“Nobody said dance was easy,” Mnikesa Whitaker told two dozen ballerinas struggling to hold plank pose. She asked them to find their strength—just as she does every day, facing a terminal illness that leaves her “fighting very hard not to die.”
Whitaker (at left in above photo), who’s 34, is a full-time English teacher at Fair Haven School. After school, she runs BalletHaven, a free dance program for girls in grades 5 to 8. During nights and weekends, she’s working towards her master’s in reading instruction.
All this she does in the face of a debilitating autoimmune disease that has left her in a race against time.
Whitaker said she had been waiting to get healthy to launch her dream of giving her students, mostly black and Hispanic and from low-income households, the same access to classical dance training that their suburban peers enjoy. As her health declined, she decided not to wait. She set about launching the program anyway. (Click on the video to hear more.)
Whitaker suffers from systemic scleroderma, a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy connective tissue. It is destroying her heart, lungs and gastrointestinal system. The illness is chronic, terminal, and coupled with related diseases that are eating away at her muscles and cutting off blood flow to her fingers. After undergoing two years of chemotherapy to no avail, she is now awaiting a lung transplant. Her afflictions “make the simple act of living perpetually painful,” she said, at a 9.5 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10.
One would never guess that to watch her glide across the stage of the Fair Haven School one recent afternoon. After teaching a full day of classes, Whitaker led two dozen young girls through a 90-minute class of classical training, capped by a contemporary dance piece she choreographed to be performed with visiting hip-hop violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain.
Dancers began by running laps around the auditorium. She directed them through a microphone—a tool she is supposed to use while teaching because she is slowly losing her vocal cords and the strength in her lungs.
“Why do I see walking?” she called out, her voice stern but not cold. Then she led her dancers through a series of strengthening exercises.
“Feel the burn!” she urged as her dancers held “plank,” a pushup position that requires a lot of abdominal strength. “If you don’t stay there, we’re going to have to do it again.”
“If you’re sweating, you’re doing it right,” she remarked during another pose.
“I’m very hard on them,” Whitaker later reflected. “I feel there are too many people who make excuses for them.”
By holding them to high expectations and supporting them along the way, Whitaker aims to develop shy girls into self-confident young women.
“I don’t do helpless,” she said.
Her mission, inscribed on kids’ hooded sweatshirts as a daily reminder, is for her dancers to leave Fair Haven School with the “discipline and dedication” they need to overcome the obstacles they will encounter in high school and beyond. Even seemingly unsurmountable obstacles—like the ones she has come across in her own life.
Whitaker, who’s from Dallas, Texas, started dancing at age 11. She grew up blessed with access to classical training, including several years at Princeton Ballet School in New Jersey. She kept dancing even when it meant being placed in classes with far younger girls. She and her twin sister enrolled at Southern Methodist University, a private university in Dallas, Texas, with a strong ballet program. Whitaker stuck with dance despite failing to make the cut for the competitive dance major.
The spring of her senior year, in 2001, just as she was starting to hit her stride on the dance floor, Whitaker got sick.
“I had trouble breathing,” she recalled. Her hands became blue and swollen. Doctors didn’t figure out what was wrong with her at first. There began a slow decline that would wreck her dreams of becoming a professional dancer.
Looking for a career besides dancing, Whitaker and her sister signed up to teach at a nearby public school district, becoming the fifth generation in their family to join the teaching profession.
Whitaker moved to New Haven in 2003, following a group of friends who had established a small faith community, and began working at Fair Haven School.
In 2004, when Whitaker was 24, her health situation got serious: Doctors determined she had lung disease and needed to start chemotherapy right away. She kept teaching while going through chemo for two long years, at which point doctors concluded it was not working.
Over the years, scleroderma has been tearing away at her connective tissue, scarring her lungs, making it hard to breathe.
It feels “like little men eating my muscles or chipping away my bones,” Whitaker said in an interview on the Fair Haven stage, stopping periodically to catch her breath. She had to go through menopause early, giving up hopes of motherhood. She said she is in pain “100 percent of the time.”
Whitaker said she believes if she had been healthy, “I could have lived the dancer’s life. But that wasn’t my life.”
“I feel a lot of grief,” she said. “I wonder what I could have done.” She said there is still so much in life she would like to do, though time is running short.
And instead of giving up, she has thrown herself into each day with all her energy.
“Teaching is where I get a lot of joy,” she said. “I cope through working.”
“Everybody, parents, friends, thought I was crazy for starting [the program], and I probably am,” she said in a video interview filmed by her friend, Melissa Kane, who is making a documentary about Whitaker. (Click on the video near the top of this story to watch.)
Whitaker said when she first spread the word about BalletHaven, she was floored to see over 60 girls flood her classroom for an informational session. To test their commitment, she made them answer three essay questions, including: “convince me you’re not going to quit.” To her surprise, 25 girls handed in responses the very next day. Another 25 later followed suit.
She launched the program in December 2011 with 22 girls, with the help of a $2,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Despite high expectations and demanding workouts, 21 of them made it through the first year. The program grew this year to 34 students. In addition to twice-weekly after-school sessions, Whitaker added a “pre-professional class” for more advanced dancers.
Last week, Whitaker led her dancers through traditional warmups at the barre with the help of visiting artist Jennifer Brubacher of the Elm City Dance Collective; precocious 8th-grade “assistant” Jousebeth Lopez; and Monica Bunton, a 2nd-grade bilingual teacher at Fair Haven School. The exercises were serious. One girl silently shed a tear during a demanding series of grand-plies.
“Do not put a death-grip on the barre,” Whitaker advised one girl as she made rounds, straightening backs, aligning legs, and offering encouragement.
She stopped to hug one student, 8th-grader Maria Rivera (pictured), who had made a breakthrough both in her ability to focus and in the execution of her demi-plies.
“You’ve been practicing,” Whitaker said, beaming at another. “I can tell.”
After the formal exercises, Whitaker made an announcement: A famous hip-hop violinist by the name of DBR (aka Daniel Bernard Roumain), who has performed alongside Lady Gaga, is coming to the school. “He’s going to be standing right here,” she said. “We have a chance to dance with him.” DBR will be working at Fair Haven and Davis Street schools as part of a residency with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.
Select few dancers—only those who can prove they’re ready—will be allowed to perform alongside DBR, she told them. The dance will be hard: “The song he’s going to play is very fast.” Dancers then found a place onstage and worked through the first “phrase” of seven moves Whitaker choreographed to accompany the song.
Whitaker, dressed in cowboy boots, patterned tights and a lacy white dress, demonstrated the moves from the front of the stage. Then she let her students try them out—over, and over—until they got the series.
Soon enough, it was time to jot down notes in student planners and catch late buses home.
Destinee Marotta (pictured) lingered to give her teacher a second hug of the day.
“I want to be a dancer,” she told Whitaker. “I want to be a teacher. Can I be like you?”
To see Whitaker’s dancers perform alongside violinist DBR and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, show up at Fair Haven School at 164 Grand Ave. on April 5 at 6 p.m. for a free concert. To make a donation to BalletHaven, visit this page.