Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Lee intended to freelance in the New York City area, while she served as a part-time caretaker for her parents. On a whim, she reached out to Dance Theatre of Harlem's artistic director Virginia Johnson, who knew Lee through a collaboration between Collage and DTH. Coincidentally, the company had a spot open—just in time for its 39-city 50th-anniversary tour—and Johnson asked Lee to join.
One year in, she spoke with Dance Magazine about how she's juggling dual responsibilities to her family and career.
When DTH isn't on tour, she rehearses in New York City during the week, then takes the 90-minute train to Jersey to help out her parents on the weekends. "I assist with whatever they need: taking out the trash, organizing my father's pills, making sure they have clothes for the week, dealing with cooking choices," she says.
"Things like bathing my father for the first time. Those are things that you don't really think about as your parents get older. But with these two diseases, it's extremely difficult."
Theik Smith, Courtesy Lee
Her family and work commitments leave little room for much else. "It's been a process. I've had to skip Nutcrackers. I've had to skip a lot of things to assist them, but I knew that I was stepping into this situation as a part-time caretaker."
Lee recalls one of the more challenging moments: This past December her mother was hospitalized for a 30-day treatment. "Christmas was the worst time for me, having my mother stuck in the hospital. And then seeing her in her room coughing and throwing up and seeing my father emotionally—this is his wife and here's the daughter doing the work. It's tough on everybody. It's not just me who's dealing with it."
While her mother was undergoing treatment, she'd care for her father, "making sure got his hair cut, that he went to the doctor and the dentist." And come Sunday night, she'd take a train back to the city.
When She's on the Road
When Lee is on tour with DTH, her aunt helps out, and the family has since been able to hire a part-time nurse. But she's always just a phone call away. "When my aunt isn't available, I order the groceries online, and I have them delivered to my parents. It's a constant communication between my aunt, the nurse that attends and my parents."
"None of the dancers knew what was going on until I made a major post about it," says Lee, who initially kept her care-taking duties private. "People have been very open, saying how strong I am."
She's also found unexpected support at DTH. "Another dancer's mother has the same cancer. We've been helping each other to stay encouraged, to stay hopeful about fighting this disease."
Theik Smith, Courtesy Lee
How She Copes
"Being a caretaker is tough, and I think that I've been getting through it with dance. Literally being able to come to the studio and rehearse." Each morning when she's warming up, she calls her parents.
"What has been an issue is that I have flashing moments of worst-case scenarios when I'm on my break. Thoughts like 'Oh my God. I could lose them' or 'What if the cancer gets worse?' I have to remember to remain positive. I'm also deeply rooted in my faith and that has really kept me grounded. A lot of praying, a lot of good vibes."
Her Biggest Supporters
Joining DTH was a full-circle moment. Lee's mom is a former professional dancer who studied at Dance Theatre of Harlem. "Both my parents are proud of me—they actually came to the 50th anniversary gala. They continue to support me, even though my mom has her cane and my dad can't move around for too long."
"They are so selfless in the fact that they say, 'Don't worry about us. We've lived our lives. We've had our careers. If you need to do something, focus on your career first. We'll be here. They've been very aware of my situation."
The Ultimate Multitasker
If balancing family commitments and a dance career isn't enough, Lee is currently working towards her MFA at Hollins University. In order to receive funding for tuition she entered—and won—the Miss Black USA pageant, which recently created a scholarship for other dancers in her name: the Daphne Lee Artistic Legacy Award.
Lee hopes to normalize family care, saying, "You never know what's going on with other dancers. A lot of people do take care of their parents if there's not someone there. I want to shed light on this for other dancers who could be going through the same thing."