Each week, journalist and host Stephanie Stephens celebrates healthy living with a famous figure age 45+.
Mary Murphy is in the house and she’s here to talk—not scream—about the keys to her health and happiness. An ebullient judge and crowd favorite on Fox’s 11th season of So You Think You Can Dance, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. Central), Murphy—the acknowledged “Queen of Scream”—is a former championship-winning professional dancer herself with a long list of credits to her name. A choreographer and coach, Murphy, 56, has also appeared in movies, including Dance with Me, with Vanessa Williams, and the thriller Killer Movie, opposite Kaley Cuoco.
Murphy doesn’t just think she can dance—she knows it. She’s coached Dennis Quaid, Mary Steenburgen and Donnie Wahlberg and judged major national ballroom competitions, and she owns a San Diego-based studio, the Champion Ballroom Academy. Let’s get right to it and find out how she manages to do so much, so well, in so little time.
First, Mary, how’s SYTYCD going for you? You seem to love every minute. And so do we. I could do it forever. It’s the dream of all dream jobs for a retired dancer—watching amazing dancers do what they do. I never get tired of it. They have the most magical moments that don’t happen very often in a dancer’s life when everything comes into perfect alignment. When it happens, everybody knows it and it makes extraordinary television.
How do you Mind Your Body with what you eat? I represent the Tisanoreica Diet, the plant-based, Italian comfort diet. I have family history of heart disease and high cholesterol. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer three years ago, I took a hard look at my diet. I have a degree in physical education and “almost” got a minor in nutrition. I also started my own garden two years ago, so I know there are no pesticides and that the nutritional value is very high.
What you do for physical activity…besides dance? Actually, I don’t dance very often. I have a neuroma [a benign “pinched nerve” or a nerve tumor usually between the third and fourth toes] on my right foot so I can’t run, I’ve injured two ligaments in my right ankle, I have a torn minuscus [a common knee injury] and a torn rotator cuff [muscles and tendons around the shoulder]—I choose not to have surgery. I don’t let any of this stop me and I lift light weights every day, use my kettle bell, do squats and swim—I work out by the pool and love being outside. I really like Pilates and am getting back into yoga—both keep me from feeling like I’ve “fossilized”!
What makes you happy? You have such a positive, contagious spirit that makes us relate so well to you on the show. Being at my academy makes me happy. Every day I’m home, I go to the studio and teach a little bit. Nothing cheers me up more than seeing children or anyone ballroom dance. If my mood is somewhat down, I go watch and it snaps me right out of that feeling. Try it! Oh, and I recommend that you love what you do. I have, since I was age 5. Be careful not to get stuck in a job where you feel you’re not truly doing something you’re happy with, for it affects your quality of life and can affect your health.
What are the health benefits of dance, even for people not as fleet of foot as you? Studies show ballroom dancing is something you can do for a lifetime as a form of exercise to promote happiness because it positively affects up to six areas of the brain. You have to, lead, follow, navigate, learn choreography and of course, hear the beat. Ballroom dancing has been associated with a lower risk of dementia.
How do you help someone make a life change they need to make? I had two students who were smoking, and nagging doesn’t work. Also, you don’t have to yell. I believe in being positive and nurturing. That’s what works best for me.
How has entertainment influenced your health? We work around an epidemic of body awareness and that pressure can send somebody to the other side. If you’re healthier, you look better.
What do you do for health maintenance? I get blood work done on a regular basis every three to four months now. I especially check my vitamin D levels. It’s important to have a heads-up before something happens, and before I had cancer, I wouldn’t go unless I was dying. Now I go whether I feel good or not.
Do you want to talk about the thyroid cancer? It was 2007 and I didn’t take care of myself because I was so busy with a double season. The tumor was found when I was taking care of my elderly father in Ohio. I went in for coughing, had a strep throat and bronchitis and I was tired all the time. The doctor said, “Let me check those lymph nodes again,” and put his hands on my throat. His eyes got really big and my heart sank when he told me to see another doctor immediately.
A needle biopsy showed the tumor was slow moving, and then I got really busy again and missed two-and-a-half years of check-ups. The tumor grew and was up against my voice box—I thought of Roger Ebert, and worried I would lose my voice. But I still didn’t know I had cancer. I had surgery in December 2010 to remove the tumor, and that confirmed the cancer. As you can tell, I have my voice and I can hardly see my scar. Next, I had a very powerful radioactive iodine treatment to clear any remaining thyroid cells, and I had to be isolated for a week. That was so hard. Now I’m cancer free, and I’m looking forward to another positive check-up this December.
We’re rooting for that, Mary. Now that SYTYCD is into live shows, I’ll be watching and wishing even more that I could dance like that and like you. Thanks for sharing such positive energy here.
Stephanie Stephens, M.A. is a spokesperson, host and consultant for the active mature female demographic—midlife and boomer. She writes, produces, and hosts her multimedia channel, Mind Your Body TV, featuring timely health and lifestyle blogs, podcasts, and videos—also seen on YouTube and syndicated by AOL/On.