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The Dance Against Cancer benefit opened on an empty stage. Instead of watching the dancers, we heard them as they described their connection to their benefit and why they were dancing–or rather, who they were dancing for: mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, dear friends, “my pappy.” On stage alone, the words carried the weight of family histories past and present, and hinted at the lexicon of illness and grief–“in honor of, in memory of, dedicated to”–instantly recognizable to those familiar with it. It also gave a window into the scope of the disease, which was why the benefit was able to get 31 of some of the best dancers in the City, so many that they could barely fit on the stage for final bows.

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But perhaps the most powerful introduction was co-producer Erin Fogarty choking up as she tried to introduce the show and her connection to the cause. I did not get emotional during the opening, diligently taking notes during the dancers’ histories and swelling music, but when Erin started tearing up, I did too. Fogarty’s speech reminded us of the reality of the disease, rather than the pink ribbons and constant optimism that can surround discussions about cancer. The Dance Against Cancer fundraiser, which raised $96,000 for the American Cancer Society, is a successful charity event, but it’s also a nice break from the aggressive cheeriness that takes place at many events for cancer. While I support any and all efforts to fight the disease, I cannot relate to positivity that never wavers, and furthermore find it can be harmful to cancer patients themselves. (As David Rakoff said of the “I’m going to chemotherapy in my sky-high Jimmy Choo’s” outlook: “What you’re essentially saying is that if you can’t enact a Sex in the City episode on your way to cancer treatment, then it’s somehow your fault.” ) Instead, the Dance Against Cancer benefit manages to strike a balance that celebrates the effort to fight cancer and the fight of so many patients and families, while also recognizing the hardships so many of these families have faced.

Dancers, who spend years working to learn and control an ever-changing body, also bring a different perspective to an illness that is, in a way, the body turning on itself. Watching as both a dancer and the daughter of a breast-cancer survivor, I was struck by the performers’ ability to express the range of human experience, and the body’s inextricable role in that experience. We saw love at its first strike, in the pas de deux from Carousel with Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild and a Cinderella excerpt with Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada. We saw love after a lifetime, in the tender Lar Lubovtich duet “Concerto 622” between Clifton Brown and Attila Joey Csiki. And we saw grief in Nacho Duato’s “Jardi Tancat,” for Ballet Hispanico, and “With These Words,” a Frederick Earl Mosley solo for Matthew Rushing.

There were too many fantastic dancers and dances to name them all, and also many unique pleasures in the program, including Wendy Whelan in works by both Martha Graham and Christopher Wheeldon (is there nothing this woman can’t do?) and near back-to-back performances of pieces of Swan Lake from the New York City Ballet and Lil Buck. The event also included an auction, perhaps most notably Andrea Selby’s gorgeous drawings and watercolors of the dancers, made in real time as they performed onstage.

The strongest performers of the night were those who explored both the fragility and the strength of their instruments, capturing the full capacity of the human body. Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, the face of Memphis jookin, included moments of struggle alongside effortless fluidity and grace in his first improvisation. His style indicates not just control but isolation of different parts of his body, while toying with the audience’s expectations of what he should and shouldn’t be able to do. By the time he finished his version of “The Swan,” bending his body into an unbelievable position, there were audible gasps.

Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre Principal, covered an even broader range in her solo “Paganini” by Marcelo Gomes. Alternately focused and frustrated, Copeland exerts an incredible level of control over her own body; even her pointe shoes seem to bend to her will. Despite her strength, her legs sometimes appeared to move on their own, and Copeland had to fight to get them back. While she grew weary, and sometimes gave up, she always came back, and it was this back and forth that reminded me of the cause and the patients we were all supporting. She ended en pointe with her leg extended all the way up to her head, triumphant. This was the image that stayed with me: our body will change many times in our lifetime and bring us joy and grief, but at its best–see what the body can do!

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Written by Claire Salant

Claire Salant discovered dance when she was six years old in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She moved to New York to go to Barnard College, where she studied history, math, and dance. She is freelance dancer in New York, academic teacher to students of all ages, and she occasionally finds ways to combine the two. Currently she is working through a dance injury, and is therefore engaging the dance world off her feet rather than on them!