Local dance teacher driven by her students

Date Published: 
April 11, 2014

Coastal Point • Submitted: Erin Vitalos, back center, is surrounded by her X Squad Dancers at a competition.Coastal Point • Submitted: Erin Vitalos, back center, is surrounded by her X Squad Dancers at a competition.Erin Vitalos started dancing when she was 3 years old. At 10, she started training three days a week in New York City. She was awarded a scholarship to the Broadway Dance Center when she was 13 — eventually earning a dance and academic scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College.

Her mother, Cheri Demko, was Miss Dance America in 1970 and owned a dance studio in Pennsylvania when Vitalos was growing up. Now the mother-daughter duo own two studios together — one in Annapolis and X Squad Dancers in Selbyville — that they operate seven days a week.

For Erin Vitalos, dance is and always has been her life, so when she was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer in September of 2013, giving it up was never an option.

“Before I discussed anything else, it was about ‘Can I still do my job?’” she recalled of her initial thoughts after receiving the life-altering news. “That was something that they adamantly told you ‘absolutely not,’ because of infection.”

But after teaching some of her students for almost 10 years and being involved as they grew not only as dancers, but as people — Vitalos was determined to find a way. She began to learn more about her disease and started treatments in Annapolis, with a doctor that, initially, didn’t quite understand how important being able to continue teaching her kids was to his new patient.

“A lot of these kids I’ve known prior to opening a studio here,” Vitalos explained of her longtime relationship with many of her students. “I’ve been involved with their families. I’ve been involved in their lives.

“Essentially, because of the new drugs, they were looking at my case as curable, so he was treating [the cancer] really aggressively,” Vitalos said of her early interaction with her doctor. “He’s definitely a medical oncologist first, and he’s concerned about that and that only. After I explained the importance of it and actually when he started seeing kids coming in with me, he was like, ‘OK — What can we do to make this work?’”

Instead of giving up teaching, Vitalos chose to have a type of booster shot administered that would cause her severe pain for days but would ultimately allow her to work with her students without a risk of infection.

But one booster shot wasn’t all it would take to allow her to keep teaching. She has to receive the shot after every chemotherapy treatment.

“I did that for them,” she stated bluntly, as if it was never even up for a decision. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to be around them.”

To Vitalos, enduring the intense pain of the shot was nothing compared to the pain that would have been caused by having what she loved doing taken away from her — and, similarly, receiving the news of her affliction herself was easier than having to tell her kids.

“That was probably the hardest thing through everything, was having to sit them down — not even my family — it was looking at 100 kids and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I have cancer,’” she recalled. “It was very, very delicate.”

Just two days after receiving her diagnosis in September of 2013, on Friday the 13th of all days, she summoned the strength and courage to tell her students and their families — people who had become as important to her as her own family — the difficult news. However, because she teaches children as young as 3 all the way up to grown adults, she knew she had to be careful in her approach.

“With the younger kids, we just explained to them the scariest part for them, which was going to be that I was not going to have any hair,” she recalled.

As her hair began to actually fall out due to her frequent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Vitalos began to find ways to make her change in appearance easier on her young students, doing things like joking about them making her hair fall out or letting them try on wigs with her.

“At first, the kids were very intimidated and very scared, so we made light of a lot of the situations. That was the safest way to approach it, because it was very scary for them.”

Vitalos’ strategy eventually proved successful, as the children got used to the change, their focus switching back to dancing, with only the occasional question about whether or not her hair is growing back yet — and even then being brought on by a desire to support her more so than curiosity.

After making sure her students were comfortable with the change in her physical appearance, Vitalos still had to make sure that she was comfortable with it herself.

“I was coming from a girl that would sit in a hair salon for hours and had hair down past my shoulders,” she explained. “I think my message to them is it doesn’t matter what you look like — your physical appearance shouldn’t keep you down.”

Vitalos proudly dances bald in the studio to emphasize that message. Despite losing a beautiful head of hair, she knows she is still the same beautiful young woman, and her kids and everyone who meets her can still see that as clearly as ever.

She may be missing her hair, but she is certainly not missing her heart — which remains full with love for the art of dance and love for the students that she teaches, and continues to beat with determination to overcome a disease that only 10 years ago probably would have killed her.

In fact, she chooses to see her diagnosis as a miracle rather than a curse — one that was detected early and unexpectedly by a nurse practitioner in Ocean Pines, Md., named Nicki Akstinas during a simple routine checkup.

“She basically saved my life,” Vitalos said to put the impressive find into perspective. “I’m too young for any of the checkups that they would do for breast cancer, so it was just a routine doctor’s appointment. It was so small and not visible. It was an amazing find.

“She actually has been contacted by a lot of my oncologists now, in Baltimore and Annapolis, because they’re just shocked that she even found it.”

Currently, Vitalos is still undergoing treatments including surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, and she is scheduled to continue to do so through February of 2015. She wakes up every day at 5:30 a.m. and makes sure she’s on the road by 6:45 to make the trip across the Bay Bridge to Annapolis for her daily radiation treatment.

Every week, she meets with her radiation doctor and attends physical therapy. Every third week, she goes in for chemotherapy — enduring all of this while still continuing to teach every single day.

“We fixed the appointments as best we could around our studio schedule, so that we can be there for our dancers and be at both facilities,” said Vitalos’ mother, Cheri Demko, who has helped her daughter through it all, every step of the way. “We’re trying to keep a real positive attitude. We’re just incorporating her treatment into our daily lives.”

Teaching until 11 p.m. on some nights and often running on just four or five hours of sleep, Vitalos keeps a schedule that would exhaust the average person, let alone someone battling cancer. But she endures it all, for her kids, and for herself.

“The kids are what keep me going,” she said, describing the source from which she derives her unmatched strength. “Seeing the fear in their eyes and them saying, ‘You can’t give up on us’ made me fight, and makes me commute to the best doctors — for them.

“Literally, sometimes I’m going on four or five hours of sleep and, for a cancer patient, that’s crazy. I’m here until 100, 11 o’clock at night, and I’m doing it, and this is what I want to be doing.”

While some might let the cards that life has handed them bring them down and conquer them without putting up a fight or dwell on the things that they don’t have, rather than being thankful for the things that they do, or blame the world for their problems, rather than focusing inward to try to manage the courage to face them head on, Erin Vitalos is not one of those people.

Vitalos instead serves as inspiration not only to her students, her family and her friends, but to anyone who seeks to triumph through life’s challenges. She has found her life’s passion, the reason she feels she was put on this earth, and she has refused to let anything keep her from it — not an excruciatingly painful shot, not exhausting radiation and chemotherapy treatments, not her hair falling out, not having to drive hundreds of miles every day, and certainly not breast cancer.

There are days when she is tired. There are days where she can’t imagine having to endure another needle. There are days where she is overwhelmed with it all. But she said there is never a day that she doesn’t want to be in her studio with her students.

“It’s what I live for, and it’s what I do,” she said, simplifying it all down to one reason for her impressive determination. “[These] kids are helping me survive.”

“Even if she’s a little weak that day, the fact that the kids are there and they’re all having a good time — you forget, even if it’s only for a couple of hours,” said Demko. “It has been an inspiration from our littlest dancers up to all of our older dancers.

“This year I’ve seen a growth year in all of our dancers, like no other. It seems as though a lot of them have much more of a dedication and a commitment to dance, and when they come here while they’re having a great time, they are working harder. They’re looking at it as ‘Ms. Erin’s here — then I can push myself that much harder.’”

Vitalos knows that fundraisers raising awareness and money for breast cancer research have not only been one of the main reasons for her own survival but will continue to help others win their own battles with the disease. After all, if it wasn’t for research funding, drugs like the one that saved Vitalos’ life would likely have never been developed.

“Ten years ago, my diagnosis was a death sentence,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Research is so important.”

To demonstrate that importance and their support for their teacher, her students have taken it upon themselves to sign up for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on Sunday, April 13 — a 5K charity fundraiser to be held in Ocean City, Md., to benefit breast cancer research and raise funding to support families dealing with the disease. For more information on the run or to register or donate, visit www.ococean.com/komen.

After the race, it’ll be back on the dance floor for Vitalos and her students, as they prepare for their end-of-year showcase, set for Friday, June 6, at Indian River High School. For more information on that event, or to learn more about the X Squad Dancers, visit their website at www.xsquaddance.com or their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/xsquad.dancers, or call the studio at (410) 474-4995.