Jessica Martineau

SCA 1994, Glacier National Park

Professional Dancer and Genetic Counselor

New York, NY

Dancer, Performer, Genetic Counselor: you don’t see that skill set every day. In 1994, at 17, Jessica Martineau joined an SCA trail crew at Glacier National Park. Since then, she’s earned degrees in dance and anthropology from the University of Michigan, performed on stages from New York to Vegas, and faced down a life-threatening illness.  Jessica now helps others cope with their own genetic disorders. We spoke with her just before she headed off for her crew’s 20-year reunion at Glacier.

So you’re getting the band back together, so to speak…

Our reunion is July 7th. SCA was monumental for me. To this day, I still think about it. We worked really hard but we had a ball.  It was a great way to volunteer for a national park.  It’s the most amazing program a high schooler can do.  

What did you take away from the experience?

That you can meet any challenge.  I’ve carried that with me all my life. I came back with a strong work ethic after those long, exhausting days.  It changed the boundaries of what I thought was hard work. 

Do nature and dance intersect anywhere for you?

Nature’s colors, the way things grow and take form – there’s a magic about it.  It really is art, and in terms of my dance career, it’s really similar.  Choreography can come from necessity or spontaneity.  There’s an organic-ness that exists in both nature and dance.

And you reached an intersection of your own several years ago…

When I was 25, I had a cardiac arrest.  I was rehearsing with a San Francisco dance company, getting ready for a big show, when everything went black and I dropped to the floor with no heartbeat. I was diagnosed with inherited genetic Long QT Syndrome.  It’s basically an arrhythmia. 

What was dealing with that like?

It was really confusing.  When people have a life-threatening disease, usually there’s a sign.  This was out of left field.  I didn’t want a device implanted.  The doctors said “you’re foolish” but I started taking medication and after a second episode, we upped the meds.  I’ve come to terms with it. The Grim Reaper doesn’t lurk in the background anymore.

Did that lead you to become a counselor?

Yes.  I remember being 25 and completely lost and overwhelmed with this diagnosis.  For years thought “Why me?  How did I get so unlucky?”  I entered grad school in 2010, dancing on weekends to pay for it, and was hired at the NYU Clinical Cancer Center last fall.  It feels good giving those with inherited genetic conditions the kind of support I would have appreciated at 25 years old.

And somehow you managed to fit Vegas into the equation.

In my late 20s, I auditioned for a show in Las Vegas and thought I botched it. But I got called for Jubilee, one of the last of the big showgirl shows with feathered headdresses and everything, and I did 12 shows a week for two years.

Your online photo galleries are amazing. 

Most of the costumes in those pictures are from specific events or theme parties: a Cuban Liberation Day party, a ‘50s prom-themed birthday party.  It’s a lot of fun – the only problem is some of my patients have started to Google me!

See the ABC News report on Jessica’s response to her cardiac condition and view images of Jessica as a dancer.

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