WHEN Yvette Cowles was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, it was belly dancing that helped her through.
She was 32, single and working in a high-pressure job as non-fiction marketing director for Harper Collins in London while fitting in belly dancing in the little spare time she had. “I enjoyed working with interesting authors but it was very pressurised with lots of deadlines,” she says. “You can only cope with that for so long.”
So when Yvette was diagnosed with stage one cancer in her left breast and underwent a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, she decided to follow her heart, ditch the day job and become a belly dance teacher full time.
She’s now a soloist with Johara Dance Company, trains other dance teachers, lectures around the country on belly dance and has done many workshops in Newcastle, as well as creating Dance Yourself Happy Classes that combine dance and Laughter Yoga.
“I love the music and the costuming,” she says. “My mother was a seamstress and it’s like rummaging around in your mum’s dressing-up box. You have permission to dress up and wear the most blingy outfits imaginable. It’s also the camaraderie and support from other women in the belly dancing community”
Yvette believes it’s the inclusive nature of belly dance that makes it so appealing. “I’ve taught teenagers and women in their 80s of all shapes and sizes,” she adds.
“Women might come to class and they’re feeling bad about themselves – they might’ve had a baby and feel out of shape, they haven’t done exercise for years, or they’ve had an illness.
“You just see them blossom – this transformation from lacking in confidence to suddenly wearing these exotic clothes and really enjoying themselves. I’ve never found anything else quite like it.”
Yvette says belly dance has many health and fitness benefits too. “Physically it’s very good for increasing mobility, suppleness and flexibility,” she says. “A lot of women going through the menopause find it useful as you can get a lot of stiffness in your joints. It can shift your mood, release endorphins and make you feel happy. We also focus a lot of breathing so it’s very good for relaxation.”
Yvette first got into belly dancing aged 22 when she spent a year teaching English in France as part of her degree. Many of her students from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria would invite her to their homes for music and dancing. “It’s very much a social activity among North African families,” says Yvette, who also does yoga, Pilates and Bollywood dance. “It really appealed to me. It was something women did together, it was fun and very supportive and they accepted me straight away.”
It’s this acceptance and camaraderie that has helped Yvette live with cancer, which returned in 2006. “I knew there was a 25-40% chance of the cancer returning but when I reached the 10-year mark I was signed off and it felt like a milestone,” she says. “However, within months I was having a mastectomy.”Related content
Yvette had found a lesion on her nipple, which was misdiagnosed as a fungal infection. A mammogram showed nothing either. “I just felt something was wrong,” she remembers. “I asked for further tests but because they were so relaxed about it I just went along on my own for the results, which was really a bad mistake. I had a very aggressive stage 4 cancer. I remember being so shocked about the thought of having a mastectomy and chemotherapy that I nearly passed out and had to lie down on a trolley.”
With support from her belly dancing friends and mum Doreen, who’d had breast cancer four years before her daughter, Yvette started to regain her confidence.
“The tumour had grown so quickly I needed to wait a year before considering reconstruction,” she says. “I did find it difficult to start with as belly dance is so focused on the female form.
“I remember going to a dance festival and seeing someone selling really beautiful costumes. I couldn’t bear to be around them because I couldn’t wear them any more.”
Being involved in a touring show was her salvation. “It was a real goal for me to get through the chemo and get myself fit again,” she says. “It was great to have a focus other than these endless hospital appointments.
“I was initially worried about people seeing my scars and my prosthetics dropping out, but actually it was fine. Everybody was anxious as the costume changes were so quick. I was getting undressed and nobody batted an eyelid. It really helped me conquer my fear.”
Her friends, family and dancing also helped Yvette through a break-up with her French boyfriend shortly after her second bout of cancer. He didn’t speak any English but had moved to the UK to be with Yvette and worked as a lorry driver.
“He enraged my mother as he was very nationalistic,” she admits. “Every time he came to the hospital, he would go on and on about how much better it was in France. It wasn’t very helpful. He tried to make it work but he found the whole cancer thing hard to deal with.
“I found it hard because I wanted some support and I didn’t feel like I had to support somebody else through it.”
Having been a carer for her mother, Yvette says she’s seen it from both sides: “In a way I found it hardest looking after her. You don’t want to watch someone you love going through it.”
Unfortunately in 2010 a mammogram revealed new cancer in Yvette’s right breast, which meant she needed another mastectomy and more chemotherapy. “The first time I was really terrified about having chemo and not getting full mobility back in my arms,” she says. “In a way it was easier the second time as I’d been through it before and knew what to expect.
“One of the problems is the lack of symmetry so in a way when you’ve had both removed it’s easier. I always try to find the positive.” Although Yvette is still undergoing treatment as the cancer has spread to her bones, it hasn’t stopped her living life to the full.
“It’s not a case of being cured now. It’s about living with it,” she says. “I feel better about myself now than before I had cancer. I’m much more accepting of the way I am. I’m just going to enjoy myself and make the most of life.”
Now Yvette has created a one- woman show about her journey called Sequins on my Balcony, which will come to Newcastle in February.
“I would write and email my friends about my experiences, and they said I should put it in a show,” explains Yvette. “Eventually I thought why not.”
Although she’s done many dance performances before – plus a spot of clowning and physical theatre on an amateur basis – Yvette isn’t trained in performing arts so in some ways it’s a leap into the unknown.
“The fact that I’m not a trained actress makes it much more real,” she says.
“You can expect dance, comedy, drama, everything from Flaubert to Benny Hill to Morecambe & Wise. There are some funny moments about my breast-free dating disasters and medical mishaps too. People who have been to other shows say you leave with a smile on your face.
“I’m hoping that by sharing my experiences it will help other women in my situation, help people have a better understanding of what it is to have breast cancer and also maybe change people’s perception of belly dancing as well. I hope it will appeal to belly dancers and non-belly dancers too.”
The evening will also showcase tap, tribal and belly dance performances from Farida Dance, who train at Newcastle’s Dance City. Kay Taylor, who runs Farida Dance, trained with Yvette many years ago and the two have remained firm friends ever since.
For those who’ve never tried belly dancing Yvette says: “Give it a go. You’ve got nothing to lose and an awful lot to gain.
“It’s great exercise and you’ll meet a fantastic bunch of women. You’ll have a good time and get fit at the same time – what could be better?”
Farida Dance has belly dance classes throughout the North East including:
Mondays: Mortimer Community Centre, Reading Road, South Shields, NE33 4UG. 6-7pm.
East Boldon Methodist Church Hall, Front Street, East Boldon, NE36 0SF. 7.30-8.30pm
Both classes are suitable for belly dance beginners and improvers and cost: £4.50 full/£4 concessions.
Wednesdays: Dance City, Temple Street, Newcastle NE1 4BR
6-7pm: Basic belly dance technique for beginners.
7-8pm: Improvers course.
Call Dance City for costs and to book on the course: 0191 261 0505.
For information, visit firstname.lastname@example.org