ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She was, many of you will recall, Sabrina Vanjeffdenjohn, the Dancing Queen of Wyoming and Academy NE, the woman who wore her heart on her hot pink sleeveless spandex, the woman who was light on her feet and light in her being.
The woman who apparently made many of you smile so many years ago.
And she still does.
I had gone in search of Vanjeffdenjohn – a name she legally adopted for “metaphysical reasons” – three months ago when the universe, or maybe just readers, started nudging me to find out what had happened to the woman they used to see every day, rain or shine or wind, high-stepping, whirling and whooping on the jogging path around the Albuquerque Academy in the 1990s.
Oh, she had been a sight back then, dancing and prancing to the beat of an unknown tune on her Walkman, happy, bubbly, bright and, yes, a little dangerous when her feet would seem to take wing and fling her nearly into traffic or an unassuming mom with stroller.
That column on Vanjeffdenjohn (“Remembering a Duke City dance-walking pioneer,” March 29, 2014) was published during a week heavy with tragic, troubling news: the release of the video of APD officers shooting homeless camper James Boyd, the ensuing protest against APD that ended in clouds of tear gas, the shooting of a suspect by a U.S. marshal.
But you made her story one of the top five most read that week.
Among those reading were her relatives, who wrote or called to tell me how pleased they were that so many of you think of Vanjeffdenjohn with such fondness.
“Just wanted to say blessings to you and all whose lives were touched by her soul while she was here with us,” cousin Karen Abear of Albuquerque wrote.
Abear remembers Vanjeffdenjohn as a happy, cosmically connected woman who taught her how to belly-dance and groove to Bee Gees disco songs. Vanjeffdenjohn, Abear said, loved the first “Star Wars” movie so much she lost track of how many times she had seen it. She also loved to meditate in the mountains or simply sit to hear the birds sing and see flowers flutter in the breeze.
“She lived by her own rules and was very much a free spirit,” Abear said. “Never seemed to fit in, really. She just wanted to be happy and connect to the universe through her dance walk. That’s how I want people to remember her: as the free spirit she was.”
As cousin Donna Prahl of Los Lunas put it: “People either liked her or thought she was crazy. Either way, she just did her own thing.”
In the previous column, all we had learned was that she had been Sharon Rae Reed, an office worker at the local Social Security office. She went to court in 1991 to change her name and changed her life by taking up dance-walking, one hour every day, round and round the academy and wherever else her bright white sneakers could take her.
“I’m trying to make the outside look as beautiful as I feel inside,” she told my former Tribune colleague Lynn Bartels in a 1993 column.
A short, grainy YouTube video capturing a moment of Vanjeffdenjohn’s dance moves, taken in 1993 by Suzy Frick, is the only known image of the flashy dancer, who one day simply stopped dancing. She died in 2010 in Worthington, Ohio, just shy of her 67th birthday.
Now we know why.
In 2004, Vanjeffdenjohn was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and told by doctors she likely had two to four months left if she chose not to undergo radiation treatment and chemotherapy, wrote younger sister Micki Zartman of Denton, Texas.
Such medical treatments were not for Vanjeffdenjohn, who believed more in the yoga her mother, Ollieta Lee, had taught her as a child and the holistic teachings of Edgar Cayce, Prahl said.
“She wanted nothing to do with modern medicine,” Prahl said.
So instead of medical treatments, Vanjeffdenjohn danced. And she kept on dancing for the next six years.
“She had survived much longer than anyone predicted,” Zartman wrote.
Finally, as the cancer metastasized and pressed upon her spine, the family took her to the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for treatment. She lasted a few months more, Zartman said.
“She fought valiantly,” she wrote. “I will always deeply cherish those last few months with her.”
Vanjeffdenjohn left behind two grown sons, Todd and Tim. But as you readers know, she left much more. It’s hard not to smile when we think of that dancing queen floating and flouncing on Wyoming, doing her own thing, though she’s been gone for years.
In these days still so heavy with tragic, troubling news, that’s something.
It’s also mutual.
“Her greatest sense of achievement and joy would be to know that her actions brought any inspiration or joy to others,” Zartman wrote. “You gave my sister and her family that gift.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.