Skip to main content

Millcreek Journal

Dancer vs. Cancer: How a local dance studio's scholarship program helps families overcome

Apr 27, 2020 02:03PM ● By Hannah LaFond

Ava Manwaring on her hospital bed during treatment. (Photo courtesy Jen Manwaring)

By Hannah LaFond | [email protected]

When Jen Manwaring signed her 2-year-old daughter, Ava, up for a dance class with Kim Luke at Artistic Endeavors Dance in Millcreek, she had no idea how much of an impact dance and Luke aka “Miss Kim” would have on Ava and their family.

It wasn’t long after Ava started dance class that her mother and Luke started to notice something was wrong. Each time Ava jumped in class she would cry and limp afterward. Manwaring thought maybe Ava might have injured her leg on the trampoline and took her to the urgent care. The doctors there scanned Ava’s leg from the knee down, but saw nothing of concern.

Manwaring recalled still having a strong feeling something was wrong, so she scheduled an appointment at the children’s hospital. There doctors gave Ava an MRI and diagnosed her with stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma.

“This was two weeks before her third birthday,” Manwaring said. “She had cancer in her abdomen, all up her spinal column, in her skull and all down her right leg.”

Some time after receiving the devastating news, Manwaring called Luke to inform her they wouldn’t be able to attend dance classes, because Ava would be going through cancer treatment.

Luke immediately offered to put Ava on her scholarship program. Unbeknownst to Manwaring, Luke already had a scholarship in place for families battling cancer. It was her way of memorializing her father who passed away from cancer.

“I knew part of their battle was registering their kids for activities not knowing if their child could attend them, not knowing if they could afford them,” Luke explained. “I call it turning the ‘C’ in cancer to a ‘D’ so that kids can identify as being dancers, rather than cancers.”

The scholarship is for the whole family, not just the child with cancer. So, if any of their siblings want to take dance classes they can too. It also applies to the family as long as they want to dance, even after their child is cancer free. Since starting her scholarship program Luke has had several students like Ava.

One of her other scholarship students was JP Gibson, who is now cancer free. JP’s mother, Megan Gibson, said Luke always made them feel like part of a family welcoming her children whenever they could come to class and even visiting her son in the hospital.

Luke was just as invested while Ava began treatment. Often Ava was too sick to come to class, so Luke would visit the Manwaring’s home.

“Kim would come by, and she would teach Ava a little dance move,” Manwaring said. “Then she would read to Ava. She had her sit on her lap, and Ava just had no energy, but Kim would read to her about dance because she just knew that dance has always been Ava’s life… and we always knew she was doing better when she’d start to dance again.”

Throughout treatment Ava found strength through her love for dance, once telling a doctor she wanted to be like the superhero Black Widow “because she’s a ballet dancer, but she also knows how to fight.”

As she got better dance also became a way to strengthen her body and help regain muscle strength she had lost during chemotherapy. Ava was cancer free for two years before she relapsed.

They found the cancer again in her skull and brain around Christmas time, when Ava was 5. During that time, Luke came to visit Ava with her daughter and they gave her a pair of pointe shoes. When she gave Ava the shoes she promised her she’d be able to wear them when she turned 10.

“It was Kim’s way of saying you need to survive this Ava, because five years is kind of like the mark of a survivor. And Ava didn’t know that, but Ava was determined,” Manwaring said.

After Ava was given the pointe shoes she was obsessed. Manwaring said she kept them on her dresser where she would see them everyday and talked about them at least once a week.

“What Kim did was she gave Ava a different goal that didn’t have to do with cancer, but it had to do with something that was important to Ava,” Manwaring said.

Ava went through almost five years of difficult and painful treatment, which required difficult commutes to New York. She was often too weak to dance, but would attend class whenever she could.  

“Kim is really incredible,” Manwaring said. “She knew that Ava did not need sympathy, she needed somebody to say, ‘You can do this, and I’m going to help you do this.’”

Ava beat cancer for a second time and is now cancer free. Her birthday is July 24.

“We’re putting those pointe shoes on her feet this summer when she turns 10, and she still dances with me,” Luke said.