Cancer no match for determined dancer
The world shifted under her feet when Elizabeth Edwards, owner of Omaha Ballroom, found out last November that the egg-sized nodule in her neck was filled with malignant cells. She needed surgery, doctors told her, to remove her thyroid. Radiation would likely follow.
Edwards, 31, steadied herself. With her Dancing with the Omaha Stars charity event just two months away, she still had much work to do. Children from the Sunshine Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to children with cancer, were depending on her.
“My No. 1 question was, ‘How soon do I have to do (the surgery)?’” she said.
Cancer would just have to wait.
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Edwards loves her job. In fact, she is obsessed. She is the type of business owner that stays up until 2 a.m. improving her website because it doesn’t feel like work. “You just want to do it so much,” she said of her job. “I like it so much that it’s easy to do.”
Edwards has danced almost her whole life. She danced away her childhood in a ballerina leotard, taking free lessons from an aunt. In college, her spins and twirls as a ballroom dance instructor helped pay for school. The music and flair of swing and salsa drew her in — it was more her style than the ballet tutus of her youth. While she worked and trained to be a top instructor, she used her business and advertising classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to make plans for her own business. “I was going to school, working, teaching and raising my son,” she said. “I was a crazy person.”
Her hard work paid off in 2004 when she opened Omaha Ballroom. Once the realm of elite competitive dancers, TV shows like “Dancing with the Stars” brought ballroom dancing mainstream. Omaha Ballroom offers a casual atmosphere for a newbie dancer to learn. For couples, the studio is a place to grow together while learning something new. For singles, it’s an opportunity to be social in a place that isn’t a bar, Edwards said. “A lot of people come because of the social connection.”
On the dance floor, Edwards has a knack for making people embrace their inner dancer. When she’s teaching, she can take a chained-to-a-desk office professional and coax her into a fluid dancer. She soothes the bruised egos of men unsure of their footing and helps them enjoy even imperfect dances. “She can make everybody comfortable almost instantly,” said Omaha Ballroom dance instructor Derek Pasqualetto.
Edwards’ enthusiasm for dance and desire to give back led her to create Dancing with the Omaha Stars in 2010. She always wanted to join the troupe on the ABC show, and this event lets her live out that fantasy. Edwards and other instructors pair up with Omaha celebrities to learn dazzling dances in hopes of taking home a first-place trophy. Past personalities have included former Huskers, TV reporters and a former “Biggest Loser” contestant.
Edwards is incredibly hands-on with the event, serving as a dance partner, choreographer, vendor coordinator and ticket manager. “I love this event,” she said. “It’s like my wedding day.”
It was amid this intense event preparation that she received news of her thyroid cancer. By that time, she had met some of the children with the Sunshine Kids and learned their stories and struggles with cancer. They had been through so much — much more than she had, she thought. Her doctors were willing to schedule the surgery a week after the event.
Working on the event proved to be a blessing; she had something else to focus on instead of cancer. Dance took the stress away. When you dance, “you get to hear great music, meet great people and don’t even think about anything else,” she said.
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Last January’s Dancing with the Omaha Stars event was Edwards’ most successful yet. With a record-setting sellout crowd of 1,000 attendees, the event raised more than $45,000. That’s more than three times the funds raised in its first year. Edwards is proud of what the event has been able to do. “It is really cool to say you raised money for kids with cancer,” she said.
Today, Edwards is getting back on the dance floor after recovering from surgery. She may undergo radiation treatment too, but so far, the prognosis is good. Planning is already underway for the 2015 Dancing with the Omaha Stars, and she continues to help grow the ballroom dance community. “I want everyone that walks in the studio to feel like they’re part of it,” she said.
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