Photos By Hillary Ehlen
After 980 days of treatment, five-year-old Evelyn Ness strode into her Darby’s Dancers class with a t-shirt reading:
“This warrior princess kicked cancer’s butt. February 17, 2017 – October 23, 2019.”
The best way for young Evelyn to celebrate her first day of being cancer-free? Doing her favorite thing…going to dance class.
Throughout her treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), Evelyn got to take a break from the hospital and be a kid again thanks to one of Red River Dance’s outreach programs, Darby’s Dancers.
Darby’s Dancers is a national non-profit that provides children with special needs the opportunities to participate in the joy of dance, at no cost to their families. Red River Dance heard about this foundation nearly three years ago and established the first Darby’s Dancers chapter in the region, a program they have seen grow and grow since its inception.
“Starting [the program] three years ago, I believe we started with one or two classes at each level. And now we have adult classes all the way down to two-year-old classes,” said Caitlin Killoran, Red River Dance’s executive director. Thanks to generous donations and community support, Red River Dance offers free programs like the Darby’s Dancers classes to over 100 families.
Evelyn got to take part in the Darby’s Dancers program from virtually the start. Evelyn was introduced to the Darby’s Dancers program through Gigi’s Playhouse, a Down Syndrome achievement center with a local chapter. When Evelyn’s mother, Deanna Ness, heard about the program, she was instantly excited. “I had a huge dance background and I never thought my daughter would get the opportunity,” said Ness.
When the Ness family was introduced to Darby’s Dancers, Evelyn was in the thick of her cancer treatments. She spent the majority of each passing month in the hospital and wasn’t able to enjoy many of the things other toddlers her age could. But on the days she was not in treatment, Red River Dance provided her the freedom to dance, play and be joyful, despite it all.
“When she was out [of the hospital], she got to go to dance class and have some fun and be herself, not just this little cooped up bird that wants to fly. It’s given her the nice freedom to move and enjoy what she likes to do,” Ness said.
Evelyn’s mother remarked that she is touched by her daughter’s zest for dance, even in the midst of physical ailments. “I physically cannot even fathom how anybody wants to get up and go move and do what she does, but it is her drive. Even when she’s super, super sick,” said Ness. “To have that kind of passion and energy, even when you’re sick and in treatment, is something that’s unique and special to her.” Without the outlet of dance and these slots in time each week to let loose and have fun, it’s hard to say who Evelyn would be today.
One unique aspect of the Darby’s Dancers program is that each dancer gets paired with a volunteer, providing a one-on-one experience. Evelyn has had the pleasure of working with dance instructor Erin Christenson during her time in the program. Christenson began just volunteering at the classes as an assistant, but soon fell in love with the program and now teaches at Red River Dance in a full capacity of ways.
“It has been one of the coolest experiences that I’ve ever been a part of,” she shared. From dancing by Evelyn’s side in the first classes to celebrating with her the day she rang the cancer-free bell, Christenson has experienced the joy of watching the students develop and transform.
Red River Dance is participating in Giving Hearts Day to help ensure that these unique programs can expand and continue to be offered. Without funding and volunteers such as Christenson, the availability and breadth of specialty classes wouldn’t be possible. Killoran expressed how important it is to Red River Dance that these special programs are free of cost.
“Many of the people who are able to take these kinds of classes have other bills, they have other things going on. […]This shouldn’t be a burden on the family. This is something [Evelyn] loves, this is something she is able to do and that should be something that everyone should be able to enjoy,” Killoran said.
“As a parent, when you have to juggle, ok do I pay for tutoring? Or I have to work, so my kid can’t be picked up and taken anywhere. Or I choose to buy the medication…you feel like you’re cheating your kid. And you have to make that choice,” said Ness. “Red River Dance has afforded us to not to have to choose. They’ve given the parents the freedom to say, ‘You can have that dance class experience and I can still go to work and get you your other schooling needs and not have to worry about it.’”
Red River Dance prides itself in being able to offer dance to everybody, no matter their age, abilities or backgrounds. In addition to their Darby’s Dancers program, they also bring free dance classes to those at Bethany Retirement Living and to children in the Jeremiah Program and have also teamed up with organizations such as BIO Girls, the Boys and Girls Club and CHARISM. In instances where transportation or time is an issue, dance instructors from Red River Dance travel on location to teach, as is the case with the Bethany Retirement Living and Jeremiah Program classes.
They are firm believers that the joy of dance should be shared with anyone who wants to experience it.
To families like the Ness family, the ability to take part in this type of program that allows children to feel and act like any other child their age is huge. “Dance is for everyone. Evelyn is non-verbal, but through her dance, she can communicate more than anything. I think for a lot of these kids, they are able to communicate their needs and wants in life through their dance and they can express their joy,” added Ness. The beauty of dance is that it not only provides joy to the dancer, but it puts a smile on the face of everyone who is watching them. Anyone who has seen Evelyn dance particularly knows this to be true.
“Evelyn is the perfect example of what dance can do for you. She is just one of the many lives that we are fortunate enough to have a positive impact on and be here for them. And really be an outlet, whether they’re having the best day of their lives or they really just need to be a kid. She is one of many, but she is a great example of what we do here and what our purpose is,” said Killoran. To support dancers and dreamers like Evelyn, consider adding Red River Valley Dance to your Giving Hearts Day donation roster this year.
Red River Dance
2921 Fiechtner Drive South,
Fargo, ND 58103