By Laurette Ryan
She stands stage right, dressed only in a black bodysuit and dancing shoes, cane in hand. She begins to move toward center stage, struggling, pain and distress evident across her face and through her movements. In the background, a poem is recited. The verse tells the story of struggle. She moves evocatively across the stage toward a single chair and, with visible difficulty, resigns herself to the seat.
A young man enters stage left, dashing, confident, and moving with grace and ease. He is the doctor. Elegantly miming the act of filling a syringe, he approaches the forlorn woman with the cane. He injects her with what appears to be something awful—perhaps poison, the audience might wonder. He takes her cane away and implores her to leave the chair, and the dance begins.
Like a matador, the doctor whirls and waves a black wrap skirt that had been draped over the chair. He wraps it around the woman’s waist. This is the paso doble, the dance modeled after the bullfight. The music is lively and dramatic, with flamenco tones and influence. The title of the piece elaborates more: “Breast Cancer Battle Paso Doble.”
The audience witnesses the raw emotional expression in the personal fight endured by the dancer on stage. Swept up in her journey, they feel the intensity and wonder how it will turn out. There is never a moment the audience is not fully engaged. This is more than a dance: it is a story. The bravery of the dancer is mesmerizing. As the dance ends, the doctor dramatically tears off the skirt, which represented the treatment the woman had to undergo. She is triumphant, standing tall with a defiant arm raised in the air and one foot upon the chair. She is victorious.
She is triumphant, standing tall with a defiant arm raised in the air and one foot upon the chair. She is victorious.
I first met Mercia Tapping, the dancer, shortly after she lost her husband to brain cancer. She came into the Pilates studio where I am a trainer, tired, unfit, and looking as though she carried the pain of the world in her soul. She was determined to bring herself back to life. It was as though she instinctively knew that getting her body back physically would assist her in getting her life back together emotionally and spiritually. She worked diligently on losing weight and gaining strength, and after a year or so, it seemed things were moving in the right direction for Mercia. She had even shown me a picture of herself, taken decades earlier, as a happy, confident, healthy, and fit woman. I have to admit, I found it hard to recognize that woman, but it didn’t matter; Mercia knew that woman. Her hard work was all headed in that direction.
That is why when Mercia told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, I was blindsided. And yet, somehow I knew that with her indomitable spirit, it would all work out.
Mercia continued her Pilates lessons throughout her treatment as best she could. In 2016, as she was on the slow road to recovery, she told me she would be taking up ballroom dancing. She had bought a package of lessons for her and her husband when he had become ill, so they could finally learn to dance together. Unfortunately, his brain cancer had already progressed to the stage where the lessons became impossible. Mercia contacted the studio and was informed that her unused sessions were still valid. At that point in her recovery, we were working extensively on improving her balance and the neuropathy in her feet. Mercia told me she had been putting some Latin music on and moving and walking around her home, as she was inspired to “boogie” along with the beat. I noticed that ever so gradually, her walking improved.
“One night, as I was listening to my music while walking, I remembered that an unfulfilled dream had been to dance with my husband, and I lifted up my arms as if to simulate dancing with a ghost,” Mercia recalls. “I immediately felt his presence and tears rolled down my face as I heard his voice whispering from heaven that I should go and learn to dance.”
Mercia started her lessons, and her inner dancer emerged. She felt that every dance could tell a story at the deepest level. She faithfully attended private and group lessons, community dances, and professional performances.
I noticed a renewed spark in Mercia. Her balance had dramatically improved, and her neuropathy disappeared. The woman she showed me in the picture from decades ago was emerging, reborn.
“Dancing was the outward physical expression of all the emotions I could feel inside when I listened to music,” Mercia says. “Dancing improved my balance and my walking and miraculously cured my neuropathy. I explored different dance types to find my favorites.”
Recently published studies show that people who routinely exercise can reverse signs of aging in the brain, improving balance and memory. Of all physical activities, dancing has been shown to have the most noticeable and profound effect. Researchers have also found hints that mambo and cha-cha type music can have extra brain benefits!
Mercia expands on the idea of these benefits from a personal perspective, saying, “The benefits of learning to dance have been extraordinary. I no longer have neuropathy in my feet; I stand tall and erect and no longer walk like an old woman. I stride out into life. Since I have also lost a considerable amount weight, I no longer loathe the reflection in the mirror and recently went on stage in just a leotard. My body is not perfect, and I am seventy-one years old, but I can smile at myself again and be proud to be a woman.”
Mercia’s favorite dance, the one that puts the biggest smile on her face, is the West Coast Swing. This style incorporates mostly contemporary music and, once the basics are mastered, leaves endless opportunities for improvisation. “Listening to the music and just having steps emerge as a natural expression of it is truly amazing. I am an inspirational speaker, but I have discovered that I like to tell stories with my dancing, which express different emotions within myself and hopefully might move any audience. However, I dance primarily for myself. When my steps to any dance are an expression of the music and form one synchronous whole, I get a natural high from it.”
Mercia’s “Breast Cancer Battle Paso Doble” left the audience with an emotional and also uplifting experience. She seems to have birthed a new life for herself as a storyteller, an artist, and a creator. With this first project complete, she strives now to improve her dancing skills so that her next story is even more profound and impactful.
Movement, music, and dance are vital parts of humanity. They can inspire you, promote personal growth, and heal the heart, soul, and body.
The poem read at the opening of Mercia’s dance was her work, written during her cancer treatment. The lines that struck me as most prophetic were the following:
“I sit and look at the setting of the sun, and long to walk, if not run. In my mind I walk proud and tall, while in reality, I can hardly crawl. As a bird I would fly so free, or perhaps a boat, full sail at sea. Please tell me what becomes of me, and the secret to my recovery?”
It seems Mercia, the dancer of stories, has found the secret to her recovery.
Laurette Ryan is a professional in the health and wellness industry and has been a national fitness presenter for over thirty years. She is the author of four books on fitness, self-improvement, and life coaching. She is also the mother of four amazing children.