Living the Dance

“Let me love you while the moon is still out. Something in you lit up the heaven in me. The feeling won’t let me sleep. Cause I’m lost in the way you move. The way you feel.” “One Kiss” by Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa

“Jen, you gotta let go of your inner Michael Jackson. This is not Thriller,” Antoinette Coward-Gilmore, my AfroHouse dance teacher, instructs. And by that what she’s really saying is let go of all the years you tried to memorize Michael Peters’ brilliant “Thriller” choreography! 

An award-winning and seasoned dancer-choreographer and the founder and Artistic Director of Danse4Nia, Antoinette Coward-Gilmore teaches AfroHouse on the tented patio, which doubles as our dance studio, at the Cope House in Awbury Arboretum. Part of the Awbury Wellness, founded by Megan Do Nascimento, we meet every Thursday. 

“Put that foot down and swing your hips. Like this,” she says, and she effortlessly swings her hips in rhythmic unity with her arms, her foot firmly planted on the concrete floor.

She plays Duo Lipa’s “One Kiss;” I listen and watch.

Naturally flexible and strong, I started dancing when I was ten. My fifth-grade dance teacher told me I was “good.” I held on to that external validation for years. At some point, I realized that not only was I not that “good,” I was also not willing to train and strengthen, had difficulty memorizing sophisticated combinations, and was built like a piece of sturdy furniture. I gave up and discovered yoga as my replacement.

Having just turned fifty and living with metastatic breast cancer, I have attended AfroHouse pretty much every week since October 2020, when a friend invited me and told me it is a “must do.” AfroHouse is a combination of rhythms from West African Lamban and the movements from the 1970s-1980s underground house club culture.  

I love being back, feeling the rhythm in my HER2+ bones and spine in a very different way.

And what I have come to realize is that each week in AfroHouse I am rehearsing and training my body, so I can make living look and feel beautiful and effortlessly free.

“Looking good, Ladies,” Antoinette coos. We isolate our rib cages, shake our hips, and strengthen our cores. Sometimes she mixes in some Lester Horton and Martha Graham techniques then promptly instructs to “let that training go” so you can “feel” the West African and House-inspired movements. Usually, by the end of the warm-up, I am sweating and feeling fantastic.

Between invasive surgeries, chemotherapy, and medications, my body has suffered. But when I begin moving my body in AfroHouse, those traumas disappear. When I lift my leg and splay my arms all at once, I tighten my core so the movement won’t look sloppy and tedious. When I cartwheel my arms overhead as I am dipping down toward the right, then the left, I am in control of my body, which at many times has been so totally out of my control.

I repeat the “typewriter” move, which requires my feet to move one way and my gaze another, so I can practice coordination and concentration. Both are needed to live with MBC.

Every three weeks I travel to the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine (lovingly known as PCAM) for a Herceptin infusion. After two years of this every three-week trip (and sometimes more for other scans and tests), I have memorized the route, the rooms, the passageways and corridors, where to park, where to eat, where to sit, where to pee, the nurses and their lives, and my oncologist’s half-covered face. I am focused and concentrated, moving through PCAM like I am moving across the concrete makeshift dance floor, consciously in control.

Antoinette often reminds me that AfroHouse is not ballet, modern, or jazz class, where your energy lifts up and out in highly-stylized movements. It requires a lot of stamina. Done with knees bent and a low center of gravity, it means I need to “get low” and stay low. After class, my quads and glutes burn. I appreciate these reminders because they acknowledge and incorporate what I have been taught, then invite me to let it go so I can embrace a new way of moving. Again, a helpful skill when you’re living with uncertainty. 

Once I was diagnosed with MBC, my life became regimented by scans, appointments and treatments, insurance calls, and long wait times. You begin to believe that your whole life is being a patient. 

Dancing in AfroHouse every week continues to show me that I don’t need to stick the movement and be perfect, but rather to let movement and rhythm pass through me.  

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Antoinette says after we run our “One Kiss” piece again. This time, I consciously plant my foot, swing my hips, and let go.

*NEXT WEEK: Tune in for an in-depth interview with oncology and MLD massage therapist Julie Ackerman of Flow Therapies

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