Cancer survivors turn to baton twirling for fun, therapy and friendships
They enter the room, drop their belongings on the table and rummage through their bags to find their silver and white twirling batons. Chatty and perky, these friends greet one another and take their place in a lineup behind majorette coach Carol Newton.
Then Newton counts off — five, six, seven, eight — and the ladies begin a choreographed routine of twirls, twists, lunges and high steps.
And though they have the enthusiasm of 20-somethings, these aren’t college kids. This group is part of a Healthy Steps program at Glens Falls Hospital, and the participating baton twirlers are all cancer survivors ranging in age from 50 to 80.
Glens Falls Hospital’s C.R. Wood Cancer Center offers fitness classes aimed at a wide range of needs, including some that incorporate the Lebed method, which was designed to reduce the common side effects of treatment and surgery of breast cancer patients. The Lebed method particularly addresses two complications most often experienced by breast cancer survivors: frozen shoulder and lymphedema.
Twirling fits right in.
The sport takes stamina and balance, and involves muscles in both the right and left wrists, arms and shoulders as twirlers need to be able to rotate the baton equally well in both hands while performing a dance routine. “It’s a great exercise, especially for cancer survivors because it opens up the lymphatic system,” Newton said, adding that the moves stretch and strengthen the torso.
The baton twirling class began when oncology nurse Vickie Yattah asked Healthy Steps participants what activity they would like to do for fitness.
Judy Talbot, 75, of Glens Falls said she wanted to know how to twirl. “I envied those girls who could twirl a baton. I wanted to do it, too,” Talbot said, adding that she needed to learn “some new tricks to do at the Christmas party.”
When word spread that she wanted to learn, Newton, a certified instructor, cancer survivor and former majorette, stepped up to the task. In less than a year, the group, called Twisted Twirlers, has grown to 13 members and expects to be performing next month.
Most of the “girls have physical limitations. Our class gives them camaraderie, fun, support when they need it. The whole group has gotten very close,” Newton said.
Some of the members have a little experience from high school twirling, and others took lessons as long as 60 years ago. “I use to have fun with it in high school,” Rita Nicolai, 80, said. Nicholai attended Hudson Falls High School “a long time ago.” Now, she finds the sport keeps her limber. “Baton twirling was always a fun thing to do,” she said.
Newton was a majorette in the 1960s when she attended St. Lawrence High School in Brasher Falls in St. Lawrence County. She became a certified instructor, teaching for 12 years, and her girls competed in contests and at the New York State Fair.
That was more than 30 years ago, Newton said, adding that when she started teaching in Glens Falls in January all of her experience teaching twirling came right back to her.
In the hospital auditorium where the senior twirlers are practicing, the ladies line up behind one another and go over the routines step by step, move by move. Sometimes the baton drops and sometimes the groups falls out of sync and sometimes someone forgets the next move and the dance comes to a stop.
“It’s like being a kid again. It’s fun in part because we have a very patient and understanding instructor,” Cheryl Patnode, 65, said. She added, “Most of us have disabilities. A lot of us are just getting back our coordination, balance and thinking.”
“It’s chemo brain. After you have chemo, you have trouble remembering things. You can’t think of a lot of things at once. It slows you own,” Newton said. She recently finished a round of chemo herself and said that leading the group helps her. “I see improvement in myself each time we meet. This group helps me, too,” she added.
The workout lasts about an hour and it is evident that the twirlers are getting better a little at a time. Comments such as: “Your baton is drooping.” and “Ouch! I just hit myself in the chin!” bring rounds of laughter from the group. “The first time I came, my stomach ached from laughing so much,” Ruth Cronin said.
It is obvious they are having a good time. When the routine progresses from start to finish without a hitch, Talbot yells “Hurrah!”
“Even if we are not terrific, Carol tells us we are terrific,” one of the twirlers said. “We have a good time and it keeps our minds off breast cancer,” Gloria Ghirarduzzi, 60, added.
Newton plans to have the Twisted Twirlers perform in area nursing homes, senior centers and “anyplace else that will have us,” she said.
The Healthy Steps fitness classes are open to the public. Yattah said her exercise classes, which include belly dancing, hula hoops and feather boas, are “a hoot.”
For more information, call the C.R. Wood Cancer Center at (518) 926-6619.