are currently in Tier III mitigations, the dancers will no longer be taking class at the studio but they are allowed to have rehearsals for solo dancers, couples that live together, and the dancers can reserve a time for the studio. And although we don’t know how COVID restrictions will change over the weeks or months ahead, what we do know is that these dancers really want to be here, passionately working as safe as possible. And we as physical therapists for The Joffrey Ballet, will be here to support them every step of the way.

This year, the holiday classics will be celebrated in a different way. Joffrey’s ‘The Nutcracker’ can be seen virtually displayed on the Merchandise Mart nightly from 7:00PM to 7:30PM through December 30th.

Athletico is a proud partner as the Official Provider of Physical Therapy Services to The Joffrey Ballet. To learn more about our performing arts rehabilitation services, contact us at PerformingArts@Athletico.com.


By Alyssa Hartley, PT, DPT, CMTPT for Athletico Physical Therapy