Dancers require an immense strength, both physical and mental, to land a leap en l’air, remain on their toes for extended amounts of time and practice tedious exercises. Professional dancer and Vassar alumna Julia Sabangan ’05 possesses strength beyond measure. So when Sabangan was unexpectedly diagnosed with leukemia in May 2012, she transferred the strength she exhibits onstage to assist her in her battle with cancer.
Sabangan always knew she wanted to dance professionally. Although she chose to study classics at Vassar, dance played a central role in her daily life. Outside her concentration, Sabangan joined Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre (VRDT) as a freshman and left an impression on all whom she encountered while onstage or in the studio.
Sabangan left a special impact on Kathy Wildberger, Senior Lecturer in Dance and Drama and Assistant Director of VRDT, which persists even ten years later. “She is so strong, and she showed that certain kind of strength while she was here…She was a very unusual girl, in that there was this core strength to her that was beautiful,” said Wildberger.
Immediately upon graduating from Vassar, Sabangan began to dance professionally with modern dance companies in New York City. In 2007, Sabangan and fellow VRDT alumna Jessie Feller ’05 formed VaBang!, a bicoastal dance company based out of San Francisco and New York. Sabangan has performed twice at the historic dance venue and festival Jacob’s Pillow, and was asked to return for the 2012 festival but could not attend: Sabangan was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in May of 2012.
Due to years of training as a dancer, Sabangan was in top physical shape when diagnosed with leukemia. Because of her bodily strength, doctors were optimistic. “I withstood chemotherapy, radiation and even a bone marrow transplant. I went through all of those things, and they predicted that I would go quite well through all of them, by virtue of both my age and my physical strength,” said Sabangan. “I had to thank my body for that, after years of training, getting strong, and being strong helped me withstand all of that—not that it wasn’t still traumatic, but I can imagine how it could have been harder if I wasn’t strong.”
While bodily strength is one thing, Sabangan believes that it is immaterial, mental strength that is what got her through her sickness. She said, “I definitely attest my physical strength to helping me get through this. Another thing is my sense of discipline as a dancer. If there is anyone who has to do the things they have to do to get better, it’s a dancer who has the self-discipline to take care of themself.”
Sabangan recalls a day when she had to receive an intensely strong dose of chemotherapy that often results in patients contracting sores in their mouths. Her doctor told Sabangan sores can be prevented by keeping the mouth cool throughout the treatment. “I had to eat Popsicles for seven and a half hours straight, which turns a really fun activity into basically torture,” Sabangan said. “I wasn’t going to stop, not even for a second. And even on the doctor’s part, if he says you can’t stop chewing on these Popsicles for seven and a half hours they assume some people may take a break for five minutes now and then. But for a dancer, we are not going to cut any corners. Dancers aren’t going to cut any corners… That kind of discipline allowed me to do all of the things I had to do.”
Because of Sabangan’s determined spirit and tenacity, hearing of her sickness came as an absolute shock to those who know her. “It was just such a huge blow to hear about Julia contracting leukemia. I was just thinking about her so much. Everyday I would wake up, do a little meditation, and think about what she must be going through,” said Wildberger. “I’d go to her website and see what she was going through—her mother was keeping it up to date with all of the treatments, medications and incredible expenses of it all. All of these wonderful alumni were responding to her, even from different countries, and supporting Julia.”
Two months ago, Sabangan’s biopsy came back completely clear. “She’s doing it. If you go and read about the last steps of her recovery, her body has fought an amazing battle, and she’s winning that battle. It’s really a testimony for dance,” said Wildberger. “There is something that just empowers them to not only heal but also know what a struggle is.”
For Sabangan, however, the strenuous journey is not over. She said, “I really feel that I’m almost still in it…It feels like I’m on the pale-end of this story, but it’s not over yet.”
Hearing Sabangan’s story is particularly eye-opening for those who dance at Vassar. VRDT member McClain Groff ’17 said, “Julia’s story is absolutely inspiring and will give an intense amount of meaning to our upcoming performance. We are all now so aware of what our bodies, and our minds, can do.”
Wildberger choreographed a piece dedicated to Sabangan for VRDT’s upcoming 32nd Annual Bardavon Gala Concert, titled “Joolia.” It will feature 17 dancers who come together to represent the healing powers of a community. Wildberger said, “It parallels the dance world looking in on Julia and keeping track of her progress and her journey.” The show will take place Saturday, March 1 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 2 at 3 p.m.. Sabangan herself is set to attend.