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October 2, 2013

Spotlight on survivors

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

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Spotlight on survivors
Sheri Mark, of Bloomfield Village, rehearses with her dance partner, Jordan Cowan. Mark, a six-year breast cancer survivor, has been dancing at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills for a couple months as part of The Pink Fund’s Dancing with the Survivors program.

In the days leading up to Sept. 26, Sheri Mark was even busier than normal. The nonprofit advocate, who also happens to be the daughter of Weight Watchers President and CEO Florine Mark, always has somewhere to be and something to do. But last week, her focus was on the West Coast swing.

Mark, a six-year survivor of breast cancer, was preparing for her big performance at the first-ever Dancing with the Survivors event, presented by The Pink Fund. The local nonprofit is teaming up with Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills to offer special ballroom dancing lessons for breast cancer survivors. Mark was just one of those survivors-turned-dancers.

“I’ve been doing it just a couple of months, but it’s really been great. It’s great exercise, great for brain cells — dancing just makes you feel so good, and I’ve learned things I never thought I’d be doing in my life at 60 years old. It’s great,” said Mark, a Bloomfield Village resident.

Mark said she’s used to being in the public eye with her line of work as a board member for North Star Reach Camp, a nonprofit that gives camping experiences to seriously ill children. She even took a trip or two around the dance floor when she was just a girl, learning the jitterbug from her aunt when she was 5 years old. This, though, is a something completely new.

“I’m doing the West Coast swing, and a samba to Justin Timberlake’s ‘Suit and Tie,’” explained Mark. “I’ve been rehearsing and trying to relax. I’ve just been going over the finer points of the dance. I want to represent the studio well. I just want to do this right; I just want to do it well.”

The Sept. 26 performance, hosted by Art Van Furniture in Warren, was the culmination of the pilot dance program. Mark and four others bravely strutted their stuff across the floor in front of an eager and supportive audience, which included Mark’s mother. The evening was complete with disco balls, elaborate costumes and steps even Ginger Rogers would approve of.

The idea behind the dance program is to give breast cancer survivors and current patients a chance to do something fun and active, but most of all, to distract from the emotionally draining experience of fighting the deadly disease.

“While dancing is not meditation, it’s a type of meditation. It takes you away from your problems when you’re thinking about where your feet go and moving in tandem with your partner,” said Molly MacDonald, founder and president of The Pink Fund. “Cancer changes you mentally and physically. And there’s this whole ‘reclaiming intimacy with your partner’ bit. Intimacy doesn’t just have to be in the bedroom. Dancing can help re-establish that connection, because there’s no cancer between you while you’re dancing.”

That goal is one that fits right into the overall mission of  The Pink Fund, which raises money to help breast cancer patients with medical and living expenses that might be beyond their means during treatment. MacDonald said it’s all about improving survivor outcomes.

Mark said she’s fortunate in that she didn’t have to worry about finances while undergoing her extensive treatment, which involved multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and oral chemo, which she only recently completed after five years. But she’s now part of the sistership of survivors, and she knows the battle goes on for so many other ailing women.

“When I was going through chemo, I only had to take care of me. I was very lucky. But some of these women come from multiple jobs, take care of their children, and if they lost their jobs, they would lose their health insurance. (The Pink Fund) is such a great, great cause,” said Mark.

The success of the dance program was so overwhelming that MacDonald said Fred Astaire Dance Studio is expanding the concept to each of its locations around the country — more than 150 in all. It’s a natural fit for the studio. Fred Astaire co-owner Evan Mountain and his wife, Lada, helped to develop the pilot program with The Pink Fund. Across the country, the co-owner of the Scottsdale, Ariz., studio, Antoinette Benevento, is a survivor of breast cancer, herself. She penned the book “Dancing Through Life: Lessons Learned on and off the Dance Floor,” and also offered classes to survivors in her area.

“It’s something that’s going to go national next year for all Fred Astaire Dance Studios, which is just so positive for everybody. Dancing gives this sense of joy and can help (survivors) move into their new, normal life after cancer,” said MacDonald. “Even during treatment, if they’re feeling well enough, it can be a joyful hour a week.”

The next session of Dancing with the Survivors begins in October at Fred Astaire in Bloomfield Hills, located at 2172 Franklin Road.

For more information on the program and The Pink Fund, or to make a donation, visit thepinkfund.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.