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New Haven Teacher Faces Illness By Creating A Legacy Of Ballet

In New Haven, a public school teacher is using ballet to help girls tackle all kinds of challenges in their lives. And she’s doing it while dealing with a serious challenge of her own.                       

About 30 teenage girls wearing black leotards stand in lines on the stage of the Fair Haven school in New Haven – one foot slightly in front of the other, their arms extended.

Kesa Whitaker watches from auditorium’s floor, calling out ballet instructions.

“Perfect Cecilia," she calls out. "Have you been practicing in the mirror? I can tell. Can always tell. Lift!”

Video of Ballet Haven in action:

Whitaker is tall and very thin. Her hair is cut close on the sides and back, and curls shoot up from the top of her head. Thick-rimmed glasses with bright blue frames and white arms stand out in stark contrast to her dark complexion. But perhaps the most surprising detail of her striking appearance is the thin plastic tube looped over each ear and running under and into her nose.

“You all have permission to kindly remind me, ‘Miss Whitaker, where is your oxygen?" she instructs the girls. "Because I should be wearing it all the time.”

The oxygen is because of an illness that Whitaker’s been living with for more than 13 years. She remembers when she first noticed something was wrong.

“It was warm because it was March, she recalls. "And I was walking to one of my last classes, and I looked and noticed that my fingers were turning blue. And that kind of sparked a long series of tests.”  

Those tests continued for years before she knew her current diagnosis. She has a little-understood autoimmune disease that’s a kind of scleroderma. It’s called anti-synthetase syndrome.

“It’s a really rare disease that’s classified by the deterioration of your muscle fibers, your lungs and your GI system," Whitaker says. "So the only thing that’s going to help me at this point is a double lung transplant. At which point I would also need a feeding tube.”

She’s not there yet, but her disease is progressive.

“The truth is, if nothing changes, it is very, very likely that this disease will kill me,” Whitaker says.

She says her diagnosis helped influence her to start the ballet program at Fair Haven.

“I wanted to make sure that I was giving all of the – all that I had to the moments that I had.”

Whitaker wanted to introduce ballet to girls who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to it.

But dance is only part of the goal for the program, which is called Ballet Haven.

 “Our mission is that all of our girls will graduate from Fair Haven K-8 school with the discipline and dedication necessary to succeed in any academic or artistic endeavor in high school, college and beyond."

Whitaker acknowledges that's a pretty big mission.

"I think, they don’t know all of that, but they do know the words discipline and dedication.”

Those words, along with “dance” on are the back of the team jackets the girls wear. Whitaker says many of the girls are coming from difficult backgrounds. More than three quarters of kids in the school qualify for free or reduced price lunches based on the low incomes of their families.

“So here we have families that are broken, families that are struggling," she says. "A lot of people dealing with the repercussions of divorce or looking for validation, which is definitely a universal problem with teenagers, especially girls.”

And it's Whitaker’s goal to help build up the Ballet Haven girls. To make them confident and self-respecting.

On the stage, she calls out one of the dancers, who’s looking a bit doubtful.

“Instead of saying, ‘I’m doing it wrong, I’m doing it wrong, I’m doing it wrong, which is what’s going on in your head, isn’t it? Say, ‘huh, I wonder what I’m doing right?’ Can you do that?”

Like most of her lessons, she points out that’s not just about dance. It’s an attitude that will help in life.  

Whitaker calls Oyuky Paredes-Martinez forward to speak with the dancers.

Oyuky used to be a member of the group, but has now graduated to high school. For months, she’s been asking Whitaker if she could choreograph a dance for this year’s Hispanic Heritage celebration at the school.

“So girlfriend is ready," she tells the girls. "This is her first time teaching.”

Oyuky steps up and starts talking to the girls about her dance. But she speaks so softly, nobody can hear her.

"Oyuky, come close to me," Whitaker instructs. "You’re doing great, I love your confidence.  Say it again, say it louder.”

This is Oyuky’s usual volume. At home, there’s a custody battle over her brothers. And she says that stress in the family has really affected her.

“So I was kind of like an isolated, a person who was never noticed, who was never really outside of her own shell," says Oyuky.

But when she dances, she says, she feels like a different person. She’s choreographing this dance as a tribute to her mom. Oyuky says meeting Miss Whitaker made a real difference in her life.

"When she found out about my problems, I’m not sure, but I think it was her goal to get me outside of my shell,” she says.

She describes Miss Whitaker as her hero.

“Even though she has a sickness, she doesn’t give up, she still tries to accomplish more because she knows that one day she might not be in a certain place, she might not be here," Oyuky says. "But she’s trying to her best she can to leave her mark.”

Two weeks later and three days before the big performance, Whitaker lugs a bigger oxygen tank into rehearsal.

“You guys see my brand new fancy oxygen?” she asks.

She’s had to start an intense program of pulmonary rehabilitation, and has had to take a medical leave from her job as an English teacher at Fair Haven. She’s still coaching Ballet Haven, though, and the dance is looking better. But it’s still not perfect.

“1, 2, 3, 4," she counts, but then, "AUGH!" They messed up the timing.

"I know it’s picky," she tells the girls.  "I do, but when you apply to Georgetown, or Harvard, or Yale, or wherever and they say fill out this application in black ink in all capital letters and you don’t do that, they’re not going to look at your application twice.”

The details matter in life, she tells them, so get it right.

Three days later, they do. The curtain opens up for Ballet Haven’s performance at the school’s Hispanic Heritage Celebration.

The song is a pop collaboration between Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez, but the dancers’ moves are clearly influenced by their classical ballet training. Their motions are coordinated and graceful. And the girls look like they’re having fun.

After performance, Whitaker gives Oyuky a hug.

“So proud of you, you did it honey!" Whitaker tells her. 

Oyuky’s mom stands next to her, looking on proudly. Whitaker asks Oyuky if her mom knows the dance was for her. Oyuky translates into Spanish, and her mom chokes up a little.

Whitaker asks Oyuky to translate some things for her mom.

"Because I want to make sure she hears everything," says Whitaker. "I want her to know that you were so confident. Tell her."

As Oyuky begins to translate, her voice breaks.

"She taught like a master teacher. Say that," Whitaker continues.

Whitaker says she knows she won’t be around forever. But before she’s gone, she wants to create a legacy- of building up girls like Oyuky, of helping make them into strong women, who can then pass that strength on to others.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.
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