After graduating from Towson University in 2014, aspiring professional ballerina Margaret “Maggie” Kudirka earned a spot in the Joffrey Ballet Concert Group (JCG), a touring company of student performers. Four years later, she has been featured in publications ranging from Dance Magazine to the Baltimore Sun to People—but not quite for the reasons anyone expected.
Shortly after starting with JCG, Maggie was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She put her career on hold and moved home to Maryland to begin receiving treatment. While there, she built a social media following as the “Bald Ballerina,” which today has become a community, a support network, and a platform, all in one, for Maggie to share her experience with others. I got to hear from Maggie about her love for dance, her treatment experience, her mission, and the upcoming ‘No One Can Survive Alone: A Fundraiser Concert for the Bald Ballerina.’
MSM: What do you love about dance?
MK: I was speech delayed as a child, and dance was my escape and became my way to express myself. Over the years, dance has continued to be my escape. After my diagnosis, dance allowed me to forget about having cancer and just do what I love.
MSM: Growing up as a dancer, what styles of dance and ballet did you study?
MK: I studied ballet, pointe, jazz, musical theater, tap, character, lyrical, and modern. When I was 12, I began more serious study of ballet with Russian ballerina Olga Tozyiakova, who followed the Vaganova syllabus [a technique known for its precision, power, and strength].
MSM: I would love to hear more about your first months dancing with the Joffrey Concert Group. What would a week in the company look like for you?
MK: Dancing with the Joffrey Concert Group (JCG) was very much like being in a regular company. We would have ballet class at 9:00 a.m., then we would start rehearsals. Rehearsals would usually start around 11:00 a.m. and end around 4:30-5:00 p.m., and we would get a one-hour break for lunch. The entire company learned every piece and every spot that was performed. We never knew when we would have to step in because of injury. We would rehearse six days a week, sometimes seven, depending on whether a choreographer was coming in or we were getting ready for a show or tour.
MSM: As frequent a diagnosis as cancer is, I imagine many people around you don’t know how chemotherapy feels. What do you wish people knew about the experience?
MK: It feels like any other IV treatment. Chemotherapy causes your taste buds to change and gives all food a metallic taste. There are so many different chemo drugs that it is hard to generalize to all cancer patients. Almost all of them cause fatigue, which doesn’t improve after rest like the normal fatigue we experience. Some cause neuropathy, intestinal problems, hair loss, memory problems, anemia, etc.
I would like your readers to realize that not all illnesses are visible. While I love looking and feeling healthy, the reality is that I still have terminal breast cancer; I am still in treatment; and I could go from healthy to needing chemo or surgery or radiation in the blink of an eye. Before judging folks who appear “healthy” for using disability “perks,” remember that they may have a medical condition that you cannot see. Every one of us would gladly give up those perks to be 100 percent healthy.
MSM: How has your involvement with dance evolved throughout your treatment cycles? When you first began treatments, were you able to dance? Has this changed since starting to receive maintenance treatments?
MK: My doctors encouraged to me to keep dancing. They said it would help the chemotherapy kill the cancer cells and keep side effects at bay. I began chemotherapy on July 1st, 2014. I danced when I had the energy and strength to dance. I am still able to dance through maintenance treatments when I have time and energy.
When I was first diagnosed, my breast cancer had spread extensively to my bones throughout my sternum, spine, and pelvis, creating lacy holes where the cancer had eaten away the bone. Fortunately, the drug cocktail my oncologist chose stopped the cancer. However, as the bones rebuilt, they thickened and hardened, becoming sclerotic. I found I lost flexibility in my spine and on one side of my pelvis. I can no longer lift my leg above 90 degrees on one side, and my back-bending ability is extremely limited.
Don’t be scared to be loved, cared for, or to struggle in front of others. This will be part of your strength.
MSM: Have you felt supported and cared for throughout your treatment?
MK: The dance community has been extremely supportive of me from the very beginning of my cancer diagnosis. After dance bloggers shared my story, I was especially touched to receive many donations to help with medical bills from dancers, many of whom I had never met. The professional dancers appearing in my benefit donated their time and artistry. Dance suppliers have donated shoes, leotards, costumes, and stretching equipment to me. Photographers have donated their time and talent to get very moving dance images of me. Studio directors have invited me to give master classes and dance competitions have invited me to speak at their events. I am incredibly honored and proud to be part of such a warm and supportive community.
MSM: Can you tell me about the moment you decided to start Bald Ballerina? What was your motivation?
MK: Before I went public with my story, I received a very compassionate email from Brian McSween, the assistant artistic director of the Joffrey Concert Group. He urged me not to dwell on discovering “why” this happened because I would never learn the answer. He gave me this very moving encouragement: “You will cry, you will need people, you will hurt, you will be consumed by fear, but none of these things will be new to you, because you have faced them in your dancing already. Don’t be scared to be loved, cared for, or to struggle in front of others. This will be part of your strength.”
So, just as I had often taken Mr. McSween’s notes following a rehearsal or performance, I once again internalized his good advice, and a few days later, the Bald Ballerina was born. I found that I drew tremendous strength from the many caring messages I received. At first, it was just from people I knew, but then the movement grew, and grew and grew. I began hearing from strangers who reached out to me; some shared personal stories of battles with cancer; others sent prayers, encouragement, and positive energy. Each communication touched my heart and gave me strength. Realizing that so many people cared about me and my life was very uplifting. I am humbled by their generosity and filled with extraordinary gratitude.
MSM: Often people don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer, is receiving treatment, or is recovering. What is something that’s helpful for you to hear? What actions help you feel the way you want to feel as a person?
MK: First, don’t avoid a friend who has cancer because you don’t know what to say. There is no magic word or phrase we are expecting. Reaching out to let them know you care means a lot; even if you have lost touch for years, reach out. It’s never too late. After my diagnosis, I quickly learned who my real friends were.
One thing that is annoying to hear is “How are you feeling?,” because there is no easy answer. If I’m not feeling well, I don’t want to launch into a long description of my complaints. But if I say “fine,” I’m sometimes not believed.
Please treat us like nothing is out of the ordinary. Please include us in any events, plans, or projects. We will let you know if it may be more than we can handle. Many cancer patients, particularly those who live alone, are very lonely. Meeting occasionally for coffee or a movie can be very beneficial.
It is better to ask what they need help with or just to help with little things like bringing the family dinner during treatment days or if there are children taking the kids out of the house so that the person can rest and recover. Sometimes a patient, particularly one who lives alone, needs help getting to treatments or appointments.
MSM: What can our readers expect in your upcoming concert at Howard Community College?
MK: The program is an interesting mix of dance genres performed primarily by professional dancers, as well as students from leading dance schools in Maryland and Virginia. There will be four world premieres created especially for this benefit, including:
- Twist of Fate, a new work danced by the Bad Boys of Ballet and me, choreographed by Adrienne Canterna
- A solo danced by Adrienne Canterna, choreographed by Jon Ole Olstad
- Her Cosmic Stardust, a self-choreographed solo about eternity and how all of life is interconnected
- The Finale, choreographed by Adrienne Canterna, including all the professional dancers set to “Another One Bites the Dust.” This song is my personal cancer anthem. I visualize my cancer cells dying whenever I hear this song.
Our performers include medalists at the International Ballet Competition (considered the Olympics of Ballet) and professional performers trained at the Edna Lee Dance Studio in Linthicum and the Boston Ballet. Several stars from reality TV dance shows will also appear: The Bad Boys of Ballet, who were semi-finalists on Season 9 of America’s Got Talent, and Jourdan Epstein, an NYC-based dancer who was a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance.
There will also be two very special performances. Riley Marshall is a 12-year-old dancer who, three years ago, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that she named Roger. Like me, Riley continued dancing while undergoing chemo. She is my Bald Ballerina Junior. The second special performance will be to honor Kiersten Walko, who was killed by a hit and run driver a few months ago. Kiersten had danced in my past benefit shows, and her friends have created special pieces to honor her memory and spirit. A portion of the raffles will go to Riley’s and Kiersten’s families.
MSM: Lastly, how can our readers best support you and your mission?
MK: Please come to the concert if you can—I promise you won’t be disappointed. You can follow me on social media, and if you can, please donate to help with medical expenses not covered by insurance on www.youcaring.com/BaldBallerina.
MSM: Thank you so much, Maggie!
Maggie Kudirka presents the fourth annual ‘No One Can Survive Alone: A Fundraiser Concert for the Bald Ballerina’ at Howard Community College Smith Theater on Sunday, January 14, from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Reception to follow with refreshments and the opportunity to meet the performers. Find the event information on Facebook or email baldballerina [at] gmail.com to purchase your tickets today.
Running Time: Approximately four hours, including intermission.