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The ravages of breast cancer, scoliosis and Paget's disease didn't stop Agatha Armstead from teaching her 6-year-old foster daughter to dance.

Those lessons, based on an article she found about ballet's six basic positions, would propel Victoria Rowell to the American Ballet Theater and a television career.

"You just couldn't hold this woman down," said Rowell Friday at the Grand America Hotel. "I don't sit here alone — I sit here flanked by extraordinary women."

The YWCA presented outstanding achievement awards to five such Utah women — and its first man — during its annual Leader Luncheon. The organization's biggest fundraiser drew some 900 people to the Grand America hotel.

As she stood to deliver the day's keynote speech under the light of a large crystal chandelier at the high-end hotel, Rowell thanked the organizers and award winners — then recognized the wait staff, cooks and housekeepers, or "these people who make the world go around, so many of them women."

Rowell is a former star of "The Young and the Restless" and "Diagnosis Murder" (which also starred Dick Van Dyke) as well as a former foster child. She was born in Portland, Maine, to a mother who could trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower, a woman she described as "so loving, so beautiful, but so mentally fragile." She never knew her father.

Rowell entered foster care at the age of three weeks, and was raised by a series of families. Inspired by Armstead, who once hoped to be a professional jazz pianist, Rowell won a Ford Foundation scholarship to the Cambridge School of Ballet at age 8, according to her biography and memoir, The Women who Raised Me.

She parlayed her dance skills into an entertainment career, but not without the help of social workers and teachers who worked between the rules to help by buying ballet slippers or with bus fare.

" I want to remind you this is not easy work," she said. "I have seen people work themselves to a thread."

The YWCA focuses on "eliminating racism and empowering women" with community education, leadership training, transitional housing, a domestic violence crisis phone line and shelter, and more.

Found in 1906, the organization has served women seeking work during the Depression, servicemen during both World Wars, and relocated Japanese-Americans after World War II. It also opened Utah's first domestic violence shelter in 1976.

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Outstanding achievement awards

Brenda Joyce Burrell • Adjunct Weber State University professor, education

Norma Carr • Salt Lake Community College athletic director, sports/athletics

Natalie Gochnour • Salt Lake Chamber executive vice president for policy and communications, business

Rev. Elizabeth S. Hunter • Cathedral Church of St. Mark, human services

Leigh Neumayer • Surgeon and University of Utah School professor, medicine/health

Boyer Jarvis • Community activist, honorary award

Source • YWCA

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