My Body's Reprise: How Ballet Revived Me After Cancer
by Michele Pellegrini
In August of 2015, my life neatly bisected itself into two parts: Before and After. I started off the summer as a normal 34-year-old mother of two young sons.I soon learned that the strange indentation in my right breast, which I had assumed was from weaning my 1-year-old, was invasive ductal carcinoma—aka breast cancer. I had barely processed that bad news before I received even worse news: the cancer had spread from my breast to my liver and one of my vertebrae, and I was now classified as Stage IV. If cancer patients got grades, I would probably have been earning about a D-plus.
I did not have much time to process any of this. I had only one objective: to get through four months of chemotherapy. Time folded in on itself so that there was no past and no future beyond those four months. All that existed was a flat, never-ending present of being sick. And I was very sick.
I did make it through, and the cancer responded. By December, my scans were showing good results: the tumors in my breast were gone, and the ones in my liver were receding. My poor lumbar vertebra, which had been fractured by the cancer inside it, was healing, which meant the cancer there was going away too. I was alive. Now I just needed to stay alive.
Unfortunately, no matter how well you respond, a diagnosis of Stage IV means treatment is ongoing, to stop the cancer from returning. So although I was done with chemo, I was looking at a lifetime of immunotherapy drugs and hormonal therapy—and there was always the possibility that those might someday fail, in which case we’d have to try something else. And then something else.
To my mind, constantly fighting just to live was, well, no way to live. “How am I supposed to just LIVE like this??” I asked my oncologist. To that, she said, “You’ll be surprised. One day this is going to feel normal.”
And that’s when my chemo-addled brain wandered over to ballet.
This idea seemed absurd, but there was one concrete thing I was under strict orders to focus on: exercise. She said this would help my energy level, and my overall fitness would help with the side effects from my medications.
But I got no joy out of moving. Part of being sick is succumbing to treatment, in whatever form that takes, and by this point I had endured countless scans, biopsies, and all of the other procedures that, while life-saving and necessary, also turned me into something lifeless and inhuman. With each stab of the needle, drip of the IV, and cold touch of a machine, I dissociated from myself, until I was barely inhabiting my own body anymore. Now, things I used to enjoy like swimming and yoga felt irrelevant and a waste of time.
And that’s when my chemo-addled brain wandered over to ballet.
I have loved ballet for as long as I can remember. Like many little girls, I grand-jetéd my dolls all over the house after seeing The Nutcracker and begged for ballet lessons. And I did get them, for a while. But as often happens in family life, we eventually had to balance activities with time, resources, and other obligations, so my ballet career ended almost as soon as it began.
However, I had a bachelor uncle who was a ballet aficionado, and he would always take me into the city to see the ballet (he always said he’d rather take me than a real date anyway because I was easier to talk to and liked eating candy bars at intermission). So ballet lived on for me, and I never let a year go by without attending a performance—even converting my husband to a ballet fan along the way.
But watching ballet and doing ballet are two different things. Real ballet dancers are elite athletes who spend a lifetime training to make near-impossible feats of strength look effortless. Like most people, I considered the actual practice of ballet to be either the realm of those who indulge in fantasy (twirling children) or those who sacrifice their lives to the art (tortured, feather-sprouting Natalie Portman-types from Black Swan)— without much room for anything in between.
So I don’t know what possessed me to do this. If I had been in my right mind, it would have occurred to me that maybe a weak, 30-something mom—with no significant experience and barely enough hair to cover my head, let alone twist into a bun—had no business in a ballet class. But I didn’t care. I took to the internet and asked it to “Find a Ballet Class For Adults.”
I watched my graceful, elegant teacher and pretended I looked like her.
And I found one. When I got to the address, I realized I was going to have to climb 5 flights of stairs just to get to the studio. I should have turned around and run away, but I didn’t. I took it stair by stair.
I finally arrived, gasping for breath. But the teacher greeted me with such warmth, it felt like the welcome of an old friend who just couldn’t wait to see you, and it was so disarming that I was immediately drawn in. I don’t remember noticing a single other person in the class. As she led us through the barre exercises, she instructed us on how to adjust our bodies into the proper alignment, and I found my mind never wandered away but instead settled, intrigued, into a knee, a hip, a shoulder, or an elbow, as I tried my best to feel and replicate the minutiae of the technique. To my delight, recordings from all the ballets I had seen so many times accompanied us as we made our way through the class.
There was much I couldn’t do, of course. But in the center of the room, instead of looking at my reflection in the mirror, I watched my graceful, elegant teacher and pretended I looked like her. Under the spell of the music, I really believed it.
Afterwards, I wrote to the teacher and thanked her. I told her how sick I had been, but that for the first time in ages, she had helped me feel whole. She said, “Thank you for bringing your beautiful energy to our class.”
I have kept going ever since. Though I will never dance Odette in Swan Lake, I have been amazed at how far I have come, at the things my body can now do. And you know, part of the beauty of ballet is that the journey is never over. All dancers are working towards an ideal of perfection that cannot be reached. We are mere mortals, and I am perhaps more aware of my mortality than most, because death came very close to me. But mortals we are, and as such we can only work towards perfection. We will never get there.
And yet, what a joy it is, to reach out and brush up against the divine. And so we all keep dancing—the twirling children, the prima ballerina, and me.
Michele is a former children’s book editor who lives with her husband and two sons in Brooklyn, and is currently at work on a memoir. In her spare time she loves to sew, and is a ballet student at the Everyday Ballet studio in Manhattan.
Photograph by Betina Du Toit.