Erin Monteleone, Taking the Stage as a Breast Cancer Survivor
Erin Montelone is a professional dancer, choreographer, director, model, and photographer based in New York City. Erin has performed in the Opera, musicals, on cruise ships, and has performed many seasons as a Radio City Rockette. Erin is a strong breast cancer survivor. Erin shares what it takes to make it as a professional dancer in New York City, behind the scenes of being a Rockette, the importance of taking control of your life, how she stayed positive during chemotherapy treatment, and her impressive return to dance. We were thrilled to have Erin model in our very first TCL photoshoot. Prepare to be inspired!
Can you tell me a little bit about your career trajectory so far?
I grew up training in ballet, tap and jazz. My first professional job was working on cruise ships for Celebrity Cruises. I moved to New York after my fourth [Celebrity Cruises] contract. I ended up booking a musical, and while I was away doing the musical, I missed the Rockettes audition in New York. There was another audition in LA. So, right after the musical job, I flew to LA to audition. It was my third time auditioning for the Rockettes. I made it to the end [of the audition process], but didn’t book the job. They had one more audition in New York in August and I figured ‘let me just go one more time, I’m going to show up and show this is what I want’. I got a phone call offering me the job on the tour. I proceeded to perform with them [The Rockettes] for six seasons. After my sixth season, I was itching to do more theater, so I left for two years. I worked at the opera, I did a regional musical. I had a blast. Then I missed it, and I went back. After that I thought maybe I really should take the break that I intended to take and firmly audition for things, and go for this musical theater. I left the Rockettes for six years and in that time I worked for the opera and did a lab for a broadway musical that is still hopeful to proceed. I got diagnosed with cancer right as things were coming back after the pandemic, so June of 2021. I couldn’t participate in anything for about a year. At that time I thought the most important thing was the fact that I love dancing and performing. I always loved being a Rockette. I went back and auditioned this past year. When I auditioned it was two months after my second surgery. I hadn’t been dancing the way I normally would before an audition. I got to do the season again this past year. I am also a fitness instructor. I teach barre and pilates. I also teach dance,choreograph and direct a Nutcracker for kids.
What advice would you give to someone about pursuing dance?
A big thing is work for yourself. Put in the work for you. You have to do the work and all of the challenging things. There is such a thing as healthy competition, but your competition needs to be within yourself first, to be better than you were the day before. No matter what your doing, even if you are doing dance as a recreational thing, if you are going to spend the time doing it you might as well work really hard. The harder you work, the more satisfying the results are. I see this in my students all the time. The ones that fight for it for themselves, not because they need to prove it to anyone else are the ones that really blossom and go the places they want to go.
Throughout your career, What is the best advice you’ve received? What is the worst advice you’ve received?
The worst advice would be that old school view that everybody's body needs to look the same, and what makes you a dancer is your appearance. I think that's not at all true. Dance is a physical art and you have to take care of yourself. Not only the way you eat but the way you are forcing your body into positions without thinking about the way it should correctly happen. Conversely, there's a teacher I had in the Opera that was always telling us to breathe, to take up space, and move. Don’t bear down and tighten things up. Be free to dance. She tells us to enjoy it and paint the room in your movement. Anybody can do that. I love that idea of finding freedom in the dance. Own yourself and own what you bring to the table.
As you know, The Cleanest Lab was created as a pure beauty solution for Ashley as she navigated heightened sensitivity due to chemotherapy. You’ve been on a journey yourself. Could you share a little bit about your experience?
I'm a dancer. I do things all day long. I had no idea I had cancer. To find out I did was like running into a brick wall. Everything about your life changes. You’re watching people on social media complaining about their flight being delayed or something and thinking well I'm going through chemotherapy and everything that touches my skin burns. It changed my perspective on life. Cancer sucks no matter when you have it. In my experience as a person under 40 who works in a physical sense, having cancer, it's really hard to watch your friends live their life. Your peers are living, running, dancing, looking beautiful. You're dealing with looking in the mirror and overnight you don't know the person you're looking at. You have to get rid of a lot of things that you use. All the things that felt good and made you feel beautiful, now you can’t use them. Trying to find all natural versions that don’t have the things on the list of stuff that shouldn’t be in your products. If you make a mistake and use the wrong thing, you pay for it. That’s why I think this is such a great thing [The Cleanest Lab] because there is no luxury style product that follows the rules. There may be some out there but you never really know what you're getting and what the intention was behind creating it. It's nice to know there’s that intention behind it.
How did you find out you had cancer?
I noticed a lump in my left breast, and it was quite sizable. Maybe almost an inch in size. I thought it’s probably a cyst and decided to give it a week and see if it changes in any way. I woke up one morning and felt it more than I had before. I decided I was calling my doctor. They didn’t have any appointments, so I just walked in and said I need to be seen. My mom had breast cancer. At the time I was 37. My doctor prefers women get mammograms at 35 because she’s seen it too many times. She wrote the prescription for the mammogram and ultrasound, so I got an appointment to go the next day. They did the mammogram and didn’t say anything. Then I got to the ultrasound and when they got to the right side they were taking a ton of pictures. I almost said something like it was the left side we are supposed to be looking at. The technician isn’t allowed to say anything. She wasn’t showing a lot of emotion, but I could tell by her posture that something is really wrong. When they brought me back to the room the radiologist said they don't like what they see here. Because I have dense tissue, and this is an important thing for women that have dense tissue, there are a lot of things that feel like lumps because the tissue is thick. It’s harder to see on mammograms, and harder to self-exam. The mammogram and ultrasound picked up cancer in my right breast and axillary lymph node in my underarm area. They had to confirm with a biopsy, but I could also tell by the Radiologists posture. I hate going to the doctor, but I’m obviously very glad I did. I had a type of cancer called HER2+ and estrogen and progesterone were positive. So I was hormone positive and HER2+. I was all of the above. I did a lot of pushing. I kept showing up places and calling people and pushed to get my chemotherapy started. A month from when I was diagnosed, I started chemotherapy. Usually it takes a couple of months.
What advice would you give someone going through a similar experience?
I think when you're first diagnosed it is overwhelming. It’s important to take the reins of your care. Learn as much as you can from scientific backgrounds. Don’t google it. Ask your doctor for legitimate articles and legitimate information. Ask questions. Make your doctor explain. Sometimes they will rush. Ask the questions and make sure you feel comfortable with what’s going on. Accept the support people are offering and don't be afraid to set boundaries in that support. Sometimes, people are overwhelming because they want to help so much and their intentions are great, but you need your moments to process or to cry or do your research. Let people know exactly what you need so they can help in a way that’s appropriate for you. Regarding seeing your friends' lives, you do get a lot of down time and scrolling is not helpful. I read a lot of books. When I wanted to pick up my phone, I avoided looking at everyone else's lives in their picture perfect Instagram way. I found movies, series to watch. I got into photography. Going out and finding what's beautiful outside. Sometimes I would just be taking pictures of things inside my apartment. Sometimes you need to not focus on your own life and step away from that. Finding a hobby that's unrelated to your old life so you don’t feel like you're missing out on something you expected to have. You are creating something new in that moment that's for you and doesn’t feel like it’s attached to an identity of yourself.
It sounds like you were able to maintain a positive outlook through this experience.
I kept my sights on where I wanted to end up. There are these dips of having to process it. In the midst of it, you don't always process as much as you should. When your treatment ends, that’s that moment you actually process it and it's a little bit overwhelming. Keeping positivity really does help you through. I would dance whenever I could. My doctor thought that played a part in my wellbeing. Sometimes it was moving side to side in my chair, rolling my shoulders down and back just to have some blood flow. If you know your path and you’re comfortable with your treatment plan, there is no point in harping on it because we’re doing what we can. At the end of treatment, that is your time to deal with how to transition back to life, or the life you planned. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way you envisioned in your head.
Can you share a bit about getting back into dance?
I was getting back into dance after treatment and the pandemic as I was auditioning. For the most part, I was dancing in my apartment. We were just back to using a studio. I had to be patient with myself. You can't overnight get back what you have worked your whole life to have. I had neuropathy during treatment so I couldn't feel my toes. Obviously that presents a problem when you’re jumping, so I had to work on it. From surgery, the range of motion in my upper body I needed to regain. It was a process of making small changes every day to get there. The audition this year was the most intense audition I’ve ever done for the Rockettes. It was a three day process. It was a really intense process. You’re learning choreography very quickly. It took a lot of energy and focus to get through the audition process, but I did. Coming back into rehearsals, it didn’t feel like I was brand new, but it also didn’t quite feel like I had been doing the job since I had been away from it for six years.
When you found out you got the job, what was that moment like?
I definitely cried. It was kind of like is it real? I kept feeling like I made it up. When you want something so badly for so long and it finally happens it is a pinch me moment. Thankfully, my boyfriend was sitting next to me. As soon as I saw the phone call coming in from Radio City, it was really exciting.
Can you tell us a little bit about the behind the scenes of performing as a Rockette?
One of the best parts is the friends you make. You have to spend 90 minutes between each show with the little group of people that's your dressing room. We come up with a lot of ways of keeping entertained. There’s a lot of games. We hangout outside of the show. It’s not just a job. It’s a super hard job, so it's really rewarding that you have this group of people that are seeing you through it. Everyone’s helping each other out.
Let's switch to a few beauty questions. Do you have any beauty hacks you want to share?
I like minimal things, I love a warm brown eyeliner and a pinkish tone swipe of eyeshadow and mascara. That’s how I go about my day. I am very busy and I like things that are quick. Adding a sheer rosy lip balm with a little color. As long as I’ve done that, I feel okay. I can do it in five minutes and I’m out the door.
What is your favorite cleanest lab product?
I love the hair mask! Because of [chemotherapy] treatment my hair texture is weird and I have a lot of gray. I’ve started highlighting it to blend the gray that's left over from treatment. That mask makes my hair feel so mangeable and nice and not weighed down either. Sometimes masks can feel really heavy and I can tell as soon as I rinse my hair, it comes out clean. I also love the Leave-In Conditioner. It’s great for my curls because it keeps them from being so frizzy.
If you are local to New York City, under 40 years old and have been diagnosed with breast cancer reach out to 5 Under Forty. They are an incredible organization dedicated to proving medical, wellness, educational, and beauty services.