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As Colorado Ballet's Francisco Estevez Fights Leukemia, Denver's Dance Community Comes Together to Help

Colorado Ballet soloist Francisco Estevez. Photo by David Andrews, Courtesy Dancers for a Cure.

Francisco Estevez is only 29 years old, but he's battling cancer for the second time. In 2013, the Colorado Ballet soloist was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which was swiftly treated with surgery. But during a routine physical in April, doctors noticed that Estevez's white blood cell count was severely elevated. They concluded that he had chronic myeloid leukemia, a very rare form of blood cancer. "At first I thought, how can this be happening again?" says Estevez. "I've had a few moments of sadness, but I've tried to find the humor in it, which has helped. Thankfully my wife [Colorado Ballet soloist Tracy Jones] and I are fortunate to have a good support system here in Denver and around the world."

That support system is coming together in a big way this week. Roughly a dozen Colorado dance organizations are joining forces to participate in Dancers for a Cure, a benefit performance for Estevez on September 6 and 7 at the Lone Tree Arts Center. The concert was spearheaded by Alison Jaramillo, artistic director of Littleton Youth Ballet, where both Estevez and Jones have taught classes during their off-season. "She asked if we wanted to do a benefit performance to raise money for some of the medical costs, as well as future costs," says Estevez. "We didn't know how to feel about it initially—it's always awkward to accept help from those who aren't your family." They eventually agreed, with the condition that the concert also give back to the community somehow. Now, half of the proceeds will go towards the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.



Estevez (far right) in "Fancy Free." Photo courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Dancers for a Cure will feature area schools and companies like Colorado Ballet, Canyon Concert Ballet, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and Zikr Dance Ensemble. But one performer on the program is particularly notable: Estevez himself. He'll perform two solos (from Amy Seiwert's It's Not a Cry and Ben Van Cauwenbergh's Le Bourgeois), and a special duet with one of his students."This form of leukemia is thankfully treatable through a targeted chemotherapy drug," he says, adding that the drug, Sprycel, does not have nearly the destructive side effects as traditional chemotherapy. While Estevez has experienced periodic migraines, dizziness and end-of-day fatigue, he's felt well enough to continue dancing. "Traditional chemotherapy would have taken me out of the profession completely," he says.

What's most remarkable is that Estevez is more focused on giving back than on feeling sorry for himself. He's asked those who can't make the performance but who still want to help to consider sponsoring him in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Light the Night Walk. And he hopes that the benefit can become an annual event—but without himself at the center of it. "We thought it would be nice to choose a different cause each year," he says. "I think it's great when we rally around something that affects us personally, but going forward I'd love for the dance community to try to be more proactive about helping within society."

Ballet Careers
Lenai Alexis Wilkerson. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Michelle Tabnick Public Relations.

This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Lenai Alexis Wilkerson graduated from University of Southern California with a BFA in dance (dance performance concentration) and a political science minor in 2019.

As Lenai Alexis Wilkerson looked at colleges, she wanted a school that would prepare her for two totally different professions: dancing and law. "I knew, pretty much when I was 16, that I wanted to go to law school," she says. "So I wanted the opportunity to have a dual college experience, where I could have a conservatory training style within a university and I could focus equally on my academics." When she auditioned for the inaugural class of University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, she knew it was the right fit.

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Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

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News
Nicolas Pelletier in Carmina Burana. Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Last week, Colorado Ballet interrupted Nutcracker rehearsals for an exciting announcement: Four dancers were being promoted. Though all made the jump from the company's corps de ballet, Nicolas Pelletier ascended directly to the rank of soloist, while Sean Omandam, Emily Speed and Melissa Zoebisch were promoted to demi-soloist. This news comes hot on the heels of last August's promotion of Francisco Estevez to principal.

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Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

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