Watching Marinda Davis teach at NYC’s Broadway Dance Center, you’d never guess that she’s battling eight different autoimmune diseases and taking more than 25 medications a day. And though she’s unsure of how many years she has left, Davis never lets it show—her hands-on teaching style is as encouraging as it is enthusiastic, and her passion for dance is evident in her interactions with students.
A famed choreographer, dance educator and the artistic director of her company, marInspired: the storytellers, Davis is a regular on the convention circuit and has been nominated for two Capezio A.C.E Awards. The physicality and long, unpredictable hours that come with this territory can be a tough job for anyone, let alone someone dealing with various illnesses, medications and their side effects. But when Davis was diagnosed with her first autoimmune disease at age 28, and her final one at age 31, she decided that she wouldn’t let it stop her career. Instead, she let it fuel her creativity and often shares her story with students in hopes that it’ll offer them inspiration.
Growing up, Davis was sick often and visited tons of doctors and specialists in an attempt to figure out the cause. “No one could really figure it out,” she says. “Since I was adopted, there was quite a bit of my medical history missing, which didn’t help.” After moving to Los Angeles at age 28, she saw new specialists who finally began to piece together what was going on. “I always knew something was wrong with my body so I kept advocating for myself and researching,” she says. “It was empowering in a sense to finally have that validation from doctors, but the devastation of finding out the diagnoses was tremendously difficult.”
Since the diseases affect different parts of her body, Davis deals with a wide range of symptoms everyday, not to mention side effects from the various medications. She’s also had to adjust to the unpredictability of it all. “Before I got this sick I was such a planner,” she says. “Now I experience a fluctuation of symptoms, so I try to live my life hour to hour.”
One of the diseases, vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, was a particularly difficult diagnosis to hear because it has a projected lifespan of age 40. “I obviously plan on beating that, but it’s something I live with everyday,” says Davis, who is now 34. “I hear a clock ticking constantly, but it’s forced me to see life from a different perspective. Everything feels like it might be the last time, so I see the beautiful moments and I try to freeze them. I laugh harder, I cry harder, and I see quickly what’s important.”
Davis calls managing her medications and doctors appointments “a second job.” She undergoes chemotherapy, her roster of daily medications, sees nearly 25 different specialists and doctors, and has to be home in L.A. at certain points every month for appointments and medical testing. Managing all of this, along with constant travel for her teaching and choreography gigs on the convention circuit, can be difficult. She’s had to adjust to this new lifestyle by traveling with assistants, managing her workload by cutting down on long hours of teaching, and taking occasional breaks—but her career keeps her going.
Davis recalls one particularly tough time in 2015 after being diagnosed with Lupus, in which she became so sick that it landed her in the hospital for months. She had just been nominated and placed second runner-up for her second Capezio A.C.E. Award for her piece UNbreakable, complete with funding for a full-length performance. While her doctors urged her not to take on the project, she was determined to produce the show on her company dancers and wasn’t going to let anything stop her. “I don’t know what made me fight for it, except I heard this clock, and I had this story to share, and I had a group of incredible dancers that I just knew could bring it to life,” she says. “In an odd way, I think it helped me get better.” The show ended up being a great success.
As she’s adjusted to face her prognosis, Davis has started to share her story with larger audiences. In November, her choreography was featured on the “Dancing With the Stars” season finale, in which Julianne Hough performed an emotional piece based on Davis’ journey and the new perspective gained from a terminal illness. Hough personally requested that Davis create an original work for the show based on her own perspective of what she was going through. “It was difficult at first to create something new for such a huge audience,” says Davis, “but I had to trust myself, and it was incredibly rewarding.”
Davis is also featured in the second season of “My Last Days“ on the CW. Created and hosted by “Jane the Virgin” star Justin Baldoni, the docu-series follows the true stories of people facing terminal illnesses. According to Davis, it took her “a really long time” to agree to do the show. At first, even the title completely turned her off to the idea because she didn’t feel ready to face her life expectancy, “but as I got to know Justin, I realized that this was a really incredible story that needed to be told,” she says. “Doing the show has made me face my mortality head on and has changed my life a lot. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of.”
Most importantly, Davis wants her optimistic outlook to set an example for her students. “I really want to be strong for the kids and have them see that no matter what you’re going through, you can keep going. You can always find a way.”
Marinda’s episode of “My Last Days” aired last week on the CW network.