Dancing to defeat childhood cancer: locals give back through dance
MADISON — Dozens of volunteers young and old donated their time and money to dance in a two-hour “Zumbathon” Sept. 15 at the Hogan Family YMCA to benefit St. Jude.
This is the second year for the fun-filled fitness frenzy organized by Tora Henry. Though Henry has been fortunate enough to not have a personal reason for supporting St. Jude, she said she fell in love with their mission after serving as a committee member for a St. Jude Walk/Run.
“I love children, and I love the whole notion of families going to St. Jude and not having to pay anything,” Henry said. “No families get a bill for food, transportation, housing—that warms my heart because I know how expensive treatment is. So, once I really got a good understanding of what St. Jude did and their background—their humble beginnings—it just fueled me even more to be a part of the committee here in Huntsville.”
In addition to her passion for St. Jude, Henry also has a passion for Zumba. Though she has been involved in fitness since 2002, Henry said she became certified as a Zumba instructor in 2017 in a licensing course headed by Erick Santana, an internationally recognized master trainer for Zumba from Miami, Florida. Henry realized very quickly that there was something special about Santana that others needed to experience for themselves.
“After I got certified, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! He is so good!’ And not just his skills and abilities—it was the love I saw he had for Zumba and the love that he has for people that was infectious, and so I wanted Huntsville to experience that on a large scale,” Henry said.
Santana jumped on board for this year’s Zumbathon to lead the two-hour dance party, a special treat for attendees. Like Henry, Santana has a passion for people and dancing, and he has been finding ways to combine those two passions for over a decade.
One way Santana has done this is through his signature “One Glove Love” movement.
“With everything that I’ve done with Zumba, I’ve done with one glove, and with that one glove, I’ve been able to raise money with different charities,” Santana said. “Charity, for me, has been very close to my heart.”
A single father for most of his son’s life, Santana expressed sincere gratitude for having his son grow up with good health and a fairly normal childhood, which inspired his philosophy of “paying it forward.”
“I’ve been so incredibly blessed with this movement to be able to provide for my son, to do good for myself, and for me, it just felt like it was a moral responsibility to kind of pay it forward, and that’s why the whole One Glove Love movement … it’s paying it forward for other blessings,” Santana said.
Santana said he has been dancing “all my life.” He participated in dance and choreography programs in school and tried multiple routes before discovering Zumba. He became a Zumba instructor in 2003, and three years later, he was one of only 13 to become the first Zumba master trainers. These trainers were licensed by the Zumba founder himself, Beto Pérez.
Since the first Zumba fundraiser in 2006, Santana has taken part in a wide range of fundraisers over the years benefiting women, children and the military. He has also participated in the YMCA’s Annual Campaign to give back to those in need.
“Yes, we all face adversities, we all have tough times, we all go through our share, but … I’ve learned one thing through my adversities: to turn a negative into a positive and to be able to be some sort of comfort or strength to whoever that I am actually able to reach,” Santana said. “In all of my adversities that I have faced, I have been able to see that I have been blessed in so many ways, and in the name of all those blessings, pay it forward. It’s the way that I see it.”
Henry said Zumba instructors from places as far as Cullman, Tuscaloosa and Georgia reached out about bringing some participants from their classes to the Zumbathon in Madison. On the big night, participants showed up with bright eyes and huge smiles on their faces, and no one paid any mind to working up a sweat with strangers. With adrenaline pumping in their systems and dance remixes of hit songs pumping through the speakers, it was hard to let fatigue take over. Throughout the dance party, Santana pulled participants onto the small wooden stage with him in the center of the room to bust a move.
Michelle Compton and Amy Ervin were two instructors who decided to join the cause and dance it out at the Zumbathon.
Compton said she got certified as a Zumba instructor in 2017 and has taken classes led by both Henry and Ervin. She and Ervin said they “loved” the event and enjoyed Santana’s leadership in the dance party. Compton said she appreciated how clear Santana was in his instruction.
“I love Erick because he certified me, so I loved [the Zumbathon],” Ervin said. “It was so awesome.”
Both Ervin and Compton are big believers in Zumba. Ervin even said she lost 30 pounds from joining the movement. As for Compton, she highly encouraged people to try it out for themselves.
“It’s such good exercise, and it makes you happy,” Compton raved. “The music is great, and there’s not really any other dance fitness groups. … It keeps you young.”
Henry said she is grateful for the YMCA’s constant support. Hogan Family YMCA Fitness Director Colby Flack said he has a personal connection to St. Jude through his nephew, who is fighting a rare disease called Diamond-Blackfan anemia that puts him at higher risk for leukemia and sarcoma. For Flack, deciding to host the fundraiser was a no-brainer.
“Honestly, they (St. Jude) take complete care of him, and so we’re definitely excited to be hosting it here,” Flack said. “The Y has a very big community outreach program, and this is just one way of us being able to reach out to that community that we continue to serve and support, and just to let people know that we are here for that.”
Eugene Roberts, an event manager with St. Jude, has been with the organization since 2011. He attended the Zumbathon in Madison, along with his wife and daughter. Roberts encouraged everyone to “support, support, support” St. Jude and their mission.
“We know how our parents are—when our child gets a simple cold, how we get,” Roberts said. “Well, when the child has cancer, the parent—that’s the only thing they’re thinking about. When you’re a part of St. Jude, you don’t have to worry about a bill, food, anything. All they have to do is worry about helping their child live.”
Local children fighting cancer could benefit greatly from the fundraiser. Huntsville is home to its own St. Jude affiliate clinic at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children, which is one of only eight St. Jude affiliate clinics in the United States. It also happens to be North Alabama’s first pediatric cancer care and hematology clinic.
To learn more about St. Jude and how to get involved, visit stjude.org. For more information on the St. Jude affiliate clinic in Huntsville, go to hhwomenandchildren.org/st-jude-affiliate-clinic.
“No matter what you’re going through, no matter how busy we get, someone is always suffering worse than you, so if you can give back, if you can be a blessing to someone else, that’s why I do this,” Henry said. “It doesn’t matter how down I get or how much money I have, I always have enough for someone else.”