Student dancers who learned their first steps in Fair Haven School’s auditorium returned to perform for a woman preparing to take her last.
They danced for a New Haven heroine, Mnikesa Whitaker.
After 12 years of teaching at Fair Haven School, Whitaker is retiring. She is suffering from systemic scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that doctors said should have killed her by now. (Read an in-depth story about her life and how she kept the program going despite her physical condition, here). At 36 years old, she continues to defy all odds and squeezes all the living she can out of each day she has left, though she is no longer able to remain in the classroom.
Sundays her colleagues and students she has taught for years gathered to pay her tribute, in word and in motion.
Fair Haven Principal Margaret Gethings teared up in her opening address Sunday as she described working with Whitaker, and how her gift of teaching had completely changed the fabric of education in the school. Whitaker was first an English teacher at the middle school. Then in December 2011, she took her gift of teaching a little further outside of the classroom: to the stage.
“All of the color that is in her wardrobe is also all the color in her heart,” Gethings said.
A classically trained dancer, Whitaker wanted to develop in her students the “discipline and determination” that her own dance training had taught her. In December 2011, she developed BalletHaven, a dance program for students at the middle school. It became a hit, drawing dozens of neighborhood kids of all background to her rigorous after-school lessons.
On Sunday, the discipline and determination of her students returned to greet her at a dance showcase in honor of her work, called “An Audience Awaits.”
When Jousabeth Lopez, Melady Morocho, Alondra Martinez, Ingrid Rodriguez, and Oyuku Paredes finished a composition, Whitaker leapt to her feet shouting in admiration of the work of the girls. They now study dance at the Educational Center of the Arts. Not too long ago, they started out at BalletHaven.
“To think they came up with all of that themselves: the choreography, the costumes, the music, everything,” Whitaker said. “It made it one of the best pieces in the show.”
Her pride was not to end there, as more of her current and past students took to the stage to honor her. One example: Isabelle Firine performed her own choreography to Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down” to celebrate Whitaker’s recent engagement to life coach Justin Haaheim.
Speaking of Haaheim and others, Whitaker said the people around her have kept her going. As her lungs continue to diminish, she has trouble breathing when humidity is high. So having support of people who understand is crucial. So often, she said, she encounters people who don’t know anything about the disease, so it is hard to convey a true reflection of the effects.
“It may be an invisible disease, but it’s not invisible to the person who suffers from it.”
Guest performances from local respected companies such as New Haven Ballet Company and the Connecticut Ballet Center Repertory Class provided a further celebration of the craft to which Whitaker has dedicated so much of her life.
It was not easy for her to sit and watch.
“At first, it was kind of uncomfortable to see all of this done for me, when I would never do anything like that for myself,” she said.
This humility ran through the conversation of Sunday, as her previous students spoke of how Whitaker’s upbeat nature in her time of struggle has inspired them to understand a fuller meaning of life.