A Community Takes Care of Its Own

Cohost Keltie Knight (center) closes out the night at the 2017 Industry Dance Awards, as confetti swirls over the cheering audience.
All photos by Tyler Williams

Dance world comes together for an awards show like no other

by Tamsin Nutter

Dateline: Hollywood. The red carpet buzzed as women in floor-length gowns and men in sharp suits posed for photographers before filtering into the historic Avalon Theater. It was a typical La-La Land scene, but this event—the 2017 Industry Dance Awards & Cancer Benefit Show—was anything but.

The glamorous crowd hailed from every corner of the dance world: private studios, competitions and conventions, Broadway, commercial and concert dance, TV, and film. Dance teachers and studio owners from all over the country bumped elbows with dance celebs like Kenny Ortega, Travis Wall, and JoJo Siwa. On this special night, August 16, 2017, the dance community came together to take care of its own.

“I don’t know of anyone nowadays, even if it’s a separation of one or two degrees, that’s not been affected by cancer. People just want to help. We just have to give them the opportunity. And that’s what this event is: an opportunity.” —Liz Imperio, choreographer

Maggie Kudirka performs a solo at the Industry Dance Awards about losing her dance career—and refusing to be defined by her cancer diagnosis.

A charity is born

One charity intrinsically connected with the awards show is Dancers Against Cancer. Years before, in 2011, an employee of Kids Artistic Revue (KAR), who had danced on KAR stages since childhood, received a stunning diagnosis. Marissa Parks had glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. A little over a year later, at the age of 25, Parks was dead. “It left an impact on my whole company,” KAR CEO Noah R. Lands said. “She was very vivacious and just someone who everybody really loved.”

Top: At Dancers Against Cancer’s Hope Lunch, photos honor the memories of those who have died from cancer.
Bottom: Michelle Colon introduces DAC grantees at the awards show.

The KAR team began raising money for cancer organizations in Parks’ memory, but Lands was dissatisfied that “so much of it wasn’t going toward the individuals that we wanted to help,” he said. “It was going toward administrative costs and wrapping buses [with promotional advertising].”

In 2013, Lands founded Dancers Against Cancer (DAC) to provide direct financial assistance to cancer patients in the dance community. Executive administrator Michelle Colon announced in August that the charity has raised more than $1 million. Aid recipients—57 and counting—have included teachers, studio owners, kids connected with local studios, and professional dancers. (DAC, a 501(c)(3), is not affiliated with the Texas-based charity of the same name.)

The charity awards all the funds it raises; KAR covers all necessary salaries and overhead. Though the money often goes to medical bills, there are no stipulations—grants helped pay for a dying child’s trip to Disney and for a down payment on a house. “[Recipients] can use it on what they need it for,” Lands said. “Every case is different.”

“The community is about taking care of its own. It always has been. If you ask any dancer in this room, they would lie in front of a bus for each other. That’s what we do.” —Christina Applegate, actor & founder of Right Action for Women

Dancers rehearse the show’s high-energy opening number, choreographed by Liz Imperio, in the lobby of the Avalon Theater.

Cancer touches everyone

DAC’s work depends on a devoted alliance of its own staff, KAR employees, studio owners and teachers, families, industry professionals, and celebrities. The connecting thread is cancer—a disease that touches nearly everyone.

Cancer survivors and dance kids (from left to right) Caitlyn Feddock, Emma McDonald, Nala Ford, and Valory Newton pose at the Hope Lunch.

In this inclusive spirit, the Industry Dance Awards, an annual fundraising event that benefits DAC, brings together competitions and conventions (and their executives) as allies, not business competitors. Applause Talent, The Countdown, Groove, KAR, L.A. DanceMagic, Masquerade, Rainbow National Dance Competition, Spotlight Dance Cup, StarQuest, Turn It Up, Tremaine Dance Conventions & Competitions, Hollywood Vibe, and Hollywood Connection are all IDA sponsoring partners, and as such, help cover event costs. Private studios connect to IDA through these partners: after competing at regionals, dances can be nominated in several categories, such as best performances in jazz, tap, or hip-hop, or best competition performance of the year. Winners, chosen by judges and online voting, are announced at the show.

“All egos aside, it’s not about what competition or convention you are,” Matthew Caldwell, KAR’s COO, said. “It’s just about being a good person. A lot of people volunteer their time, their hearts, and their souls for this project.”

The competition executives share Lands’ certitude that they can accomplish much together. “We believe you’re not an island,” Steve Wappel, co-owner of StarQuest, said. Michelle Kresge, president and CEO of Spotlight Dance Cup and DAC board member, agreed. “We know that by coming together we can create something bigger and better than ourselves,” she said. “We can instill that in the youth who we influence on our stages.”

Dance Unlimited Performing Arts Academy in Oceanside, California, started fundraising for DAC after owner Erin Riley-Carrasco received assistance. “Of course, what did that lead to? Her wanting to give back, her providing hope for someone else,” Kresge said of Riley-Carrasco, a longtime friend. This sort of paying it forward, Kresge said, is why DAC has raised a million dollars “in a short four-ish years.”

“My son Dalton loved dance. When he was diagnosed [with adrenocortical carcinoma], the dance community supported him beyond belief, and he was really a dancer against cancer. To the day he was freed, he was participating, and tapping, and hip-hopping.” —Karen Levine, mother of Hope Story Dalton Levine (1998–2016)

Woodbury Dance Center dancers wow the IDA crowd with Ribbons, which won Best Open/Acro/Ballet Performance.

Studios are the heartbeat

Private studios raised most of that million. Known as Hope Studios, these businesses each raise at least $1,000 for the charity through annual fundraising efforts. There are 115 Hope Studios scattered across the U.S., with 50 more slated to join this year. “We couldn’t do it without them,” Colon said. “They are the heartbeat that keeps our name out there.”

Top Left: Travis Wall accepts the Dance Icon Award.
Middle left: Kenny Ortega gives his Lifetime Achievement Award to dancer Maggie Kudirka, who is living with cancer.
Bottom left: Christina Applegate accepts a DAC grant on behalf of Right Action for Women.
Right bottom: JoJo Siwa has a red-carpet chat with Hope Stories Avery Ceballos and Nala Ford.
Middle right:
Tisha Ford describes her daughter’s cancer fight.

Kitty Lee Dance Studio in Omaha, Nebraska (an IDA Best Performance of 2017 nominee for Body Love), has been a Hope Studio for three years, raising about $12,000. “I feel blessed to be part of this group of fabulous dancers and studios across the nation,” said school director Diane Hansen, who heard about the charity at a KAR event. “It’s not so much about the [awards]; it’s about the end result of helping those kids and those dancers.”

Cancer diagnoses fuel the fire of some Hope Studio owners. National DAC ambassador Michelle Rogers survived breast cancer a decade ago. “I said, ‘If I can survive this, and watch my daughter grow up, I would give back to the cancer community,’ ” she explained. Her Carolinas-based Miller Street Dance Academy has raised $144,000 in four years.

Through DAC grants, these donations can mean the difference between scraping by and ruin. Even so, Wappel made the point that the grants serve a deeper purpose. “If you look at money as a means to drive the most powerful emotions—like hope—that’s the real ideal,” he said. “That’s the goal: to give money in a way that lets [grantees] know, ‘I’m here for you.’ ”

“Dance is good for bringing energy into anything. Everyone can get behind dance. So whatever cause is attached to it is usually seen in a better light.” —Ed Schneider, co-owner, Dance 411, Atlanta

Stories of hope

At the awards nominee cocktail party the night before the award show, three young “Hope Stories” (as DAC calls its grantees) stuck together amid the boisterous crowd. Emma McDonald, 20, Sienna Bergman, 15, and Valory Newton, 12, were diagnosed with bone cancer as children—Emma and Valory with osteosarcoma, Sienna with Ewing’s sarcoma. Valory and Sienna are now cancer-free, but Emma recently relapsed for the third time.

At the Hope Lunch, Noah R. Lands gives Emma McDonald a surprise check.

Dyana Newton, Valory’s mother, said the dancers text each other for support and treatment ideas. “They’ve all been through the same thing,” she said. “Having ports placed, having needles poked in them, having scans, the fear. They make each other feel better.” DAC’s close-knit community, with top administrator Colon as a constant loving presence, is hugely important. “It’s not just the financial support—that’s great, it helps alleviate some stress—it’s also the emotional support,” Newton said. “Valory has flourished because of all the support she’s received.”

Working with families through the ups and downs of cancer treatment is Colon’s favorite part of the job. “I’ll call and check on them,” she said, adding that the Hope Stories, in turn, ask about Colon’s father, who has Stage 4 cancer. “So we’ve become like this little family. We celebrate each other’s victories. And we cry together when we get big blows.”

“This show makes you think there’s a whole bigger purpose that we can [achieve] with dance. We’re honored to have the kids here to experience it as well.” —Kathy Johnson Mueller, co-owner, Woodbury Dance Center, Woodbury, MN

Laughter and tears

Top: DAC honors its Ambassadors, Rockette Alyssa Epstein (center) plus studio owners (left to right)
Patrice Barakat, Erin Riley-Carrasco, Terry Schulke, and Michelle Rogers.
Middle: A “Tree of Hope” features names of loved ones lost to or battling cancer.
Bottom: Karen Levine reminisces about her son, Dalton; Michelle Colon holds his photo.

Those victories and blows were the focus at the pre-Industry Dance Awards luncheon, known as the Hope Lunch. Equal parts laughter and tears, it was a chance to honor heroic fundraising, celebrate the clear scans and burgeoning life plans of some Hope Stories, and grieve the losses of others.

In one emotional moment, Emma McDonald spoke about her relapse and its impact on her plans to keep dancing and attending college. With proven treatments exhausted, her only option was an experimental drug priced at $10,000 a month. Lands and Colon had a surprise: a promise to cover almost a year’s worth of treatment. Tears flowed freely.

The generosity stunned Melissa DeLany, single mom to Emma and her brother. DeLany’s parents had been planning to give up their retirement savings to pay for the treatment. “There probably are not enough words for any of this,” she said.

“Dancers Against Cancer shouldn’t be just a one-day-a-year opportunity. It has to be
365 by all of us together at the same time.” —Maks Chmerkovskiy, Dancing With the Stars

A starry night

After their red carpet strolls, guests stepped into a glittering theater. Backstage, publicists, photographers, and event staff scurried to and fro as the 2017 Industry Dance Awards got underway.

Top: Kids Artistic Revue COO Matthew Diaz-Caldwell (left) and founder/CEO Noah R.
Lands (right) pose at the Hope Lunch with Sienna Bergman, the first Australian Hope
Story and a survivor of Ewing’s sarcoma.
Middle: Kenny Ortega dips Hope Story Valory Newton on the red carpet, alongside High School Musical star Monique Coleman.
Bottom: Two Dancing With the Stars power couples bring the glamour: Maks Chmerkovskiy kisses
wife Peta Murgatroyd (left), while Val Chmerkovskiy poses with girlfriend Jenna Johnson
(right). The Chmerkovskiy brothers were on hand to accept the Innovator Award.

The four-hour show was packed with heartfelt speeches, touching video segments, award presentations, and plenty of dance. Winner after winner took the stage, smiling, cradling trophies. Company dancers from Woodbury [MN] Dance Center (a Hope Studio and frequent nominee) performed the spiraling, domino-effect Ribbons (which won the open/acro/ballet category).

TV, movie, and Broadway actress Christina Applegate accepted a $100,000 DAC grant on behalf of her breast cancer screening foundation, Right Action for Women. Kent Boyd was anointed favorite convention teacher. Maggie Kudirka, 26 (known as the Bald Ballerina to her online followers), a former Joffrey Ballet Concert Group dancer living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, gave a performance so moving that Kenny Ortega spontaneously gave her the IDA Lifetime Achievement Award he had just received.

Dance celebrities, such as So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Travis Wall and Dancing With the Stars pros Val and Maks Chmerkovskiy, and others spoke with emotion, as if to a roomful of friends. To many people in the Avalon, famous or not, the cancer struggle was personal.

“It’s really nice to find like-minded people who share positivity and passion for the industry. We’re all here for the right reason, and we’re pushing our industry forward in the right direction.” —Daniel DeFranco, CEO, Groove Dance Competition

Unlimited potential

An exultant pride in the dance community’s heart, energy, beauty, fighting spirit, and potential power suffused this year’s Industry Dance Awards. Everyone seemed struck by what dancers can accomplish when they work together.

“This show makes you think there’s a whole bigger purpose that we can [achieve] with dance. We’re honored to have the kids here to experience it as well.” —Kathy Johnson Mueller, co-owner, Woodbury Dance Center, Woodbury, MN

The ornate Avalon Theater was a perfect setting for Liz Imperio’s number (shown here in rehearsal) honoring the movie work of Kenny Ortega.

Lands has worldwide goals for DAC. This year, the charity extended beyond the U.S. to Australia; Sienna Bergman is the first Australian Hope Story. “There are dancers everywhere,” Lands said. “I think just between the whole dance community, it’s unlimited.”

DAC board member Jackie Sleight, owner of L.A. DanceMagic, agrees that the charity is only getting started. “My hope is, as this grows, that people understand the different kinds of dance there are, and how big this project really could be,” she said. “We are so far-reaching, and we have so many children involved, that it could go on for generations. It’s a huge picture! And it’s just started.”


To become a Hope Studio or Hope Story, or to nominate someone to be a Hope Story, visit imadanceragainstcancer.org and fill out the appropriate forms. For more information, contact Michelle Colon at michelle@imadanceragainstcancer.org or 407-791-7801; visit DAC online on Facebook (@iadacfoundation) or Instagram (@imadanceragainstcancer).


DSL associate editor Tamsin Nutter lives in Berkeley, California. Formerly a marketing writer at MoMA in NYC, she trained at Vassar College and The Ailey School and danced with Regina Nejman & Company and others.