Ballet class helps young cancer survivor dance, thrive

The DanceAbility program is open to children at least 6 years of age. It is free and spots are available.

For more information, contact the Georgia Ballet at 770-528-0881, or e-mail Rebecca Geiger at

The graceful and coordinated Courtney Hicks didn’t seem like herself when posing for dance recital photographs one evening in May 2009.

Though she had danced for five years, Courtney seemed wobbly and sluggish as she smiled for the camera in a poufy pink skirt and ribbons in her hair. After Courtney, who was 8 years old at the time, bumped into a corner of a table and almost fell down, her parents, Jeffrey and Kirsten Hicks of Marietta, set up a doctor’s appointment with a neurologist.

One day after the photographs for that spring recital, Courtney was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Doctors performed immediate surgery to remove the cancerous tumor that stretched almost 2 inches in diameter. Thirty-six hours later, Courtney fell into Posterior Fossa Syndrome, which is a series of symptoms that sometimes occur after brain tumor surgery. Courtney’s body shut down. She couldn’t talk — or even sneeze or cry. At first, she communicated by scratching her bed sheet.

The spring recital would come and go without Courtney. But she was determined to get better — and dance again.

Courtney completed radiation and chemotherapy treatments in August 2010. She returned to school. She was talking and playing and studying once again.

And then in late 2011, Courtney started dancing ballet again — thanks to a new program at the Georgia Ballet in Marietta called DanceAbility. With the help of props and volunteers, and by tailoring the class to allow children to advance at their own pace, DanceAbility makes a traditional ballet class available to children who might not otherwise enjoy this art form. The Georgia Ballet, a nonprofit, offers this class — as well as uniforms and costumes — for free to children with special needs, including children with symptoms of autism.

Courtney wheeled herself into the first class in the fall of 2011. She lifted her legs. She pointed her toes. She stretched out her arms. She grew stronger and more confident. And then, she stood up. She held first position.

“At first I wanted Courtney to have fun and gain strength to help her with balance and with walking,” said Rebecca Geiger, DanceAbility instructor. “Because I have witnessed this, I can honestly say I can see the magnitude of her spirit and her ability to keep trying, because you never know how far you can get.”

At DanceAbility’s spring recital last May, Courtney wore a pink skirt and a big smile. With music from the waltz from Act 1 of “Coppelia” softly playing in the background, Courtney graced the floor and showed just how far she’d come.

“My favorite part was the jumping,” said Courtney, now 11 years old, beaming. “Because that was something I couldn’t do before.”

Courtney’s mom, Kirsten Hicks, said DanceAbility is 45 minutes of physical therapy, helping her daughter gain strength and confidence. The fact that the classes are free is no small thing.

“For me, having the lessons, the uniforms, and the costumes paid for by the program makes it possible. The cost would prohibit this being an option because it’s needed for co-pays, therapies and medical equipment. My only responsibility is to get Courtney to her lesson looking like a beautiful ballerina. She does the rest from there,” Hicks said.

During a recent class, Courtney, clad in a black leotard and periwinkle skirt, was the perfect student.

With volunteer Bria Cantrell always there to help prevent an accidental fall, Courtney pointed her toes and kept her back straight.

“There you go, Courtney!” Geiger cheered. “Good job!”

Geiger said she believes it’s important to teach “real” ballet as much as possible. Geiger said she teaches the basic steps of ballet — from first position and plies to galloping and standing on toes. Geiger said while she may insist children point their toes and straighten their knees in a typical class, skipping in and of itself could be a major milestone in DanceAbility.

After her dance lesson, Courtney, an affectionate child, hugged her dance teacher. In the hallway, she spotted friends from her old dance class, the one she took before the brain tumor. She hugged them, too.

And then in the lobby, she hugged her mom.

“She wants to be the way she was there,” said Hicks. “We can’t go there, but we can go somewhere different. So we go ahead and get to be where we can be. … She misses so much. So much was taken away from her. DanceAbility has given some of it back to her.”