Dancer lives with cancer
He keeps moving, and that keeps Willie Hinton going as he battles the illness
By KATHY WATTS, Correspondent
RALEIGH -- You can't tell Willie Hinton has cancer. The first thing you notice about the 36-year-old dancer is his infectious smile. That and his poise, perfected after years of professional dancing. He moves with a feline's fluidity as he serves residents in Magnolia Glen retirement community on Creedmoor Road, where he works as a waiter. After work, he teaches dance at two studios three nights a week. His sinewy arms stretch high as he shows students in his liturgical class how to reach new heights.
Since April, he has been taking his chemotherapy every other Thursday at WakeMed. And since August, he's been teaching Thursday evening classes at North Carolina Dance Institute -- after his treatments.
With a schedule that rivals just about anyone's, Hinton isn't what people might expect in a cancer patient.
In fact, many of his own students and their parents didn't learn of his battle with the disease until he danced a solo during a show he choreographed for his students to perform for residents at Magnolia Glen on Nov. 29.
"He introduced a solo for himself. It was a celebration of his victory over cancer. I was just shocked," said Katie Gailes, whose daughter Maggie Mial performed in Hinton's show. "He's so positive, he's smiling all the time, he has so much energy. I would never have imagined. ..."
If Hinton is not the old stereotype of a cancer patient, he may be the new prototype. He's doing what his medical caregivers want to see their patients doing: He's living.
"Willie's remarkable outlook on life -- that's exactly what we want our cancer patients to do," said Miriam Rogers, an advanced practice nurse in oncology and director of the cancer program at WakeMed.
Hinton moved from New York to Raleigh when he was 13, and he attended Enloe Gifted and Talented Magnet High School, where at age 16 he learned to dance.
He'd found his niche. By his senior year, he was taking four hours of dance every day.
"He was like a sponge," said Pattie Marks, Hinton's ballet and modern dance instructor at Enloe, who still works there today. "He was so passionate about it and worked so hard, he grew tremendously very quickly."
After Enloe, he attended N.C. School of the Arts, graduating in 1990. Three days after graduation, he moved to New York and began dancing with the Rebecca Kelly Dance Co. Over the years, he danced with other companies, including Jubilations Dance Co. in New York, Philadanco in Philadelphia and Dance Kaleidoscope in Indianapolis.
"When you see him perform, you see literally the hand of God touching him," said Kirstie Tice, Hinton's classmate at the School of the Arts and artistic director of North Carolina Dance Institute.
By 1999, Hinton was exhausted. He planned to take a year off to rest, so he moved to La Paz, Bolivia, where he taught jazz and modern dance at Estudio de Capezio and the University of Bolivia. After stints teaching in Texas and in New York, he returned to Raleigh to focus on school again, with plans to attend graduate school in dance. But he was busy working and teaching, and never applied.
Hinton began struggling with a cough in February. He was diagnosed with asthma, then developed pneumonia. When he began coughing up blood in April, doctors found cancer in the lower left lobe of his lung.
"Sometimes I can't believe it, when it's actually going into my arm," he said, of his chemotherapy treatments. During his first chemotherapy session, Hinton became hysterical. "I've seen what chemo has done to people."
Rogers, his oncology nurse, helped him through it. "I can't sit here and tell you what it's going to do," she told him. "What I can tell you is, it's going to work.' "
In the beginning Hinton withdrew from most everyone but his closest friends and rearranged his rigorous work schedule, dropping his classes at the dance institute and working less at Magnolia Glen. He didn't know what effects he might suffer from the treatment. He was frightened that cancer would take dancing from him.
"I thought, 'If I can't breathe, I can't dance.' " Though he never lost his hair and never became nauseated, the medicine turned the bottoms of his feet and his palms dark.
'Not who you are'
It was during those dark days that his older sister Rosalind Hinton Owen stopped by to see him. The shades were drawn, the house dark. She said that her brother has always been positive, sometimes even acting a little goofy to cheer her up when she was down.
"This is not who you are," she told her younger brother. "Open up the windows, let the light in. This is something you're going to have to face. ..."
The talk turned him around. Hinton began teaching at the dance institute again in August, and he added two nights of teaching at Ballet Arts in Henderson.
Hinton also continued working as a waiter at Magnolia Glen.
"He always has time for each one of us," resident Helen Laurie Tucker said. "He's always -- Lord help me to express it -- he effuses love."
Hinton's cancer helped him to relate to some of the health struggles and limitations Magnolia Glen residents face. That's when he came up with the idea of bringing a professional-quality performance to the retirement community.
"I know a lot of the residents cannot go and see theater," he said, "but as an artist, I feel like it's my responsibility to bring it to them."
He rented a professional dance floor, lights and a sound system, closed the blinds in the dining room and created a magical night at Magnolia Glen in a show he called, "An Evening of Dance."
He brought 23 students from Ballet Arts in Henderson and NCDI, ranging in age from 14 to 43, and they performed jazz, modern and liturgical dances. He surprised not only the residents, but also his students and their parents when he performed a solo dance to "Stand" by Donnie McClurkin, which Hinton said was his testimony about his cancer.
"When the pressures of the world get you down," Hinton said, "all you can do is just stand and let God do his work. You have to stand still."
Chemotherapy affects everyone differently, he said, and he attributes his ability to continue his busy schedule to his physical strength, his faith in God and his positive mental attitude. So far, the combination seems to be working. Recently, his chemotherapy treatments were reduced from twice a month to once every three weeks, he said.
Tice believes that much of Hinton's strength comes from being a dancer and the lessons in self-discipline the two learned at the School of the Arts as they trained rigorously, both physically and mentally.
"He has decided not to die," she said.
A mission to teach
At Ballet Arts, Hinton arrives and a youngster hugs his neck tight. A few minutes later he helps another student, who appears to be ill, to the restroom and comforts her in her misery.
Hinton has come to realize that sharing his love for dance through teaching may be his calling, and it may be a way to minister to young people. He tells his students to remember their passion, but to learn the technique; to work hard on the dance floor, but to study the history of their art.
"The room is on fire when he's in there," Tice says of her friend. "He has a great deal of passion. It's contagious."
Gailes' daughter, Maggie Mial, 13, has been dancing since she was 3, and she has taken lessons from Hinton since August.
"The most important thing that I've learned from Willie is that dance is more than just movement," Maggie said. "It's an expression of emotion, of your soul, and it's a way to release everything."
She didn't know Hinton had cancer until his solo.
"It made me realize how strong Willie is to do what he does," Maggie says. "He's such a happy person. A person can overcome anything."
Correspondent Kathy Watts can be reached at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.