If you look around the walls in the main studio at Versatile Arts, you see a variety of brightly-colored signs: “Point Your Toes!” “Remember to Breathe!” “Wrap Your Thumbs!” And there in the corner is another one that says in large letters, “When in Doubt….Get Down.” We joke that that can mean that if you don’t know what to work on next, try a little dance break….but what it really means is “err on the side of caution.” If you’re not sure if you’re set up right for that drop….walk it out. If you’re not sure about your grip strength for that next move….come down and rest a while first.
I’m writing about that sign because we had an incident at VA recently in which as far as I can tell, the only thing that anyone could have done differently was to consider that saying. It was in an advanced class, with one of our most experienced aerialists working with a very encouraging and enthusiastic coach. Other people in the class had already done the move. She had walked through it a couple of times and thought she understood it. But when she set up for it, she had some doubts – was she high enough up, did she really understand where she had to grab. And the instructor encouraged her to try it, confident that even if she missed it, the worst that would happen was that she would land on her back. So she went for it – and she missed, fell on her neck, and knew right away that she’d need emergency medical attention. (Which she got, and will be fine – some soft tissue and nerve damage but she’ll recover fully, thank goodness.)
What went wrong here? Of course we ask ourselves that any time someone gets hurt – which I am happy to say is a rare occurrence at Versatile Arts. (In almost 6 years of operation, this is only the second time that we’ve had to send someone to the hospital. The first was a broken wrist from falling off a trapeze.) The equipment did not fail. She was over a crash mat. She had walked through the skill a few times. Should the instructor have stopped her when it seemed like she was unsure? Should she have stopped herself when she started wondering if she was high enough? Should someone else in the room have stepped in? Yes, probably all of those things should have happened. Would I have stopped her if I’d been there? It’s honestly hard to say. When you are working with advanced students, you trust them to know their limits. And when you’re working with enthusiastic instructors and you’ve been doing this a long time, you want to go for it. I can’t say for sure that this situation would have triggered my safety radar.
So what do we learn from this? First off…it’s a valuable reminder to all of us that this aerial stuff is, in fact, dangerous. We do our best to protect our students by having a structured curriculum, by breaking down skills to make sure they learn them thoroughly, and by having firm prerequisites for upper-level classes. We check our equipment regularly and enforce safety rules during classes and open gyms. We maintain low teacher-student ratios so that students can be observed as much as possible during classes. But in the end, we need to remember that there is always the chance of injury from this sport – just as there is with rock climbing and gymnastics and snowboarding and so many of the other fun, exciting things in life. And that one moment of inattention – by teacher or student – can have dire consequences.
But just as importantly, this is a reminder to listen to your gut when you are up there in the air. If something doesn’t feel right, come down. Always know how to walk out of a drop. Nobody will ever give you a hard time for making the decision not to go for it. You might be set up perfectly, but if you’re distracted or unfocused, don’t take the risk.
One last word on this. There are times in class when I will tell a hesitant student to “just go for it.” We’ve all done that. I’ve watched them set up, I know it’s correct, I know they are ready for it, and I am intimately familiar with what can happen even if it doesn’t go perfectly. Sometimes they just need that little bit more encouragement to go for it. But even then, even if I am sure it will be fine, if a student says no, not ready – they come down. No questions asked.
So, all of you…be careful out there. And when in doubt….get down.