Harini Chakkera, M.D., marveled at the dancer looking back at her from the photo. The woman's elaborate dress, hair and makeup were stunning, and she struck a knowing, confident pose with her dance partner. "I can't believe that was me," she says.
By day, Dr. Chakkera is a transplant nephrologist and chair of the Division of Nephrology at Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus. But by night — or for one night, at least — she was a dancer. "I think once in a lifetime everyone wants to transform and do something completely out of their comfort zone, and this was my opportunity," she says.
Dr. Chakkera's transformation took place for a good cause: Dancing with the Stars Arizona, a fundraiser for the National Kidney Foundation of Arizona. It's an organization she's long been a part of professionally. "I know the organization well, and their impact on our patients is incredible," Dr. Chakkera says. When she was asked to be one of the event's celebrity dancers, she didn't hesitate to say yes. "My main motivation was to fundraise as much as possible," she tells us. But with a milestone birthday on the horizon, Dr. Chakkera had a secondary goal. "I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone before I turned 50," she says.
With no dance experience, Dr. Chakkera relied on her partner, Damir Karaman, an award winning dancer and owner of Euro Rhythm Dance Studio in Scottsdale, to teach her the steps, as well as the spirit of dance. "Most of us in our work are very driven to get a goal accomplished, and want/need to have control of the process," Dr. Chakkera says. With dancing, "you don't own the partnership, you have to give up control."
Dancing also provided Dr. Chakkera with a Zen-like experience. "In our busy lives, our mind is always thinking of the next step, the next action," she says. "In dance you have to know your next step but have to give 100% to the current step and be in the present, be in the moment. When you are dancing I learned that you really need to practice mindfulness."
On Feb. 22, Dr. Chakkera entertained the audience with a performance that blended Latin and Bollywood styles. "It was a very surreal feeling being on stage," she says, adding that she was surprised by how comfortable she felt. And by how much fun she had. "I thoroughly enjoyed myself and am grateful that I had the opportunity to do this."
She's also grateful for the encouragement she received from family, friends and her colleagues at Mayo Clinic. "There were a lot of Mayo folks in the audience, and I was overwhelmed and humbled by the support," she says. That support was both emotional and financial. Dr. Chakkera raised $61,390 – more than doubling her initial fundraising goal, and making her the event's second-place fundraiser.
Dr. Chakkera tells us she hopes her experience and success will encourage one of her colleagues to put on their dancing shoes next year. "I'm considered as being a serious and structured person, and I was probably the last person people expected to do this," she says. "If I can dance, I think anyone can. Hopefully someone else will be inspired." (We certainly are.)
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