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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Dance Educators Living With/Through Cancer (DEWC): A New Working Group

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Dr. Doug Risner, Professor of Dance, Wayne State University; Ruth Arena, Instructor of Dance, LeMoyne College; Meghan McLyman, Professor of Dance, Salem State University. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

Sitting on the receiving end of a cancer diagnosis is a place no one wants to be. However, the stark reality is that 40% of adults will hear these shocking words, “You have cancer.” Advances in modern medicine and cancer research have certainly increased survival rates, but the diagnosis and treatments remain challenging, often debilitating, and traumatic---even well after one is cancer free or in controlled remission. For dance educators in particular, cancer can have lasting effects on one’s physical and mental abilities that threaten their careers and livelihoods. At the same time, the life lessons learned through a dance practice can instill and provide skills that assist or facilitate dance educators’ meeting the challenges of disease and dis-ease.


In the summer of 2021, Dr. Doug Risner (Wayne State University) posted a call on the NDEO Online Forums to bring together dance educators navigating the challenges of cancer. Professor Ruth Arena (Le Moyne College) and Professor Meghan McLyman (Salem State University) quickly answered the call and the group, Dance Educators Living With/Through Cancer (DEWC) was formed along with six additional members who responded to the original call. Based on cancer types and members’ interests, the DEWC group was divided into three smaller subgroups who met regularly via Zoom for Phase I of the project. Without seeking defined end-goals or specific outcomes, the subgroups’ work resulted in three emergent themes: to share each other’s cancer stories, to connect with and support dance educators’ cancer experiences, and to assist those living with/through cancer and those who support them.

Additional members joined the DEWC group at various stages of their cancer journeys. Some were just finishing chemotherapy, while others had been in controlled remission for a number of years. One shared commonality among group members was the desire to better understand their lived experiences as dancers and dance educators with cancer, which developed into writing each member’s personal cancer narrative through the lens of a dance educator. The entry point of the writing process varied among members–some cancer stories were already published (for example, Risner, 2022) or presented, and others’ stories existed only in members’ memories and bodily knowledge.

Although writing one’s cancer stories presented challenges — sometimes triggering emotional distress and recollections associated with traumatic cancer experiences, at the same time, writing one’s cancer narrative also supported personal healing, group empathy, and social bonding. From such, writing and then reading each other's stories provided numerous opportunities for members to be heard and seen through “understanding eyes,” and served as the raw material for each subgroup’s exploration and research.

Living with/through cancer can be isolating and often frightening-- both for the patient –as well as their family members and caregivers. Persons on the outside often don’t know what to say or how to act. And further, the medical profession doesn’t necessarily understand innate body awarenesses of dancers and dance educators. Each subgroup developed their own unique approaches and methodologies: how they would work together, what they would create or produce, and what potential outcomes they anticipated.


Subgroup 1, composed of four female-identifying dance educators with breast cancer and one with rectal cancer, explored research on changes in one’s relationship with self/identity brought about by cancer diagnoses and treatment informed by their personal cancer stories. For example, how does being a dance educator influence the physical, emotional, and mental changes that accompany diagnosis and treatment both in the short and longer term? Based on this research question, subgroup 1 held focus groups for gathering information about dance educators’ physical, emotional, and spiritual relationships throughout their cancer journeys. Initial outcomes from focus group conversations indicate themes for further exploration: 1) to connect with others with similar experiences; and 2) to explore the short and long term impacts of cancer treatment on physical emotional and professional selves, particularly as people with heightened kinesthetic awareness and mobility. To these ends, subgroup 1 is currently exploring these themes and plan to submit a series of scholarly journal articles and popular publications.

Comprised of four female-identifying dance educators with diverse types of cancer, Subgroup 2 examined their body’s need for rest and recuperation, and how such conflicts with the unrelenting demands of dance educators’ careers, often obscured by “the show must go on!” attitudes. Three dominant questions emerged: 1) How can dance educators’ bodily knowledge contribute to healing, being respectfully heard and self-advocating when navigating the medical profession? 2) To what extent can somatic practices and alternative therapies complement Western medicine’s narrow approaches to cancer? And, 3) In what ways can dance educators effectively communicate their needs to oncologists for alternative treatment and rehabilitative therapies. For the 2022 NDEO National Conference in Atlanta, Subgroup 2 will present a movement workshop and panel discussion that aim to empower individual, collective and inclusive voices through presenters’ autoethnographic narratives of cancer.

Subgroup 3, with two male-identifying dance educators and researchers, elected to pursue scholarly publications employing autoethnographic approaches based upon their initial written cancer stories, and the book chapter, “Narratives on Dancing and Expiring: An “End of Life” Autoethnographic Essay” (Risner, 2022) published in Dancing Across the Lifespan (Musil, Risner, and Schupp, 2022). Emergent themes in the subgroup’s first journal article for Research in Dance Education, “Male Dance Educators Living With/Through Cancer: Duoethnographies on Disease and Dis-ease,” (Risner and Marlow, in press) center on public and private aspects of living with cancer and reflect the male authors’ cancer experiences in conjunction with their social, emotional and physical dis-ease arising from living cancered lives. A second article forthcoming, “Dance Educators Negotiating Masculinity and Cancer: Narratives of Recovery and Discovery” for Journal of Dance Education delves into physical and mental aspects of male dance educators’ embodied and discursive constructions of masculinity emerging from cancer-specific recovery, life-centered discovery, and their shifting identities as male dance educators.

As the Dance Educators Living With/Through Cancer (DEWC) working group evolves, long-term goals include empowering multiple and diverse voices in order to build a larger community of invested dance educators living with cancer and their care givers, and to support them in leading reflective and meaningful lives. Additional initiatives for the future include creation of an online site to house and disseminate personal narratives, conference presentations, journal articles, creative work, and resources. The DEWC leadership also contemplates a book publication of collected autoethnographic accounts, original research, and commentaries focused dance educators’ cancer journeys.

For more information, please contact Dr. Doug Risner at

References Musil, P., Risner, D., & Schupp, K. (2022). Dancing Across the Lifespan: Negotiating Age, Place and Purpose. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Risner, D. (2022). Narratives on Dancing and Expiring: An “End of Life: Autoethnographic Essay. In Musil, P., Risner, D., and K. Schupp (Eds.), Dancing Across the Lifespan: Negotiating Age, Place and Purpose (pp. 243-264). London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Risner, D. & Marlow, C. (2022, in press). Male Dance Educators Living With/Through Cancer: Duoethnographies on Disease and Dis-ease. Research in Dance Education.

Doug Risner, PhD. MFA, is Professor of Dance and Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Wayne State University where he directs the MA in Theatre & Dance Teaching Artistry program. Author and editor of eight books, his next book, Dancing Mind, Minding Dance; Professionally Relevant and Personally Resonant Dance Education (Routledge) will be published in early 2023.

Ruth Arena, B.FA, Instructor of Dance, Le Moyne College, performed with Dzul Dance in New York City, North Shore Dance Company, Chicago, and The Dance Academy of Santa Fe, NM. Ms. Arena teaches ballet, modern, choreography, jazz, injury prevention, and experiential anatomy, is passionate about human body movement and the intersections of dance and sciences.

Meghan McLyman, MFA, MA, is Professor of Dance at Salem State University (SSU), and former Chair of the Music and Dance Department, where she has been instrumental in creating the Bachelor of Arts degree in dance. SSU recognized her passion for teaching with the 2017 Distinguished Teaching Award, and she received the 2018 Arts Learning Distinguished Teaching and Arts Advocacy Award.

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:

Action Shot of Meghan McLyman - Eric Fisher

Action Shot of Dr. Doug Risner- Jon Anderson

Action Shot of Ruth Arena- Charles Wainwright

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