Healing HeARTS: how a Las Vegas mother-daughter duo conquered cancer with the help of Dance, and eac
Updated: Mar 8, 2019
Nevada Ballet Theatre (NBT) continued its annual tradition of performing The Nutcracker in December, sharing sugarplum fairies, dancing dolls and the Land of Sweets with Las Vegas audiences. It was my great privilege to escort young Kennedy Aitken and her mom, Kim, to our first performance of this classic ballet at The Smith Center thanks to the generosity of my good friend, Jack Gaughan -- who conducted the live musical accompaniment to NBT’s production for the sixth time.
Jack’s experience with the classic Tchaikovsky score goes back to age 7, when he performed it at a piano recital. His first time conducting it for a ballet was in the mid-1970s. But this isn’t a story about how Jack started his music career. It’s the story of a local dancing duo: the young Las Vegas girl – a cancer survivor who just started taking ballet and jazz classes– and her mom, who first danced in NBT’s Nutcracker in the early 80’s (when she herself was only in 4th grade)!
Kennedy and I first met in 2013, when we were matched up during the annual Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) "Man & Woman of the Year" event – a philanthropic competition to support blood cancer research among a group of motivated and dedicated individuals in communities across the United States. Candidates form fundraising teams and compete in honor of two local children who are blood cancer survivors.
Kennedy is now healthy, strong and a beautiful young lady -- celebrating 5-years off of chemo. She also continues giving back to help others as the national face of the LLS "Pennies for Patients" campaign this year! LLS is the world's largest voluntary health organization dedicated to fighting blood cancer.
Her mom, Kimberly Hollingshead Aitken, is a Las Vegas native who has been the Dance Instructor/Choreographer at Durango HS since 1998. She danced in The Nutcracker when it was still being presented at the Judy Bayley Theatre at UNLV’s Performing Arts Center. Performing with NBT’s professional company allows students the opportunity to improve their performance skills, enhance their knowledge of the classical repertoire and receive the opportunity to share the stage with professional dancers.
I asked Kennedy and Kim to share about the role that dance plays in their lives...
When and why did you actually start dancing/teaching dance?
Kim: I started dancing when I was 5 with Carter dance academy and then transferred to Nevada Ballet Theatre when I was 7. I started dancing because I love to dance; music comes on and my body just starts to move. I had to choose (eventually) between dance and gymnastics (for a long while I did both) and dance won hands down. I loved performing in The Nutcracker and a couple of other ballets presented by NBT. Choosing dance as a career was just an obvious choice for me. Dance is my passion and I get to live what I love every day and hope to help new generations love dance as much as I do!
Kennedy: I love to dance, too. I took a dance class when I was younger, but I was going through chemotherapy for my Leukemia so I had to stop because I was just too tired all the time and had too many doctors’ appointments and hospital stays. So I am very excited to finally be able to take dance classes again. I am taking Jazz and Ballet and just love them both so much!
Academy of Nevada Ballet Theatre students perform as part of The Nutcracker ensemble
What motivates you to continue dancing/teaching dance today?
Kim: Dance is my happy place. For me, dancing just always brings a smile to my face and makes me feel so accomplished when I teach and finish a piece and it seems to make my students feel the same. This is such a therapeutic art form. Even if I am not having the best day, dancing helps take my troubles away. Seeing my students love dance and come away with a new life-long activity that they didn't think they could do is probably my biggest motivator.
Kennedy: My love for dance keeps me motivated. I love learning new choreography and feel great when I learn and perform a new routine. It is just so much fun!
What are some of the biggest challenges that you've faced over the years you've been dancing/teaching dance?
Kim: There are occasional injuries that are a struggle when you are a dance teacher. So it’s important to listen to your body and utilize the talents of your students to demonstrate when your own body isn't at full working potential. And there are some students that don't really want to be there, because I teach in a high school and not a studio. As much as that blows my mind (since I love dance) it is a struggle when a student doesn't want to be there and does everything in their power to make sure I know that. Otherwise, I really love my job and have no complaints -- except that my school day starts at 7:00 am, so that makes for a super early start to my day for the past 21 years!
Kennedy: None, so far, so fun!
Would you say that dance/teaching dance -- or the arts in general -- had any impact on Kennedy's healing and recovery process?
Kim: Kennedy has always been a fixture at my school, all my kids have been. Fortunately, as the dance teacher, we have been able to use the dance forum as a way to give back to those who have helped Kennedy on her cancer journey [Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) and Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada (Candlelighters)]. I do believe that has helped in her recovery (especially the mental/emotional impact cancer has on kids). Kennedy loves to give back. She is a very generous soul, and using the dance shows as fundraisers and getting on stage at my school to perform on fundraiser nights, or just being her cute self has helped her feel that her going through cancer was not in vain. She can help others going through the same thing and that is very healing for her and our whole family.
Did the arts serve any therapeutic purpose for you, as a mother, during Kennedy's illness and subsequent treatment?
Kim: Dance was exceedingly therapeutic for me. Initially, when Kennedy was first diagnosed, my students were AMAZING!!! Especially my dance team! They were all very understanding of my time away while she was in the hospital and they were all in on doing the fundraiser performances and dance specials for her. It was hard having to still work, but bills had to be paid. Fortunately my husband switched to a swing shift at the exact time of her diagnosis, so she always had a parent with her and the other one at work so we didn't lose our home or suffer devastating financial hardship as many families going through this do. But since I loved my job and my students were so supportive, it definitely helped me be able to go to work and then hurry back home to her. I choreographed dances that year that all spoke of strength, hope, love and support which was a great outlet for me to be able to heal as well through my choreography.
Any unexpected or comical moments while you were performing/teaching dance?
Kim: One big one was unexpectedly ripping my right hamstring during a dress rehearsal in which I was performing a piece I choreographed to honor my husband who had passed away in 2012. I still performed the piece both nights of the show because it was so vitally important to me to do so, but I have never experienced that level of physical pain (except maybe in child birth). Everyday something fun or funny happens, I laugh a lot (mostly at myself) but I try to keep everything pretty light and fun in my class. These kids have so much stress with their academic classes, my goal is for my class to be a positive, fun, happy outlet for them each day.
What are your takeaways from The Nutcracker performance that you recently attended?
Kim: Takeaways from The Nutcracker I just attended are that awesome sets and lighting make a huge difference. This show at the Smith Center was phenomenal and the sets and special effects added so much to the overall experience. The dancers were fantastic; I was especially impressed by Clara. Clara was very talented. I don't know if she was Junior Company or a professional dancer, that's how good she was! Another takeaway was that The Nutcracker is a timeless and beautiful piece and each choreographer's touch is beautiful. I am super glad that James Canfield’s choreography still made the Russian number super fun and exhilarating!
Academy of Nevada Ballet Theatre student Lilly Hale with NBT Company Artist David Hochberg
What would be your wishes for yourself, other dancers, or dance programs in Las Vegas for the New Year?
Kim: My wish for all dancers (those who know they are, think they are or would love to be) is to keep dancing! Jump up to the credit music at the end of movies and boogie as fun and crazy as possible. I would love for all dance programs to feel supported in every way and know that what they are doing does make a difference in the lives of those they encounter, whether they ever hear that themselves or not. Dance is beautiful, uplifting, helps keep us in shape and brightens our spirits! I hope everyone finds joy in dancing this year and every year.
Beyond our local community, ballet is enjoying soaring popularity as a new generation discovers its physical, mental and social benefits. As for The Nutcracker, there are some valuable statistics in Dance/USA's recent eJournal article "Nutcracker Again?"
In an analysis from Dance/USA's Annual Survey covering the past 10 years (2008-2017) of The Nutcracker, 16 to 24 Dance/USA member companies surveyed reveal the following trends:
Nutcracker ticket sales amongst survey respondents represented $51M in 2017 versus $30M in 2008.
Dance companies have had to add, on average, two more performances per season to meet the demand, which is a 29 percent increase in number of performances.
Attendance has increased by 14 percent, or more than 83,000.
Average ticket prices have almost doubled since 2008 and attendance has increased.
Marketing spent as a percentage of ticket sales has remained at 10 percent to 12 percent on average.
Nevada Ballet Theatre's 2019 'Nutcracker' ensemble
From the introduction of The Nutcracker to the American stage 74 years ago to today, it has become undeniably a tradition to both ballet aficionados and general theater audiences. The Nutcracker is predominantly how most people are initially introduced to the art of dance and theater. It is often the first moment that a little girl or boy dreams of becoming Clara or the Nutcracker Prince. That first seed planted in the imagination of that child has led to some of the world’s greatest performers, whether they make their careers in dance, music or theater. It has become the foundation of multiple generations of performing arts supporters who return year after year with their families to see the magic that is The Nutcracker. That, if nothing else, is why The Nutcracker will never die. The past 20 years of data have shown it is sustainable if we are prepared to adapt to the ever-shifting changes in our world, cities, cultures and time.
So yes (I’m betting that Kennedy, Kim, Jack and I would agree)! Nutcracker again! Long live The Nutcracker!