From PTSD & breast cancer to IT and line dancing

Leslie Henry teaches line dancing in Largo and Clearwater

By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer

MID COUNTY – On Monday and Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, Leslie Henry can be found leading line dancing classes at the Ridgecrest YMCA in Largo or the Clearwater Neighborhood Family Center.

“I fell in love with dancing when I was about 12 years old. I used to dance with my father, who taught me my first line dance,” Henry smiled, soft-spoken and emitting down-to-earth charm. Originally from a small town in East Texas, Henry moved to Florida in 2006.

Her story of survival and learning to “embrace life” includes raising her three children, her successful career as an IT Analyst and founding Clearwater’s Embrace Life Groove Squad line dancers.

But like any survivor’s story, there are downs — childhood abuse that led to emotional stress, dire illness and experiencing racism and discrimination as an African-American woman in the male-dominated IT field.

A single mother at 17, Henry became a mother again at 19 and again at 21. Looking back, she attributed her behavior and choices during her teenaged years to unresolved trauma from the abuse in her past.

“I went through some crises as a teenager that really affected my mind; I was always trying to make the things constantly affecting my mind go away.”

Once her children were born, Henry’s time and energy turned toward raising them alone as a single mother. “I backed away from the dancing and was pretty much just trying to take care of my children.”

As her young ones reached school age, her battle with illness began. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 at age 29 after finding a lump while in the shower doing a breast self-exam.

With no health insurance, the health clinic told her it was probably “just a mass” because she was so young. They advised her to check back at her wellness exam 10 months later.

When she returned 10 months later, the lump had grown and hardened, and she was sent for a mammogram. “A week later the radiologist called back and said, ‘this doesn’t look good; we need to get you a biopsy.’”

Her mother, who is a nurse, contacted the American Cancer Society. They were able to help find an organization three hours away in Galveston, Texas, that would provide a biopsy for free since Henry was under age 40. Two weeks later she went back for the results.

“Five doctors walked in the room.  Before they even opened their mouths, I knew.”

She was diagnosed with early-stage two breast cancer. She ended up having a lumpectomy and radiation and then a later partial mastectomy because the tissue around the breast was still cancerous.

Henry went through four rounds of chemo and lost every bit of hair on her body.  She went through the nausea, didn’t want to eat and was exhausted all the time.

Chemo was followed by six weeks of daily radiation. “Seeing all the older people around me going through the same thing, I was a little depressed, but I made it through.” But as soon as the radiation was over, new problems erupted.

Her period, which had stopped during chemo and radiation, returned with a vengeance, sometimes lasting seven to 10 days. One episode of bleeding was so heavy her mother rushed her to the emergency room.

She was diagnosed with endometriosis; the bleeding was so intense that doctors worried it meant cancer was spreading to her uterus. Three weeks later she had a partial hysterectomy.

Hoping her health challenges were behind her, in 2006 she moved to Florida with her boyfriend, whose mother was ill.  She’d already finished college with a degree in Business Systems Analysis in Texas and was hired at her first IT job in Tampa.

During her six years there, Henry experienced the brunt of racism and sexism by a threatened white male who was put in charge of her department.

“He didn’t want me there,” she acknowledged. “He didn’t think I had a right to be there.”

She was eventually forced out, or “laid off.” Her skills enabled her to get contract work, but it wasn’t ideal.

But it was another experience of physical abuse during this time that triggered old wounds. When Henry’s children became teenagers and were busy with their own activities, depression and anxiety returned.

She found herself “thinking negatively about the things that had happened to me as a young girl.” Henry started therapy and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome related to incidents occurring during childhood.

She sought out a support group in St. Pete and joined Sistahs Surviving Breast Cancer. Soon during events and fundraisers, she became the one who learned and taught various line dances to the group. Seeing how the dancing made her “eyes light up,” Henry said the group members encouraged her to follow up on classes being taught by Natasha Walker of Nu Body Fitness.

“I started going to the class three or four times a week and going to their dances and parties, and I noticed I started losing weight.” In 10 months, Henry lost 32 pounds of the nearly 50 pounds she had gained while taking the breast cancer treatment drug Tamoxifen.

One evening, while teaching line dancing to members of her church’s praise team at an event at the Ridgecrest Y, she was spotted by the facility’s then-director. He asked her if she’d be interested in teaching line dancing classes at their center.  She took him up on it.

Today, with classes in Clearwater and Largo, traveling with the Embrace Life Groove Squad to competitions and parties and doing community dance events, Henry has become a line dance fixture in the Tampa Bay area. And she’s thrilled in her new job as an IT Analyst for the county, where she feels her skills and talents are “embraced” rather than dismissed.

On a recent Saturday, Embrace Life Groove Squad was joined by Qween Sheila and her fun-loving and sassy ladies of Line Dance Connection, a six-year-old troupe hailing from Tampa.  Qween Sheila’s group clearly enjoyed the line dancing fellowship; it was easy to see the two groups’ support of each other.

Many of Henry’s regulars were also in attendance, including 75-year-old Ann Clarke. “Dancing is great exercise,” declared the spunky senior. “I’ve been doing it for years, and I love it.”

Dollie Wilkins, a member of Embrace Life Groove Squad for the last five years, noted, “I’ve always loved to dance, which is why I love line dancing.” Kriserlon Key of Largo reflected, “I’ve been dancing with Leslie for five years; it’s energizing, it helps me keep myself motivated.”

For more information on the Embrace Life Groove Squad’s upcoming events, visit Urban Soul Line Dance w/Leslie on Facebook.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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