Maggie Kudirka’s struggle with breast cancer and her passion for dance are an inspiration. You may recognize her as the Bald Ballerina. To me, she is also a personal friend. The first time Maggie and I crossed paths was at American Ballet Theatre’s College Summer Intensive in 2009, which is why I am so excited to share my interview with her for The UDancer. Maggie, like me, chose to postpone a professional dance career to attend college; however, the reasons behind her decision are specific and personal to her. I hope her story speaks to you as it does to me.
Interview on May 28, 2015
Q: How did you get started in dance?
A: I started dancing when I was 4 years old. My older sister was taking ballet class, and, at the same time, there was a class for my age group, so my mom decided to sign me up. I loved it, and my passion for dance grew.
Q: Did you go to college? If so, where?
A: Yes, I went to Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. I graduated in May 2013 Magna Cum Laude with a BFA in Dance Performance.
Q: Who were your mentors/biggest influences?
A: First, Runqiao Du. He was my teacher at Towson University and is also the director of Ballet ADI, a company I have worked with for many years. Dancing his choreography has helped me become the dancer I am today. Throughout my cancer journey, he has supported me and given me many opportunities to continue dancing.
Second, Svetlana Kravstova. She was my ballet teacher for many years. She coached me in various classical parts – Odette, Giselle, Myrta, and Paquita. Mrs. Svetlana has been through so much with me and has really helped me interpret the classical roles and grow as a classical ballet dancer.
Third, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell. She was my advisor and teacher at Towson University. Ms. Linda guided me through my entire career at school and helped me choose the right path for me after graduation.
Q: Was deciding to go to college a difficult decision for you?
A: It was not a difficult decision for me. A college education is very important in my family.
Q: What were the factors you considered?
A: At the time, I knew I as not technically or mentally ready to join a dance company. I also knew that if a dance career was not in my future, having a college degree was good to have. I chose a college over a conservatory or certificate program because a bachelor’s degree tells a prospective employer that you have taken courses outside the arts and have a good foundation of knowledge in a variety of subjects.
Q: How do you think college contributed to you as a dancer?
A: College made me a well-rounded dancer. Before going to school, I was a bunhead. I was never exposed to modern or post-modern dance. Throughout my four years at Towson, I opened my mind to various dance forms and the tools used to choreograph. Now when I am asked to improv or try something unusual, I am ready to do it. Also, when I watch dance, my mind is more open and accepting of various styles and forms of dance.
Q: What advice would you give a young dancer about to apply to college or pursue a professional career?
A: Figure out what you want in the long run, whether it is dancing in a company or becoming a choreographer or teacher. Do what you think is best. And if you decide to go to college, pick the school that is right for you. You don’t want to choose a heavily modern-based program if you are interested in ballet and vice versa. Think about whether there is a major that interests you in addition to dance and see if the college offers it. Having a second major can be helpful if a dance career doesn’t work out.
Q: If you could relive a past performance, what would it be?
A: I have three performances I would love to relive.
First was with Ballet ADI in 2012. Runqiao Du choreographed a ballet based on the Shakespeare play Othello with only four people. He choreographed a beautiful solo for me that challenged me not only in my technique but also in my acting. I feel like this performance was the turning point in my dance career. After this performance, I received my first dance review from the Washington Post.
Second was during the Joffrey Summer Intensive in 2012. Africa Guzman choreographed the piece Here and Beyond and selected me to be the lead female dancer. I very much enjoyed working with her and dancing her movement. It felt so natural and was a joy to perform. I wish I had been able to perform this piece more.
Third was also with Ballet ADI in 2012. I performed the White Swan pas de deux with Runqiauo Du. Mr. Du had been a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. This was my first time performing with a professional dancer.
Q: Your fight against breast cancer is such an inspiration. Can you tell us a little about your journey and how it has shaped you as a dancer?
A: My whole world turned upside down when my first doctor walked into the examining room and matter-of-factly said these four words: “You have breast cancer.” I had made so many plans for the upcoming season that included going to China with the Joffrey Ballet Concert Group (JCG), learning more Arpino repertoire and learning my first Balanachine choreography with the JCG Ballet Mistress, Stacy Caddell. This particular doctor made it seem as though I was in the early stages of breast cancer and that I could resume dancing full time very soon, even while undergoing treatment. I really hoped my plans would materialize.
It was only after seeing a second doctor who ordered a battery of tests that I learned my cancer was quite advanced and had spread to my bones. The sternum pain I first felt in March during JCG rehearsal was not due to a muscle pull but to the breast cancer metastasizing to my sternum. I needed aggressive treatments that would start immediately before the cancer could spread any further. I was fortunate that the second doctor referred me to a wonderful medical oncologist who chose the right cocktail of chemo drugs for me. My tumor began shrinking a few days after my first treatment and continued shrinking until it was gone by the time I had a double mastectomy in December. The pathology report found no cancer in either breast.
My doctors encouraged me to dance whenever I could during treatment. Chemo takes a lot out of you and often I couldn’t get past barre, but I still went to class whenever I could. Turns had been one of my favorite movements, but now I found I got dizzy very easily and had to take it easy. After my mastectomy, my center of gravity had changed and I had to make adjustments in balance and relearn how to turn.
The biggest effect the cancer diagnosis has had on me is an increased appreciation for being able to dance. Now I have a heightened awareness of how ephemeral life is. There are no more routine classes or rehearsals or performances for me; I approach each as if it could be my last. This makes me appreciate each tiny aspect of movement as I never have before. You never know when everything could come to a screeching halt.