What could a stood-down airline safety engineer possibly have in common with performing artists?
What could a stood-down airline safety engineer possibly have in common with performing artists?

Virgin engineer pivots into dance role while battling cancer

When the airline industry collapsed and Stephen Stewart was stood down along with thousands of his Virgin Australia colleagues, he didn't pivot so much as pirouette.

The safety engineer, who is battling cancer, hopped on board with Ausdance Queensland to develop the arts industry's first COVID-safe plan, allowing more than 10,000 dancers from Coolangatta to Cape York to resume rehearsals.

"This was the last thing I thought I'd be doing but it has been incredibly rewarding," said Mr Stewart, 42, whose regular job involves auditing engineers to ensure procedures match regulations.

Safety engineering specialist for Virgin Australia Stephen Stewart has developed an industry Covid-safe plan for Ausdance Queensland that will support dancers Emilia Bignami and Lily Babbage and tens of thousands of others across the state. Picture: Brad Fleet.
Safety engineering specialist for Virgin Australia Stephen Stewart has developed an industry Covid-safe plan for Ausdance Queensland that will support dancers Emilia Bignami and Lily Babbage and tens of thousands of others across the state. Picture: Brad Fleet.

Mr Stewart was at home on JobKeeper when he overheard his wife, Ausdance chair Jordin Steele, talking to stricken dance companies with no idea how to write a COVID-safe plan ahead of the June 12 easing of restrictions.

"I said, well, I can do this, and when the Government brought the date forward to June 5, it was a furious week of working around the clock."

What makes Mr Stewart's efforts even more impressive is that he has polycythemia, an incurable blood cancer, causing extreme fatigue.

"I was diagnosed when I was 23 and have had 11 years of chemotherapy, and while I will never be well again, I am managing it and Virgin has really supported me," he said.

Julie Englefield, executive director of Ausdance Queensland, said Mr Stewart's pro bono work had saved businesses and benefited tens of thousands of dancers.

"There were no government guidelines on how to write a plan and being a small, non-profit peak body it was completely beyond our capabilities," Ms Engelfield said.

The plan allowed tiny dance studios in rural Queensland to remain viable by having more students, she said, and also prohibited parental attendance and the sharing of costumes and props.

Arts Queensland was so impressed with Mr Stewart's plan it has commissioned him to write a version for the choral, vocal, instrumental and musical theatre sectors.

Originally published as 'This was the last thing I thought I'd be doing'



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