Dance long has been Tia Stokes’ love language.
Starting at age 10, she grooved her way through a southern Utah adolescence and added funky movements to her cheerleading routines at Hurricane High School. Tia then took her ambitions to Los Angeles, where she backed up Beyonce, and to Hawaii, where she performed Tahitian techniques at the Polynesian Cultural Center, twirled pompoms at professional football and basketball games, and finally returned to the Beehive State to create her own dance troupe.
The 34-year-old mom moved to the beat during five pregnancies, and taught her boys to hip and hop, while carrying a full load of students from toddlers to adults at her St. George studio, The Vault.
Positivity and prayer have been Tia’s other passions, calling out inspirational slogans — “you got this, girl” and “you are enough” — as students gyrated around the studio while always giving praise to God.
But could Tia bring those aspects of her identity to 30 days of crushing cancer treatments, when her body was wracked with nausea, headaches, chills and all manner of infirmities, and when she was isolated from family and friends in a Salt Lake City hospital during a global pandemic?
The answer has been a resounding yes.
Tia posts daily TikTok videos of her latest steps on Instagram and YouTube — including days when she could barely pop and lock her arms — and peppers them with quotes and sayings meant to lift and edify.
After each rocking episode, the daring dancer closes with prayer.
These virtual videos have made her a social media sensation, attracting more than 120,000 Instagram followers across the globe. They tune in to cheer on the Utah mom, who boosts their spirits with her energy and ebullience during a dark time.
But being upbeat does not come naturally, easily or, frankly, genetically, Tia’s mom, Irene Ah Quin, says with a laugh. It requires discipline and practice.
Her hipster daughter, the proud mother says tearfully, has been training for this moment — like a marathon of optimism — her whole life.
When she was 16, Tia got an unexpected and unwelcome glimpse into her future.
After donating blood during a Red Cross drive, the teen received a note from one of the group’s doctors, suggesting that she might develop leukemia in the next 15 or so years.
She learned the deadly disease sometimes happens in her Pacific Island culture — her father, Clayton Ah Quin (who died nearly seven years ago) was Chinese/Hawaiian and her mother is Samoan.
The grim prediction stunned family members, but after much prayer, Tia says, comfort came and the young dancer continued her vibrant lifestyle.
Fast forward to when she returned to southern Utah in 2007 at age 21, ready to open The Vault, to teach R&B, hula, jazz and other contemporary styles to a conservative culture and to form a small, performing troupe.
But what to call her new company?
The word, calamity, kept coming into her mind, she recalls from her room at Intermountain Healthcare’s LDS Hospital, which was weird because all was well in her world at the time.
The prompting came from God, she insists, but she spelled the troupe’s name with a K because “it was edgier.”
Sure enough, before Kalamity’s first public performance, a member of the company was diagnosed with leukemia and had to go to Utah’s capital city for treatment.
On the spot, Tia and her husband, Andy Stokes, decided that all the money they collected would go toward helping that dancer with her medical bills.
Thus, a slogan and a mission were born: “We dance for a cause, not for applause.”
From that day forward, all of Kalamity’s show revenue has been donated to various people facing tragedies and trials, eventually raising more than $600,000 for others.
In the midst of building her dance career, she married Andy, who had played in the NFL, then was a coach at Dixie State. He now coaches at Timpview High School in Orem.
Andy knew about Tia’s generosity and fully supported her in it, making props and scenery for shows.
“It was such a good feeling to help others,” he recalls. “That’s what we were meant to do.”
The couple then had five kids, four boys, 11, 9, 6 and 2, and, last year, little Rose.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tia came up with the ideas and choreography for an online-only benefit performance.
She’s “so creative,” says Nate Lam, her co-teacher at her Orem Vault studio. “She’s super fun and puts out such a good vibe.”
By moving into the virtual universe, the company still was able to raise funds for two children: one with Down syndrome and cancer; the other with burns over most of his body from a campfire accident.
Then Tia got sick.
“After helping more than 60 others,” Andy says, “you never think it will happen to you.”
During the nine months that Rose was in Tia’s belly, the mother had a constant cough, nausea and aches but shrugged them off as just the price of pregnancy.
But after the girl arrived in August, the symptoms stayed and by March had expanded to include a sore throat, night sweats and bruising.
She was treated with antibiotics for pneumonia time after time, but nothing worked.
When COVID-19 struck, the couple and their doctor wondered if that could be the culprit.
On April 22, Tia got a blood test. She did not have the virus, the doctor reported, but was anemic and would need to get B12 shots. The specialist he called felt it might be something more dire like ... leukemia.
That night, sitting in a grocery store parking lot, while Andy went to pick up some items, Tia heard her dad’s voice in her head, saying, “It’s leukemia, but we’ve got this. Let’s go.”
That’s what dad always said when the two of them ran marathons together, and it gave her comfort.
On Friday morning, the doctor, a family friend, showed up at their house, crying and saying, “It is very, very bad.”
She had acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood, and would need to go right away to Salt Lake City for treatment.
Andy wept at the news, while Tia sat. Calmly.
A friend came over to take a family photo, and then the still sobbing husband whisked his wife to her new home for the next month and waved goodbye, knowing it would be weeks before he could hug her again.
A video journal
The chemo and cancer left Tia shaky, so she began documenting her experience in daily 15-minute videos on Instagram.
Even during the brutal first week of treatment, with sores and bruises up and down her body, she was able to do at least one short dance. Sometimes she could manage only a slight dangling of her head and lifting her arms up and down.
Still, she persisted.
Each afternoon she would teach a new TikTok routine, either one she created or learned from others, and invite viewers to dance along with her (which they have done by the hundreds). In the evening, she posted videos of herself in side-by-side “duets” with those who have sent their own videos. Even some nurses on the oncology unit have joined in.
When she began to lose globs of hair, she filmed her head-shaving and went on videos without wigs.
But that first moment was emotionally unsettling.
“I was not scared of being bald but about the reality of the cancer,” she says. “Like, wow, this is real. This isn't just a dream. This is my life right now.”
She doesn’t consider herself beautiful, Tia says, “but I know that my spirit is.”
Speaking of spirituality, each of her videos ends with a callout to God.
Tia is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but only once mentioned that in her videos, so few of her followers know it.
“I proudly said I’m a member in a YouTube interview,” she says, “I don't need to be preachy, but I am going to talk about what I believe in … and try to bring Christlike love to everyone, whether they are Catholic, Jewish or whatever.”
The feelings seem to be reciprocated. She has heard from all kinds of believers — from Iraq to Russia, Greece to Australia — who say they are beseeching divinity on her behalf.
“Every night I tune into your YouTube [videos] and I join together in prayer with you and everyone else,” a follower writes from New Jersey. “It has ignited my faith again and made me realize I am strong and beautiful and can do hard things.”
A Rhode Island follower, who describes herself as “nonreligious,” seems to benefit from the nightly prayers, saying, “they mean so much to me now more than ever.”
The response overwhelms Tia.
“All God’s children are coming together for me,” Tia says. “It strengthens and energizes me.”
The online community also has united to help the Stokeses renovate their house.
While Tia has been hospitalized, mold was discovered in their historic Orem home, so her husband and friends have been furiously tearing out walls, redoing plumbing, and overhauling the kitchen for Tia’s return this weekend.
“She can’t be around anything that will make her sick,” Andy says. “It was a four-year project we had to do in four weeks.”
Scores across the country have sent money and goods.
Tia will be home for about a week, then go back to the hospital for another round of chemo. That pattern will continue four more times.
So will her video record, her buoyant notes, and her deep faith.
And, of course, dancing.
It is her joy, Tia says. She will never stop — and plans to take everyone bopping, hopping and stretching along the path with her.