When you are 4-years-old and there is some beast inside you that you don’t understand. When you are told you are sick and you don’t feel sick. When you are 13 and facing chemotherapy and puberty simultaneously. (Well, some version of puberty.) When you are 7 and your limbs don’t respond the way you want them to. The way they used to…when you used to be able to swim and run. When you don’t feel comfortable in your bones. When the adults around you offer you strange smiles. When the tumor on your little head is obvious for all to see, and your classmates stare at where your eyebrows used to be.
That’s when you boogie.
I met a young dancer named Donna Quirke Hornik back in Chicago a few years ago. She stepped into my dance class at age 3 and changed my life. She danced every week even though her small body went through surgeries, transplants, chemo, radiation, and treatments I can barely imagine. She had an aggressive brain tumor. I saw how dancing gave her both a physical therapy and a sense of being hopeful and happy in her body. Because of her, I got involved with Children’s Memorial Hospital, now Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. I joined the Young Associates Board and kept on teaching dance to current and former patients.
Donna taught me to say yes to all of life’s experiences. She taught me to feel fears and pain fully, then move on. She taught me that when there is misbehavior all around you, stay focused and wait it out. She taught me that when you fall, you have two choices: get yourself up or ask for help. She taught me to be articulate and positive in explaining what I need. She taught me that there is no excuse not to dance and laugh. She taught me that each day counts, so ask for the good macaroni ‘n cheese.
Donna passed away peacefully at home in October 2009, between her loving parents. When she left, they vowed to keep doing good things in her name and founded Donna’s Good Things. When I came to Egypt, I brought a little bit of Donna with me. Her courage, her humor, her energy and empathy. I signed on to volunteer at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt as a dance teaching artist, providing both dancing sessions for different groups of patients and dance therapy for the teen peer support group. All good things.
Childhood cancer is the same here in Cairo as it is in Chicago. It is the same beast. Although, lymphomas are more prevalent and rates of survival are generally much lower. Fundraising via social media is almost unheard of here. And there is mistrust of health care directors who people believe profited during the Mubarak regime. Religion, corruption, and politics are huge factors in both countries. But the child superheroes are the same. They are joyful and generous even under the most difficult of circumstances.
This past Thursday, I was honored to bring about an event that was pretty much my dream when I came here. To bring together the faculty and students of the Academy of the Arts’ High Institute of Ballet where I am teaching, and the world of 57357.
The primary school students of the ballet institute came to the hospital and performed three numbers: a lively folkloric routine, the Russian Trepak from The Nutcracker, and a pop jazz routine to Mambo No. 5. They performed three times total: once onstage in the auditorium for the out-patients, and then twice on different in-patient floors for the patients too sick to leave the ward. The staff at the hospital were kind enough to provide full support for the music and lighting. It was a real show. Rock concert quality.
After each performance, the staff gave out the Twinkies and treats they had brought for the kids, and I led the patients, parents and nurses in a participatory dancing session. This was similar to what I regularly do at the hospital, but this was the first time the faculty of the ballet institute had seen such work. I looked to my left and there were all they were by my side, on their feet, joining me, engaging with the patients. They were hooked. I think these faculty members will definitely continue this work and a strong partnership will develop. Inshallah.
At the end of the day, the faculty had to get the dance students back onto the bus, so I stayed on to lead the last dancing session on my own. There was a girl of about 12 years. She had a hair net, a slouched and weak posture, and was in a wheelchair pushed by her father. She sat on the far side of the audience on the in-patient lobby, clapping along to the healthy kids in their sparkly costumes dancing to Mambo No. 5. Then I started to dance with all the patients, many moving just one arm cause of the IVs. I walked over, grabbed the arms of her wheelchair, and pulled her onto the dancefloor. We span in circles, wheelchair and all, together with the other dancing patients. Unable to speak the same language except for the one in our bodies. Her father beaming from the side. Her face all smile and her arms outstretched to their full potential. That is what this is all about.
Following the event, I received this message on Facebook from a friend working at the hospital, “57357 and its children are grateful to you : ) . You drew smiles and made a lot of people and children laugh. Can’t imagine that you will leave us one day 🙁 .. Love you.”
Don’t worry, my friend. With these kids, there will always be dancing.
* For more photos, please visit the Facebook album.
**This post is a follow-up to a previous post, Dance and Cancer.
***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.