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Dancer directs company's first holiday production in spite of lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis

From her early swirling solos as the Sugarplum Fairy on Howard County stages to co-founding Charm City Ballet in May, Friedman has followed the steps of many gifted dancers before her. But her journey to dance, teach and direct her company's first performance of "A Christmas Carol" on Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art has included a challenge most dancers don't face: a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that clogs the lungs, damages the digestive system and reduces life expectancy.

Onstage, Rebecca Friedman glows with warmth and joy, tinged with elegance. Whatever that quality is that makes one performer stand out above the others, "Becca" has it, and audiences tend to sense it.

From her early swirling solos as the Sugarplum Fairy on Howard County stages to co-founding Charm City Ballet in May, Friedman has followed the steps of many gifted dancers before her. But her journey to dance, teach and direct her company's first performance of "A Christmas Carol" on Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art has included a challenge most dancers don't face: a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that clogs the lungs, damages the digestive system and reduces life expectancy.

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Rebecca Friedman, front, and Peter Commander, behind her, cofounders and directors of Charm City Ballet, watch a rehearsal of "A Christmas Carol," which debuts Dec. 19 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Friedman, 28, endures a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that clogs the lungs, damages the digestive system and reduces life expectancy.
Rebecca Friedman, front, and Peter Commander, behind her, cofounders and directors of Charm City Ballet, watch a rehearsal of "A Christmas Carol," which debuts Dec. 19 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Friedman, 28, endures a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that clogs the lungs, damages the digestive system and reduces life expectancy. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Friedman's dance career started in Columbia under the tutelage of Kathi Ferguson at the Howard County Ballet. She was a member of Wilde Lake High School's dance company and took advantage of summer dance residencies. During her contemporary dance career at Goucher College, she met her sweetheart and company co-founder, Peter Commander.

Today, the 28-year-old appears serious, but she softens when she speaks, and her broad smile lightens even the most somber conversation. At just over 5 feet tall, she possesses the kind of lithe body that choreographers look for. Maintaining that physique is not an easy task, considering the hardships of the art form and her daily medical regimen.

"I do two different sessions of therapy each day: once right when I wake up, and once sometime in the evening or night ... whenever I happen to have the time," Friedman said before the company's Sunday rehearsal in Cockeysville. "Each session includes three nebulized meds and a 30-minute session of physical therapy."

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that afflicts 30,000 Americans. According to the Mayo Clinic, it affects production of mucus, sweat and digestive juices, causing fluids that are normally thin and slippery to become thick and sticky. This clogs tubes, ducts and passageways, and damages the lungs and digestive system.

For Friedman, the nebulized medications — mist inhaled into the lungs — thin out the mucus, bring it up and out, and fight the constant infection growing in her lungs. Physical therapy means wearing a vest connected to a machine that makes her shake, helping to knock mucus loose enough to cough out. That's in addition to a daily regimen of about 60 pills, many of which are pancreatic enzymes taken before meals to help with digestion. She'll continue the treatment for the rest of her life.

When Friedman speaks about her illness, she's deliberate and clear. She said feels fortunate that her cystic fibrosis is considered mild to moderate, and that she is relatively healthy despite the disease.

"I've always made taking care of myself a toppriority,and I think it's partly due to this that I'm still able to be as active as I am," she said. "I know many other CF patients who are on oxygen all the time and have trouble doing simple tasks like walking up stairs, while there are others I know who run marathons."

But the effects of cystic fibrosis aren't just physical — the emotional fight is one of the most difficult parts, Friedman said.

"For most of us, it is an invisible disease," she said. "People look at me and see me as a normal, healthy 28-year-old. So on days when I'm not feeling my best or am coughing nonstop or am just really exhausted, people often don't understand why or think I'm just giving excuses. They forget that I'm battling against my body 24/7 and, though I put up a good fight, there are certain days that CF wins."

The struggle is compounded by the fact that in-person cystic fibrosis support groups are ill advised. Because of their susceptibility to infection, cystic fibrosis patients are discouraged from meeting, to prevent passing strains of bacteria among themselves. Instead, Friedman draws support from Facebook groups where patients share their experiences, as well as from her family and her doctor.

Rebecca Friedman, center, and Peter Commander, right, work through a rehearsal of Charm City Ballet's "A Christmas Carol." Friedman and Commander cofounded Charm City Ballet in May.
Rebecca Friedman, center, and Peter Commander, right, work through a rehearsal of Charm City Ballet's "A Christmas Carol." Friedman and Commander cofounded Charm City Ballet in May. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

"Rebecca is incredibly inspirational," said Dr. Michael Boyle, vice president of therapeutics development at the Maryland chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. "She has not let the challenges of CF affect her passion and dedication to her art, despite the large chunk of her day devoted to therapy and medicine. And she is able to maintain this rigorous process and still spread this passion to others, inspiring so many."

Before joining the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Boyle founded and directed the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he met and treated Friedman.His current research is focused on clinical trials for the development of new therapies, including one that would simulate the protein enzyme lacking in patients.

"I have a special gratitude for Dr. Boyle," Friedman said. "He has, by far, been the best doctor I've ever had, and that's saying a lot since I've seen many. He has always made my fight against cystic fibrosis part of his battle, and he has made me feel as though I am a part of all decision making. And he has made me feel, within reason of course, that there's nothing to fear."

Boyle points out how the cystic fibrosis story has changed over the past 15 years. This year marks the first time there are more adults than children living with cystic fibrosis. Not long ago, the average patient survived only into her teens; today, the average age of survival is 40. Improvements in cystic fibrosis therapy could mean improvement in patients' quality of life and even longer survival.

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"I remember when Rebecca was diagnosed as an infant, and I asked if it was OK to kiss her," said her mother, Gloria Friedman. "That's how little I knew about the disease. It took years to realize that she wasn't as fragile as we feared."

Despite her medical challenges, studying dance was "a no-brainer" for Friedman, her mother said.

"I saw her in some student modern dance choreography that really impressed me," said Gloria Friedman. "Her movement was ethereal, her arms appeared to float through space. Now ... I see Rebecca's amazing abilities, both on stage and in life."

During a break in a Sunday-morning rehearsal at The Moving Company's Cockeysville studio, Friedman talked about the process of forming a new company. Since it was a new beginning for Commander and Friedman, the dancers decided they needed a new story to tell during the Christmas season.

Charm City Ballet dancer Madison Bonvissuto, 21, a dance student at Towson University, rehearses a solo in "A Christmas Carol," which premieres Dec. 19.
Charm City Ballet dancer Madison Bonvissuto, 21, a dance student at Towson University, rehearses a solo in "A Christmas Carol," which premieres Dec. 19. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

"Since we both have a long history of 'The Nutcracker,' we decided that the Charles Dickens' tale was a worthy alternative," Commander said. "Everyone on stage plays a particular character, and we have created a special pas de deux [dance duet] for the two of us in the first act."

"A Christmas Carol" has a cast of 32 dancers, ranging in age from 8 to 70.The music includes some of Nick Bicat's original score, as used in the 1984 film adaptation, as well as the works of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

Cast member Ellen Bast called the production "choreographically, technically, musically and thematically innovative. I am excited to see how everything comes together once we are onstage," she said.

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"I've worked with a lot of companies, but I feel Pete and Rebecca share a unique quality," said Josh Hailey Miller, who studies dance at Towson University. "I don't know anything about her medical history, but I do know she has a wonderful sense of musicality."

Commander, however, sees her daily medical routine firsthand and commends her courage and talent.

"Oh, she's special," he said chuckling, glancing at his partner with loving eyes. "I know she will not allow any restrictions from the illness hold her back from what she loves — dance."

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