Alyssa Epstein is undeniably one of the strongest dancers we know. She’s worked as a professional dancer in New York City for over 16 years – 14 of which she graced the line of Radio City Rockettes. The Rockettes execute up to 300 kicks per show in around 100 shows per season. For Epstein, that means she’s performed 420,000 kicks…and that even doesn’t account for rehearsals. She’s not only an artist but also a true athlete.
Just two months after her celebratory 10th season as a Rockette, Epstein faced an unexpected battle. After noticing a small lump in her breast, Epstein underwent an early mammogram (at just 34 years old, Epstein was 6 years younger than the youngest recommended age for such medical exams). To everyone’s surprise, Epstein did, in fact, have breast cancer.
Epstein’s official diagnosis was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a noninvasive form of cancer that, if left undiagnosed and untreated, would become invasive. Determined to fight the battle and get back to dancing, Epstein underwent a double mastectomy in April 2016. And when Rockette rehearsals began in early October, she rejoined the line of ladies for her 11th season.
Today, Epstein holds the honor of being a Verdon Fosse Legacy protégé (teacher-in-training), performs with the American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, and works extensively with organizations such as Dancers Against Cancer, Dance Against Cancer, and Play for Pink. Earlier this month, she was offered the exciting opportunity to walk in New York Fashion Week.
Throughout her illustrious dance career, Epstein has worn over 18 different styles of LaDuca shoes (and who knows how many pairs of those shoes?!). So, there was no question she’d be walking the runway in the same shoes that kept her strong through 16 years in the New York dance scene, 14 years at Radio City, and 3 years dancing cancer-free.
Read more about Epstein’s journey as a dancer and her experience walking in New York Fashion Week:
Do you remember your first pair of LaDucas? I definitely remember getting my first LaDucas! For starters, I was OBSESSED with the Broadway musical “Fosse.” I probably saw it about 5 times while it was on Broadway. I knew that Fosse was the first show to debut new flexible character shoes. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a pair! The summer after I graduated college I booked my first professional job at the St. Louis MUNY. All the girls had LaDucas! (To be fair I was a modern dance major in college and spent most of my time dancing bare foot…no need for fancy dance shoes) As soon as I returned to New York, I went to the small LaDuca store on 9th Avenue right near Port Authority and purchased a pair of nude 2.5″ Teresa soft soles! My life would never be the same! LaDucas are shoes for dancers made by a dancer! Phil really understands what dancers want in a shoe. Sometimes you want a super flexible sole. Other times you want that ankle support. There is a LaDuca for your every need (and the reason I own so many pairs!).
How did you get involved in the AnaOno fashion show? Three years ago in February 2016, I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. It was a devastating diagnosis. As a professional dancer, we don’t know how long our career will be and the idea of having to withdraw from a show was soul-crushing. I had to pass on the New York Spectacular at Radio City that summer as I underwent a bilateral double mastectomy on what would have been my second day of rehearsal. Believe it or not after a major surgery like the one I had they do not set you up with physical therapy. Thank goodness that over my decade with the Rockettes I had built an amazing relationship with head athletic trainer Elaine Winslow-Redmond and she helped get me back on my feet. During my recovery, I became involved in many different charitable organizations. The ones I connected with most were dance-related. At one of the many events I attended, I was introduced to Maggie Kudirka aka the Bald Ballerina. At just 23 years old this budding dancer was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic Breast Cancer. We immediately connected and have grown to become wonderful friends. For the past three years, Maggie has walked the runway for New York Fashion Week. I had the amazing opportunity last year to watch in person as Maggie gracefully conquered the runway in SEQUINED POINTE SHOES! The crowd went crazy. It was a moment I will never forget and I was so incredibly proud of my friend. Fast forward to this year and Dana Donofree of AnaOno intimates decided she wanted to use all new models in this year’s fashion show. Maggie nominated me and I was chosen!
What was your reaction when you heard Phil LaDuca wanted to create a custom pair of shoes just for you? I was thrilled that I would be able to continue to carry the dancer torch down the runway but there was no way I was going to do it in pointe shoes (those days are long behind me) I was in Maryland performing at Maggie’s annual No One Can Survive Alone concert and the idea was born that I should walk in LaDucas! I had plenty of pairs to choose from but Dana and Maggie convinced me to reach out to Phil to see if he would be interested in doing something special for the occasion.
I never ask for anything! So emailing Phil and asking if he would be interested in collaborating was way out of my comfort zone. I even suggested the idea of using a shoe from a show that never got worn that would work with my runway look. Phil was having none of that! He INSISTED on doing a custom shoe! (Did I mention he had less than 2 weeks?!?!?!?) I cried. There were lots of tears in this entire process. LaDucas are so much more than shoes. LaDuca played a HUGE role in my recovery. My first dance class back from surgery was Randy Skinner’s tap class. Putting on my silver Roxie taps was like coming home. I am more comfortable in dance shoe than I am a sneaker. I knew I had a lot of recovery but even that first class back gave me hope that it would all be ok. The dance studio is sacred ground and I never realized how significant putting on a pair of shoes was until your life is literally turned upside down and simply putting on a pair of shoes signifies a return to normalcy. So the fact that I would be walking down the runway in custom LaDucas was a full circle life moment!
So much thought went into the shoe. The colors of the shoe represent Metavivor. Metavivor is a wonderful organization that raises funds for stage IV breast cancer research. (The fashion show raised over 200K for Metavivor!) Not only did Phil think about the colors he thought about what the shoe would say. In his own words; “Look at us. Look at who we are. We are every woman but we are also unique, individual and every one of our voices needs to be heard, listened to and responded to.” He continued; “Here I am, world. Take me for what I am because it’s me and it’s beautiful”. (There were more tears when I read this) At this point I removed myself from the email chain because I wanted to be surprised when I saw them…and boy was I.
The shoes were beyond anything I could have ever imagined. They were me. Putting on a pair of LaDucas makes me feel powerful and putting on those boots made me feel like a rock star.
I can’t thank the team at LaDuca enough for their support…literally and figuratively. I am so glad that the shoes (and I) got the New York Fashion Week moment we deserved!
And a little note from Phil LaDuca…
“I am honored to have been asked to design a pair of boots for Alyssa and Dana. In my world, we present the onstage glamour and ‘joie de vivre’ of life, but backstage—in real life—there is often a very different story. AnaOna and @fearLESS are courageously presenting the stories of these incredible women who are the real heroines of our world. Their stories matter. Their courage matters. Thank you, Dana, Alyssa, and all the amazing women who are fearLESSly showing their beauty and spirit…inspiring us all. xo, Phil”