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Breast Cancer Is the Land of a Thousand Dances

No one can accurately pinpoint the earliest history of human dance. There is evidence on illustrated ceramic fragments, indicating that dance may have originated some 5,000 to 9,000 years ago in early agricultural cultures located in a swath running from modern Pakistan to the Danube basin, but there really isn’t anything definitive. Since specific knowledge of prehistoric dances is lacking, many experts have extracted dance history from the preserved ritual dances of various preliterate societies. I, for one, like to think that dance originated when one of our prehistoric forbearers stepped in a pile of dinosaur doo doo and spent the next few minutes shaking his or her feet like crazy. This gives me some solace when I think of all of the women who happen to step into the current day doo doo of breast cancer! There are times when nothing feels better than shaking your booty, or footie, or whatever other body part feels comfortable in the mix!

Historically we know that witch doctors danced to remove evil spirits from sick people. During the Middle Ages it was common for people to try to dance away the plague. Even Italy’s Tarantella is supposed to have originated from the bite of a tarantula. So, it’s not much of a leap to think that women dealing with breast cancer might want to dance their cares away too!

Dance is a wonderful way for women dealing with breast cancer to get some great exercise both mentally and physically! Besides just feeling good, learning a dance routine definitely goes a long way to helping you stay in the moment. Swaying, stomping, swirling – arms moving, legs moving – heart beating – dance allows a body that has endured much to remember grace, sensuality, and pleasure. Regardless of your skill level or interest, there is bound to be a dance you’ve always sort of wished you’d explored. Whether it’s ballroom, tap, salsa or belly dancing; finding a way to move and let go of your diagnosis, your fears, your frustrations, even the drudgery of doctor’s appointments and lab work – can go a long way to not only making you feel good, but to healing your spirit as well.

Kathleen Cirioli, owner/director of a central New Jersey dance studio since 1971, understood the power of dance and healing when she conceptualized Dance for the Cure. Kathleen’s background included studying tap with master teachers throughout the country. She attended the Boston Conservatory of Music, and has taught for various National Organizations, as well as founding and directing the performance troupes Show Biz Kids, Kids On Tap and Tap Express. Many of her students have pursued performing careers appearing in Broadway and National Tours including Footloose, A Chorus Line, Cats, Smokey Joe's Cafe, Beauty and The Beast, David Copperfield World Tour, and Saturday Night Fever. In addition, Kathleen is also the owner of Just Tap! a web-based business serving the international tap community. As a two time survivor of breast cancer, her involvement with Dance for the Cure is a natural offshoot! Her group first came to national attention when they appeared on The Rosie O'Donnell Show performing an original tap number in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month a few years ago.

Dance for the Cure’s approach provides a medical overview by a women’s health care physician sharing information focusing on breast cancer. Presenting medical facts, myths and misinformation as well as breast cancer awareness attitudes and techniques, the program’s aim is to both raise awareness and hope! A personal survivor story providing true insight into life after breast cancer is a key component. Kathleen tells of her own battle with breast cancer, reinforcing the importance of early detection through self-examination, routine mammograms, and prompt medical care.

The group has created two dance presentations with contrasting styles and messages. The first performance is an ensemble tap dance entitled “Go And Get Your Mammogram” performed to the tune of “Button Up Your Overcoat”. This light and entertaining performance delivers a strong message concerning the importance of good nutrition, self-examination, and regular mammograms as means of preventing breast cancer.

The program concludes with an energized audience waving their Dance for the Cure straw hats, while learning a light-hearted dance routine. Tapping toes, smiling faces, and shuffling feet characterize the audience, whose undeniable enthusiasm is evidence that the human spirit is lifted through the celebration of dance.

Kathleen knows that dance has made a huge difference not only in the lives of the other women involved with Dance for the Cure and the audiences they entertain – but in her own life as well. “Having something to look forward to really helps me remain healthy. I still tap dance seven days a week! I know that what we are doing makes a difference in women’s lives, especially in terms of helping them get through the rough times.”

Six Months to Live" is a multi-media dance production using choreographic theater to depict the life of its creator, Latin dancer Karim Noack, and her battle with breast cancer. After facing a diagnosis of terminal breast cancer in 1995, Noack set out on a radical path to recovery. Her doctors openly ridiculed the alternative therapies she wanted to pursue, and insisted that if she did not undergo multiple surgeries and an intensive course of chemotherapy, she would be dead within six months. Complicating matters was her inability to get any kind of health insurance, a common problem for dancers and artists. Nonetheless, Noack followed her heart, and has not only survived, but has lived the most vibrant, productive, and joyous years of her life. Her show features 24 dancers and 10 musicians who perform Flamenco, Tango, Afro-Cuban and Salsa.

Noack wants to educate the world about a better way to heal -- through joy, through love and trust in one's dreams and most importantly, through the celebration of dance. "One of the most important goals of these performances is to bring a message of hope to women living with breast cancer," says Noack, who has made a national commitment to touring and education.

She wants the show to be a forum that will enlarge the dialogue about breast cancer and educate women everywhere about alternative treatments. Her "impossible dreams" are for Medicaid to support alternative therapies and for no doctor again to tell a patient she has six months to live.

Not only does Noack understand the power of dance and healing on a personal basis, she knows it can help other women deal with the disease as well. “Women dealing with breast cancer must hold onto their passions. Their passion for truth, their passion for hope, their passion for life – and nothing gives voice to passion like dancing!”

Diana DeMille believes that “Belly dancing for me was an activity that was non-stressful, calming, energizing in an environment of acceptance with female companionship. Shortly after my second mastectomy April 1st, 1997 I ‘happened’ to see a green poster on the door of the automotive repair shop. Mary Donnelly was the teacher who offered a free first class. Because a dear man at work just ‘happened’ to sell me his beat up car very, very cheap, I had the wheels to get to the first belly dancing class I'd ever taken. Mary used to dance with Fat Chance in San Francisco. She teaches Tribal Dance, not Cabaret - which was perfect for rotund, flat chested me who was slowly recovering from the side effects of chemo (acute rheumatoid arthritis). I was feeling quite ugly. Tribal dancing with supportive women and great teacher made me get out of my rut of self, depression and job pressure once a week. I felt pretty and female in swirling, flowing clothes. Belly dancing movements relaxed me, strengthened my inner self.”

The evolution of many of my pieces that "talk" to my precious daughter, Kathreen, to express my sorrow and my love for her. The obvious symbolism is the contrast of the mother with double mastectomy and her daughter in full bloom of life with both of her nurturing, sensual breasts. Mother's hands imitate wing movement of the Turkey Vulture, ugly in repose but in flight soars with beauty. The Vulture is the most graceful of the soaring birds, able to sustain flight longer than any other bird. In the ocean water are 2 Female Blue Whales (not male).

The Female Blue Whale is the largest living creature on Earth. Powerful. The Monarch Butterflies are Female. In the upper left, 3 Turkey Vultures soar into the Orion Nebula. The universe flows into earth's waters. Female waters. Source waters. This piece took 2 years to complete. One year to think. Another year to draw. For one year, all that was drawn was the "mosaic" circle in the upper right hand corner. Not until the Double Portrait was nearly completed did the artist discover that this circle is the center of the Irish Compass Rose.

“I've listened to many women going through breast cancer. The majority are givers, caretakers, selfless, often with low self-esteem or the desire to please. I call breast cancer "The Terrible Gift". A gift that enables one's spirit, encourages standing on one's own two feet, is a catalyst for savoring life and treasuring family and friends. My second breast cancer was in 1997. But this time I acknowledged and coped more healthily with help of female friends. I finally showed my scars to dear Marta - and looked at myself for the first time. My brother Scott set up a website for me - Dancing Tree Frog. I created a list group – DancerCancer, ostensibly to help others. But I was the one who was healed by them. What a precious group of women -- all struggling, and all supportive and sharing. The physical and inner healing is not a constant. There are LOTS of ups and downs, which we women share on our list group. Self-expression, albeit through belly dancing, art, music (I now finally am learning to play the bagpipes at age 62), cooking, sewing is richer and more meaningful once faced with the possibility of death and our mortality.”

Brenda Young Olson is another breast cancer survivor who feels belly dancing has made big changes in her healing process. She shares, “The day after I was finished with radiation treatment, I danced with others at a city yearly celebration. It was my celebration as well. Since belly dancing is a part of me, it made me feel like I was normal again. I continue to dance attending weekly 90 minute classes and occasionally dancing solo and with classmates at performances. My oncologist asks me sometimes if I'm still dancing. She encourages my participation in the dance as well as the strength training I'm doing with a trainer/nutritionist. I intend to keep active both with dancing (it's just pure joy for me) and with my plan to keep in the best shape I can. Dancing is definitely a part of my healing, of my feeling good about myself, of my celebration of still being able to be active, of being in a sisterhood of caring others (my classmates and teacher are wonderful), and of giving to others (we dance for nursing homes, churches, etc.).

“I would like to share what my belly dance teacher does when someone in the class needs a soft touch, such as when we are hurting from a diagnosis, or have a loved one who's sick, or a death in the family. We do a veil dance, the focus of which is the person who needs the gentle reminder of caring people. This person is in the center of the room, sometimes seated and sometimes lying flat on the floor. The chosen music is quiet, peaceful, and moving and while it's playing the circle of dancers dance one by one with a veil to approach the one in the center. Each dancer places her veil very slowly and carefully over the person until all have draped their veils over the sad one. In reverse order, dancers retrieve their veils one at a time, pulling very slowly to lift the veil as it trails over the person. To finish, our teacher asks the person to describe her feelings. Some of the feelings usually mentioned are these: I felt peaceful, protected, warm and cozy, or I felt the caring of others; I felt like I was in a cocoon. Sometimes there are tears shed because the recipient of the veil dance is so touched.

“I am now 65 with a birthday fast approaching (this month), and I have no intention of giving up this dance as long as I can move!!! My girlfriend's mom just broke her hip at age 96, and what was she doing? Line dancing! That's what I want to be ... active 'til I can't be!”

Breast cancer can make even the most active and outgoing sometimes feel like a wallflower. It’s empowering to know that something as joyous and carefree as dance has the ability to help us heal. Now, for all of you beginners: you put your left foot in, you put your left foot out, you put your left foot in and you shake it all about…