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Something to Dance About : Choreographer Gives Hope to Kids With Cancer

March 17, 1994|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A dozen children with cancer or chronic illnesses--some bald from treatments, one whose leg has been amputated--were tap-dancing, drawing, singing and trying on costumes sparkling with glitter and sequins on a recent afternoon at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

Music from "Mary Poppins" and "The Little Mermaid" blared so loudly from the stereo that it was nearly impossible for nurses to figure out whose IV alarm was sounding.

The children in the playroom of the hospital's pediatric oncology and hematology ward could forget for a while that their lives have been

taken over by medicines that make them sick and tubes that follow them like puppies.

"When they put their costumes on, they're no longer sick children," said choreographer Marilyn Clements, who teaches the children to dance. "They're in a magical place."

Every week, children who feel well enough can come to the room and spend a couple of hours with volunteer artists and entertainers, thanks to The Discovery Arts Center Outreach Program. Clements started the program last fall at the hospital's Jonathan Jaques Children's Cancer Center.

"These kids are art-starved," Clements said. "They're not able to take lessons. Their schedules are built around their next treatment, their next doctor's appointment, whether or not they feel well that day."

In the next few weeks, Clements plans to bring a children's songwriter and a vocalist to the playroom. Don Harper, music director of Sesame Street Live, has already spent a couple of afternoons giving the children music lessons.

Dr. Ramesh Patel, who works in the ward, said he has seen "dramatic changes" in the children who participate in the arts program.

"When they go to the playroom, put on the shoes and start tap-dancing, they're able to forget the hospital and the chemotherapy and its side effects."

Jennifer Moffett, 7, who has kidney cancer, is one of the program's regulars. She zips over to the rack of costumes and chooses a glittery get-up. Jennifer's face is painted, her smile bright, her enthusiasm for tap-dancing obvious in the way she hops onto the pretend stage, a piece of board. Her IV stand becomes a dance partner as the Calypso beat of "Under the Sea" blares from the stereo.

JoAnn Young, who has lost one of her legs in a battle with bone cancer, sits before a separate board and joins in, her foot furiously tapping shuffle-step, shuffle-toe-heel. It is her 14th birthday, and she is radiant in a new dress and black patent leather shoe.

Like Jennifer, she is all smiles as she dances. "I like the song that comes from the shoes," JoAnn says.

Clements, a Laguna Nigel resident who has been a choreographer 20 years, said she decided to start the program after doing a show at the hospital about 18 months ago.

"I wanted to do more, but I wasn't sure what I could do," she said. "I went for a month and just learned. I talked with them, sang, played music and drew.

"During those visits I could see the need in those children. They wanted normalcy in their lives. They wanted to express creativity. When one little girl said she wanted to dance, I knew I could offer something."

The parents, many of whom spend day and night in the ward, are grateful for Clements' efforts.

"It gives the kids something to do rather than sit in a room all day and be chained to a pole," said Suzanne Moffett, Jennifer's mother.

When Jennifer underwent major lung surgery recently, Clements came to her room decked out in a red sequin dress, gold lame hat and several boas.

The prognosis for Jennifer? "We're counting on a miracle," said Suzanne Moffett. The cancer, which first was diagnosed when Jennifer was 3, has spread to her lungs.

Clements said more children are participating now, and more people in the industry say they want to donate their time. "Musicians, artists, actors, puppeteers--they don't want to just perform, they want to interact," she said.

Discovery Arts, funded entirely through donations, seems to be growing in reputation also. Recent publicity brought donations of shoes and costumes from as far away as Las Vegas and San Jose. But the program could use more, Clements said.

The program needs a cabinet to store costumes and shoes, as well as a video camera to tape performances. Clements hopes one day to have enough money from donations to buy art supplies and small electronic pianos for bedridden patients who want to practice.

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