FALMOUTH – When 23-year-old ballerina Maggie Kudirka lost her long blond hair during chemotherapy treatments, she was not shy about her appearance. And when she decided to write a blog to keep her family and friends updated on her treatments for Stage 4 breast cancer, she wanted the name of the blog to signify her attitude.
She remembers sitting at the kitchen table with her mother and saying, “I don’t want [the blog] to be called ‘Dancing with Cancer,’ that’s not my personality. I want to be, like,’The Bald Ballerina.’”
The name stuck.
Now, six months after the chemotherapy rid her body of the cancer and her hair is growing back into what she calls “a Seinfeld hairline,” she is taking the positive attitude that helped get her through the devastating cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments into a stint of giving inspirational talks to young dancers.
Kudirka comes to Turning Pointe Dance Studio in Falmouth this weekend to give master classes on ballet technique, and to talk about her ordeal.
Laura Sciortino, Artistic Director of Turning Pointe, said the cause of cancer awareness is special to her for several reasons. “Breast cancer is real and serious and can reach any healthy young person just like my own mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. My mom’s cancer was caught so early that she was able to recover. There are so many special young people in my life and I hope that they all can learn about the precautions to take to catch it early. Obviously, being a ballet dancer myself makes Maggie’s story even more special to me.”
Kudirka was invited to Cape Cod by Susan Mendoza Friedman of Cotuit, founding member of Dancing For A Cure Cape Cod, a nonprofit that raises money for Friends of Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Friedman also teaches classes at Turning Pointe, which has sent dancers to participate in Dancing For A Cure events for many years.
Friedman started Dancing for a Cure Cape Cod in 2006 when her best friend from childhood, Karen Schek, was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. Schek died in 2012 at age 59.
“I started it to raise money for awareness and research and it snowballed,” Friedman said.
At the time, Friedman was director and owner of Dance Designs in Hyannis. She held annual concerts and dance marathons to channel the energies of young dancers and dance faculty to the cause.
In almost 10 years, Dancing For A Cure Cape Cod through shows and marathons that have included thousands of local dancers, has raised close to $300,000 for the cause.
Friedman found out about “The Bald Ballerina” from a Facebook post and began corresponding with Kudirka. She ended up inviting Kudirka to Cape Cod to give master classes and lectures to young dancers. “She’s turned her diagnosis into something so amazing,” Friedman said.
For Kudirka, this will be her first trip to Cape Cod. She said she is excited to see the region and to meet the young people here.
She has given about a half dozen similar talks over the past several months. The best part for her, she said, is “meeting all the different dancers and talking with them and seeing the upcoming dancers of the world.”
Kudirka said she began dancing at age four and at age eight, “I decided I wanted to do this as a career.” A native of Baltimore, she graduated from Towson University in Maryland with a degree in dance performance, and in 2013 she was invited to join the prestigious Joffrey Ballet Concert Group, a performance group for young dancers that is part of the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City.
In early February 2014, in the middle of a rigorous performance season with the troupe, Kudirka said she felt a lump in her breast but thought it was a dance injury. In March, during a rehearsal, she felt a ‘pop’ in her sternum. “I let it go. I didn’t want to give up my parts,” she said.
By the end of May, Kudirka said, she could not move her arm.
She told her mother she needed to go to the doctor. She ended up getting a second opinion.
That’s when she got the diagnosis. She had Stage 4 breast cancer and it had spread to her bones and lymph nodes.
“It means I’m terminal. It’s the last stage of breast cancer. It’s not a curable disease,” Kudirka said.
For someone whose world was dance, Kudirka had questions.
“How would I be able to continue dancing? Would I be able to continue dancing? I wasn’t sure if my bones would just collapse or break. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I just knew I had to keep dancing somehow or stay connected to dancing somehow,” she said.
She began a four-month treatment of chemotherapy on July 1, 2014. The lump on her breast reacted right away to the treatment.
By the end of October, she could not feel the lump.
The cancer treatment has kept the disease in check. “I’m stable for now,” she said.
She will continue with treatments, taking cancer preventing drugs “until my body doesn’t react to them or until a cure is found.”
In researching the issue of young women getting breast cancer, Kudirka said she believes the danger may be in the foods we eat, specifically foods containing GMOs or genetically modified foods. Her diet now relies on all organic foods, with no meat, dairy or processed foods.
She has brought the rigor and discipline required to be a ballet dancer−one of her favorite things about ballet−to a discipline in staying healthy. “It’s helped me to stay positive and helped me not to give up,” she said.
As word of her story spread through social media and national media—she has appeared on the Today show—she was invited to give master classes and talks to young dancers.
She started dancing again and sharing her story—sometimes at the same time.
While giving a master class, she might feel her hips get tight or she might feel faint. “I explain why I can’t demonstrate to the fullness of my ability,” she said.
But in telling her story to young dancers, Kudirka said she has gotten feedback that they have been inspired.
As she well knows, young dancers tend to be focused on the present. Her talk gives them a larger perspective.
“They are becoming more aware of their health and their bodies, to not just think they invincible and can do anything,” she said.
Her goal is to spread the message of awareness. As a young athlete with no family history of breast cancer, Kudirka said the message she hopes to spread is important.
“I want to tell them that no one is immune. Anyone can get breast cancer. Anyone can get it at any age,” she said.
Master Classes with the Bald Ballerina at Turning Pointe Dance Studio in Falmouth will take place Saturday, August 15 for ages 13 and older beginning at noon and on Sunday, August 16, for ages nine to 12 beginning at 10 a.m. There is a $20 donation per class. All proceeds go to The Bald Ballerina and Dancing For A Cure Cape Cod. Class sizes are limited. For more information, go to DancingforaCure.net.
– Laura M. Reckford