Marinda Davis. Photo by Louise Flores, Courtesy Davis

Eight Threatening Illnesses Weren't Enough to Stop Choreographer Marinda Davis

When Marinda Davis was named second runner-up at the 2015 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, she dove headfirst into choreographing and producing a full-length show for her company, marInspired; the storytellers. But as her career was booming, Davis' body was breaking down. Behind the scenes, she was dealing with eight very serious illnesses, one of which led to a months-long hospital stay. Now, as she prepares a piece for Giordano Dance Chicago (debuting in March), Davis reflects on how she's powered through it all.


In addition to leading a company, you've also choreographed for "Dancing With the Stars," and your dancers just competed on "World of Dance." But what don't most people see?

I was adopted, so growing up, I didn't have any idea of my family history. I got sick a lot as an infant, and when I was 4, every time I stood up, I would completely lose my vision. I would faint a lot, and we just couldn't get answers. Eventually doctors recommended I see a psychologist.

It wasn't until I was 28 that a team of specialists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center started making diagnoses. The first thing they found was Hashimoto's disease, which is a thyroid autoimmune disease. Between the ages of 28 and 31—I'm 34 now—they gave me seven additional diagnoses, including lupus, Cushing's disease and mastocytosis. Some are genetic, and most are autoimmune. Once I got those diagnoses, it was this weird feeling of being validated. Then came this horrific realization of what each disease entailed.

How do you treat eight different diseases?

I'm on 25 different medications a day, and every single one comes with about 40 side effects. Mornings are particularly hard. And every four weeks, I'm in L.A. for chemotherapy treatment for the lupus, which completely knocks me out for about five days. I'm throwing up, I have a lot of bone pain, and I can't push through that.

How did these diseases affect your dancing?

Dance was always such an outlet for me, and I was able to pour so much of my frustration into my dancing. But as I struggled with my health, I started losing my facility and was constantly injured or dealing with surgeries. That's when I shifted to choreographing, and my career took off.

Headshot of Marinda Davis

"Anything is possible as long as you're willing to take a different route." Photo by Louise Flores, Courtesy Davis

One of your diseases—vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome—is not only extremely rare, but also life-threatening.

Eighty-five percent of people with type four Ehlers-Danlos don't live to be 40. I'm 34. While I hope to shatter those statistics, it's in my head every day. My aorta could rupture anytime. So that saying about living every moment to its fullest because it might be your last? That's very relevant.

You were at your sickest when you did your 2016 show, UNbreakable, with your prize from the A.C.E. Awards.

Everybody told me not to do it. Looking back, it was insane that I did. But I had a story to tell, and I had this company of dancers I loved and believed in. I think it actually kept me alive. It kept me fighting for something and gave me a purpose.

What can we expect from the piece you're creating for the Giordano company?

My work tends to straddle the contemporary concert and commercial worlds. It's been a lot of commercial lately, which means I'm cramming everything into 1 minute and 15 seconds. Actually getting 15 to 20 minutes is so exciting!

Any advice for dancers facing scary, serious setbacks like the ones you go through every day?

Where there is a will, there really is a way. Maybe your intended path was straight up over the mountain, but that's not going to work, so find a different way. Anything is possible as long as you're willing to take a different route.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021