The most exhilarating thing about dance is that it offers the freedom to explore movement and, for a moment, hold the world in the palm of your hand. I love to dance. I love the art. I love teaching and the opportunity it gives me to create something new, something different and never seen before.
At age 5, I dreamed of becoming an actress, writer and dancer. I grew up watching Debbie Allen on “Fame.” She, in addition to the television series, inspired me. In my early teen years, I attended Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Jamaica, Queens. Our end-of-the-year recitals were held at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. I was a young girl growing up in New York City with big dreams and hopes for my future. I auditioned for the Fiorello H. Laguardia High School of Performing Arts in dance and drama but did not get into the school.
When I was 22 years old and living in Pensacola, Florida, I found the courage to start the Dare to Dream Dance Company. Inspired to teach children and people of all ages to reach for their dreams through poetry and dance, I wanted Dare to Dream to be different. Life’s Little Instruction Book, a gift given to me by a former dance teacher, says to look at what everyone else is doing and then do something different. I came up with the idea that each student would have a voice at every performance. Dancers would stand before the audience and say what their dreams were for themselves and for the world. I, too, would stand before each audience and recite poetry and prose I’d written in the hopes of inspiring everyone to love one another and accomplish their own dreams. I have always taught my students that bad things sometimes happen, but don’t allow them to keep you from accomplishing your dreams.
In 1995, I married Thomas Messe, a family practice doctor stationed in Pensacola, and became a navy wife. Military moves afforded me the opportunity to teach Dare to Dream at other duty stations, including Groton, Connecticut, and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I prayed really hard for a little ballerina and God sent us our daughter Gabrielle in 1999 during a second tour in Pensacola. While stationed in Groton, I taught Dare to Dream at a local community center for military dependents and I choreographed and acted in a production at Brown University. I also won a Louie Award for one of my greeting cards. (I started a greeting card company, Charnette Messe Embracing Life, the year before.)
I taught dance at existing dance schools and community centers in the other cities where we were stationed. My students and I performed at Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center, Universal Studios and the National Museum of Naval Aviation. We also performed at several nursing homes, community events, schools and hospitals. My dance students and I were also guests on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Life was beautiful. I was living a dream.
Then, one morning, I was taking a shower and felt a lump under my left arm. I had always made regular doctor visits and conducted breast self-exams. Another young mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer while breast-feeding told me to protect myself, so I demanded a mammogram. I had no idea what I was about to face. A radiologist reviewed the films and said I had highly suspicious malignant calcifications with metastases to the lymph nodes under my arm. When I asked the doctor if I would see my then 3-year-old daughter grow up, he looked at me and said, “Possibly not.” He, along with several other doctors, suggested I’d get maybe five years.
The day after my cancer was confirmed I learned I was pregnant. I had a mastectomy of my left breast and chemotherapy in the second trimester. I was 31 years old trying to figure out how I would embrace life bald and pregnant with one breast in a leotard. My life became a different kind of dance. In an effort to demonstrate that no one is too young or too old for breast cancer, I went public. On October 2, 2002, I shared my story on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” In 2004, I created Beautiful in Pink, an event designed to embrace those with breast cancer and bring awareness to those not diagnosed.
After my son Christian was born in 2002, I went on to have radiation and further chemotherapy treatment. I was cancer-free for four years. On March 1, 2006, I learned my cancer had returned to both lungs and the lymph nodes in my neck. I now have metastatic breast cancer, which means my cancer is no longer considered curable. I have chosen to do conventional chemotherapy along with alternative medicine.
Currently, I am living in Pace, FL, and teaching at Whiting Pines Community Center. My cancer is stable and I am able to teach dance, care for my children and myself, and enjoy life. I have recently started playing tennis, and plan to start a unique dance class for my son, who is now 4 years old and a healthy, handsome little boy.
There is a freedom that comes with being a dancer, a freedom I find exhilarating and poignant, and that gives me an opportunity to endure cancer and, with my faith in God, continue to choreograph my own footsteps. Life is not about how many fouettés you can do or how perfect your pirouettes are. Life is about the fact that we’ve had the courage to do them in the first place. I have always believed that it is not the amount of time we live, but rather what we do with our time while we are here. I believe with my whole heart that life, regardless of our circumstances, is beautiful.
I am grateful for the many military and civilian families that have dared to dream with me. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, a good friend sent me a CD and companion book titled I Hope You Dance. If cancer or any obstacle interrupts your life, I hope you dance—and do so brilliantly. DT