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The Main Event: Dancing the Pain Away

By Selena Fragassi


The Big C is a word that no one wants to hear. A cancer diagnosis can be frightening, upsetting, and downright earth shattering. In New Jersey alone, the state ranks among the top five in the nation for the highest cancer rates. To change that statistic, the qualified professionals at New Jersey’s Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton have ramped up the fight against the disease with more progressive screenings, cutting-edge technology, and radical treatments—including alternative therapies that focus on the whole being.

Last year, RWJ kicked off a two-year project, called We vs. C, which aims to invest $8.5 into cancer research and prevention, including securing the most advanced 3D mammography unit. In support of the mission and to spread word to the public about the new services, RWJ’s Conference Center (part of the Fitness and Wellness Center) planned the inaugural “Night of Inspiration” and “Stories of Triumph” events last June, a two-day program that coincided with National Cancer Survivors Day with a focus on the healing aspects of art and nature.

“When we built the Fitness and Wellness Center 15 years ago, there was a trend in the healthcare industry that looked at wellness and holistic approaches to medicine. There were people looking for other ways of healing,” says Diane Grillo, vice president of health promotions at RWJ. “We always had that component in some way with meditation, yoga, and reiki, and as we started to look at the expansion of our Cancer Center, we looked for a way we could get the word out to our community.”

The two-day event did just that, inviting 22 women from the surrounding Hamilton Township who had gone through treatment at RWJ and ultimately survived breast cancer, living to tell their tale—literally—through dance and music. The RWJ Conference Center worked with several partners to realize the event, starting with Mark Roxey, the founder and executive and artistic director of the renowned Roxey Ballet, as well as composer Robert Maggio, and lyricist Matthew Hardy who interviewed each woman and then transformed their stories into original choreographed musical numbers that featured professionals (some of them Broadway performers) and the survivors themselves.

“The performance was extremely moving and emotional,” says Brian Weiner, RWJ Conference Center manager who helped plan the event with the assistance of additional partners including D&R Greenway and the Princeton Breast Resource Center, as well as the Grounds For Sculpture, another Unique Venues member, which hosted the event.

“The Grounds for Sculpture provided the perfect backdrop for this performance that was enhanced by healing gardens, including a music and poetry garden, painting garden, and reflection garden, among others,” says Weiner. Refreshments were also provided by the preferred Starr Catering Group and Lord & Taylor provided “retail therapy” with fashion and beauty demonstrations.

Of working with another Unique Venues member, Weiner says it could only be described as a “unique” experience for both properties. “The planning committee was trying to figure out where the proper location would be to hold an event like this, and as we had more and more conversations, we realized the number of venues we’d really be able to consider was going to be very small and then had an a-ha moment that we already had a good partner right in our backyard,” says Weiner, noting that the Grounds for Sculpture is around the corner from RWJ Conference Center and had all the outdoor elements they needed plus a very attentive staff that helped execute two different functions. Saturday’s “Night of Inspiration” replaced the hospital’s annual gala and gave 300 guests a snippet of the following day’s “Stories of Triumph” ballet performance, which was open to the public.

“We really wanted to make sure we tied the events together. It’s not that often you get an opportunity to create a connection for the folks looking to support the hospital with what they are actually helping to support,” says Grillo.

While there were some challenges—such as making sure the detailed sculptures and works of art at the Grounds were protected and unobstructed—Weiner says that was handled with lots of communication and creative thinking. One of the initial issues was that there wasn’t a scaled map of the outside grounds that the planning committee could use to map all the various activation points and make sure the event flow worked well.

“One way we overcame that issue was using the magic of Google Earth,” recalls Weiner. “We honed in on the top of the area of the Grounds we’d be using and zoomed in until we got to a scale that was evenly measurable. It was something functional we could work with, and a nice collaboration between the Grounds and RWJ to find a way to make that work.”

Another issue was coming up with a weather contingency plan. “The event was 85 percent outside, 15 percent inside, so it would have been quite the challenge to put everything inside,” says Grillo. “But the Grounds for Sculpture team really stepped up. They have a lot of indoor space but it’s very spread out so they toured us through all the different buildings to figure out how we could come up with a feasible option to use just a couple spaces.”

Thankfully, both days turned out beautiful with cooperating weather and a great response from the attendees.

“After everything was said and done, I was on the stage and one of the survivors who took part in the event said to me, ‘I think this is the greatest thing in my life I’ve ever done.’ It was cathartic to tell her story and she really felt empowered,” recalls Weiner, noting the event will come back this Fall. “To me, that made everything totally worth it.”

Get Connected
Conference Center at RWJ Hamilton
Mercerville, NJ
(609) 584.2159

Grounds for Sculpture
Hamilton, NJ