I had been talking -- explaining everything -- way too much. We only had twenty minutes left of class, and we were just on tendus - basic foot exercises. I desperately needed to get these kids moving -- get them across the floor.
A siren-style light on the ceiling began flashing, spraying its rays around around the room. It was the yellow emergency notification system. Our brows furrowed, my students and I looked at each other in confusion.
Was it a fire drill? It was 30 degrees outside and snowing. We were in leotards and tights or leggings. Some of us in booty shorts. We'd freeze our asses off. I stepped into the hallway to check.
I re-entered the studio and shrugged. "Let's go acro...,"
The emergency light flashed again. Then an announcement. "This is the emergency notification system. There is a violent intruder on the premises." *
Everyone gasped. Oh God.
Then our lights shut off. Our only light was what came from the hallway and underneath the doors. The studio had no windows.
Was this really happening? Our studio doors, equipped with keypads, locked automatically when closed. I ran to shut them. Then to the piano. "Move it in front of the doors!" I shouted. Using all our weight, Nick** (my percussionist), Bee (a student), and I shoved the piano across the room to barricade the back door before slumping down behind it.
Convinced that some armed student -- some madman -- was overtaking the building, every noise, every shadow in hallway the sent a wave of terror through us.
How was I -- the woman who froze and panicked in the face of danger -- the adult in charge?
"Oh my God, Oh my God," I said over and over again. I was panting and my heart was pounding. Although we were acquaintances, our relationships no more than teacher/student and accompanist/teacher, collective fear removed all polite physical boundaries. We huddled together for comfort.
Some of my students sobbed softly. Was this it? Was I going to see my children tonight? My husband? Would my children grow up without a mother?
Hunker down. Calm down. I stared at the exit sign, as if the word itself could deliver me.
What was happening in our country? Columbine, Aurora, Arizona, Newtown. Countless others, and now in the heart of downtown Chicago? What happened to our country?
And for the first time, I felt a visceral need to have a gun, to have something with which to protect myself and my students. Rationally and intellectually I knew that guns only lead to more violence and more killing.
I was not about to change my stance on the gun issue, but for the first time, I somewhat understood the other side. In addition to everything else, those thoughts pained me.
Voices in the hall. Men speaking in lighthearted tones. Maybe they were securing the building, and making sure everything was okay?
A stairwell door closed. Then silence.
"Should I call the police?" Nick whispered.
"Why? Wouldn't they already know?" I whispered back.
He picked up his phone and dialed. "Hello, I'm calling from . . ."
"Shhhhhhhhh!" everyone hissed.
Nick shrugged and lowered his voice.
I could hear both ends of the conversation. Apparently, they had no clue what he was talking about.
Bee, the student huddled next to me, began checking her phone for texts from the college and news sites. Nothing. My phone was across the room in my bag. I was not about to separate from the pack and risk making myself into a target.
Whom could I call? Oh, God! I didn't know anyone's phone number. I would have to learn people's numbers. Effing technology - I knew my best friend's number from when I was seven and now couldn't tell you my husband's line at work?! My Hubs didn't always answer his cell at work. I had my student text a girlfriend, one who kept her phone close, to have her get word to J.
The studio cross the hall burst into song. Then they started tap dancing -- a full blown gospel/musical theater number. What the fuck was going on? Were these people so dedicated to their art that they literally wanted to meet their maker a singin' and a dancin'?
"Call Henry!" I whispered to the percussionist. Henry was the receptionist at the main dance center. He was the eyes and ears of the place. If someone farted on the third floor, Henry would know about it.
"What? A false alarm?" Nick said. Just then we heard voices and footsteps in the hall - the sound of the changeover between class. Someone knocked on the door. It all made sense. I ran to open it. It was Paul, our department sound engineer, who had been sent over to deliver us.
Paul described the short lived chaos at our main building, and the SWAT team in front of the building just south of us. He also let us know that while we were fearing for our lives, it was business as usual in the lobby, one floor below.
Oh, and by the way, did we know that the college would be closing at 3 pm because of snow?
So that's all it was. A misplaced signal. We cried and hugged each other. Some of us laughed hysterically -- the raucous laughter of people who had been the butt of a practical joke, people whose brief trip to hell was the stuff of black comedy.
I feel unfathomably lucky that my terror was based nothing more than an incorrect button being pushed.
That I was not the adult in charge in the face of unspeakable insanity and cruelty.
That I am not a statistic.
That my ordeal earned me no more than 20 minutes of sheer terror, and a captivating anecdote.
That I got to go home that night and hug my children and my husband. To continue being a daughter, a teacher and friend. To keep dancing.
I am so fortunate.
Today it happened again. Another mass shooting, this time at a Navy Yard in our nation's capital. More innocent lives snuffed out by madness and guns. More people whose last moments were filled with terror. Who never got to say goodbye to children, spouses, partners and relatives.
Which means it is my great misfortune to live in a nation where this kind of thing is becoming commonplace. It happens again.
And we do nothing about it.
*The post above describes events that happened on March 5, 2013.
**All names have been changed.