Dancing to Heal: Martha Eddy Created a Movement Class to Counter the Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Martha Eddy (at center, in orange) leads a Moving For Life class in NYC. Photos by Angelida Vanessa, courtesy of MFL

As Melinda Teutschel begins teaching an early afternoon Moving For Life class in Pleasant Hill, California, the dancers stand in a circle and close their eyes. “We're going to find our breath," she says. They move from a gentle warm-up through exercises that isolate and coordinate legs and arms, to a flowy aerobic section focused on balance and strength-building, then scatter to the walls for stretching. It takes a careful eye to realize that the program is created specifically for breast cancer patients, because, well, the participants are having so much fun. But this class is meticulously designed to be therapeutic, as well as invigorating.

It is clear, however, that this has evolved beyond a movement class into a supportive community. When one student, who has had recent foot surgery, needs to elevate her leg, others offer ice, pillows and a blanket. Another who has had recent reconstructive surgery confers with Teutschel and rejoins the class with minor modifications.


Moving For Life is an innovative program for breast cancer patients created by Martha Eddy in 1999. Eddy drew upon her knowledge of physiology, deep understanding of movement science and somatic education and the compassionate soul of an artist in creating MFL, which has spread beyond its New York roots across the U.S. to Japan, Canada and the Netherlands.

The initial concept, not surprisingly, came from a breast cancer patient herself. Dr. Allison (Annie) Stern Rosen was fatigued, depressed and struggling to get off the couch after surgery and radiation. She flipped on the TV and saw exercise guru Richard Simmons. Although she wasn't strong enough to do many of the exercises, she swayed to the music. After 10 minutes, she was surprised to feel better. From this came an idea: Why not create an exercise DVD for people recovering from breast cancer? Rosen turned to Jan Albert, a friend, television producer and documentary filmmaker. Albert knew Martha Eddy, a certified movement analyst trained in Laban/Bartenieff studies and licensed Body-Mind Centering teacher, who also has an EdD in movement science and education from Columbia University.

Eddy spent hours talking with Rosen about the symptoms of breast cancer treatment, which can include joint pain, peripheral neuropathy and lymphedema. Each symptom impacted how Eddy designed the class. “That's where my expertise in somatic movement came in really beautifully," she says. “Annie'd say her joints hurt, and she didn't want to get down on the floor or do level changes. She also said, 'I've got fire feet,' which is peripheral neuropathy. From chemotherapy, the nerves in people's feet become a little numb or overly sensitive. In either case, it throws off balance. The third symptom she had was lymphedema, or swelling particularly of the lymph nodes."

Eddy drew upon the diverse elements of her own training to design the class. “From my kinetic studies of Body-Mind Centering, I understood how to help lymphatic fluid flow as well as how to calm the nerves. And through my understanding of movement therapy, I was able to design exercises to meet each of those issues. Because of my background in exercise physiology, I could create a program that is gradated and safe. I used the dance education knowledge to parallel the use of the music to the gradation for the aerobic effect, and to make it fun."

MFL centers around a set “classic" class that progresses through specific exercises set to music. Eddy piloted it at Teachers College, Columbia University, with breast and ovarian cancer patients. When Rosen and Albert realized how expensive creating a video would be, they tabled the idea. But Eddy had already designed the class, so she took it to hospitals and cancer support programs in New York City.

She was ahead of the curve; most other cancer exercise programs then shied away from an aerobic component. For Eddy, it was essential. “The number-one side effect to cancer is fatigue," she explains. “But exercise combats fatigue. It's the same way that working with weights strengthens muscles. You tax the muscles, and when they heal they come back stronger. It's the same with cells. Unless you actually work yourself into the target heart range, they don't get taxed, so they don't work to become more efficient."

The class was successful enough that Eddy soon needed to train other teachers. She had already created her own teacher-training program called Dynamic Embodiment, blending elements of Laban/Bartenieff work and Body-Mind Centering; this program became the initial source of teachers for MFL. As the program has expanded beyond New York City, Eddy has set prerequisites for the teacher-training that can be completed elsewhere. Students then attend 30 MFL classes as apprentice teachers, complete a pedagogical workshop in New York and take an exam. In all, it's about 100 hours of training.

The training is comprehensive enough to enable teachers to adapt the “classic" class to fit the needs of their students. “We are also trained to be improvisational," says Teutschel, who completed MFL's teacher-training program in 2004 and started classes in the Bay Area in 2010. “So we have tons of tools in our basket to address many different students." Teutschel calls the students in her Pleasant Hill class her rotator-cuff group. “They've all either had surgery or are in line to," she says, “so we do a lot of experiential anatomy, learning how the shoulder girdle works. They soak it up because they know that it's helping them." Teutschel thinks this self-knowledge is one of the most valuable lessons of MFL. “The healing process entails education," she says. “This is highly educational, but it's accessible."

As Teutschel's class in Pleasant Hill comes to a close, one of the dancers turns to a friend. “We all know how important exercise is," she says. “I'm beating this. Psychologically it's so empowering." DT

San Francisco–based Caitlin Sims is a former editor in chief of Dance Teacher.

In August, the initial vision of Rosen, Albert and Eddy was finally realized with a professionally produced DVD, Moving For Life, Dance to Recovery, which includes a 50-minute workout, a seated exercise class, a dance lesson and interviews with participants and doctors, plus health tips. movingforlife.org

From Student to Teacher

Catherine Gross came to Moving For Life as a participant and was so transformed by her experience that she became a MFL teacher.

Catherine Gross was introduced to Moving For Life while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. “I felt at home right away," she says. “It was safe; it was organic. The fact that I could move made a huge difference psychologically." Gross appreciated the fact that the class could adjust to her changing needs during recovery, and that it was tailored specifically for breast cancer patients.

The class buoyed her spirits as well as strengthened her body. “I felt uplifted. The music was fun. And it was a place where we focused on what can we do, as opposed to what are the problems. It was getting back to who we really are, our own essence, our own bodies, our spirits. You can lose that when you are dealing with surgery and chemotherapy."

She immediately wanted to learn more and eventually trained to become a MFL teacher. “I felt there was so much that was deep within it," she says. “You learn how to tap into your internal energy through rhythm and music. I thought that was so powerful."

When asked if she brings something extra to teaching because of her own experience as a patient, she demurs. “I think that all the MFL teachers are very sensitive to students' needs," she says. She acknowledges it can be inspiring for students to see the journey she has taken from student to teacher. And that she understands completely the feeling of having the world turned upside down by a cancer diagnosis.

MFL classes can be a respite from all that. “You're moving, and for a moment you're really forgetting about it," she says. “Being able to express how something is feeling nonverbally is so healing. It's a positive way of getting back into your life and getting back into your body."


Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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