DanceRx or Is there a dancer for the doctor in the house?

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal

Dr. Joanna Chan is a physician at the Sidney Kimmel Medical Center and also a member of the board at Koresh Dance Company. She and dance teacher Teresa VanDenend Sorge, director of Koresh Kids Dance, teamed up to create a pilot program for first-year medical students called Dance and Wellness.

Ms. Sorge, who is on the dance faculty of Muhlenberg College, welcomed the opportunity when Dr. Chan approached her two years ago.  This ambitious initiative has now become part of Jefferson Hospital’s required humanities curriculum, pairing students with local arts organizations.

Last spring, twelve medical students signed up for the pilot course. They chose from a list that included music, poetry, theater, and dance. The courses are designed to give doctors other ways to evaluate and empathize with patients. By going outside of the traditional academic approach and diagnosis, students ideally gain a fuller understanding of patients, not only physically but emotionally and mentally.

Seven males and five females signed up, and among them, only one of the women had any previous dance training. The entire group stated that they had no idea what to expect from the course, which required them to attend five three-hour classes, juxtaposed to their already rigorous medical academic schedule.

In separate phone interviews last week, Dr. Chan and Ms. Sorge talked about the course and its impact on the lives of the future doctors.

Sorge main focus in developing the curriculum was on the actual dance education.  She explained that she and Dr. Chan first brainstormed for months on detailing a syllabus that would, “meet the required objectives from Jefferson about what the students would be getting from this dance course. We had to craft each class to make sure we accomplished that.”

Dr. Chan focused on what the course could bring to help students cope with the pressures that medical students routinely face. “One of the things we know is that med students are very stressed out,” she said, “Most of that time is spent on the academic science of medicine. We don’t spend a lot of time teaching the human aspect of medicine,” Dr. Chan said.

“We choose students who are empathetic and want to do good things in the world, we also choose students who are competitive and academically focused, and sometimes those motivators are at odds with each other.” Dr. Chan also went on to say that the pressure of being a medical student can be too intense for some, and indicated that studies show that “they are at a bigger risk for depression and even suicide.” By the Spring of their first year, they have had “eight months of pretty hardcore science training.”

Dr. Chan draws on her own experience as a classically trained dancer when it comes to handling the stress. “I am a weird hybrid in that I was a professional dancer and also an MD. The point of the course is not to create dancers,” she added, “but I know from experience that dancers and athletes have a good sense of what their body needs.” She said that medical training can push students “to the limit”, and she cites that physical activities can be a great stress reliever.

Ms. Sorge, also had ballet training but professionally leans towards the modern dance genre.  She notes that “Joanna is a beautiful technician and ballerina, and a bridge for these dance skills with medicine.”

Sorge established the Koresh Kids program in 2006 that brings free dance classes to over 20 schools in Philadelphia.  Dr. Chan was familiar with her work with children and decided that the same ‘building blocks of dance might work with the medical students as well – concepts such as “a dancer’s sense of time, energy, space, and the body.”

“My goal was a give them a sense of self-expression to be able to use their body as an instrument in ways that they are not usually involved with in their other studies. How to decipher what body language tells us, for instance, and how that relates to medical practice past what a patient may be telling you.”

“Introducing the students to a knowledge of physicality,” Sorge says, “has been a fascinating process as well as being part of their discovery of that.  Many of them said they had never thought about this before. During the discussions, we would have them freeze movement, and I would ask them to observe each other and articulate what they were seeing.”

The medical students participated in studio work that included beginner ballet and modern technique classes and were also required to write about their class experiences.   The future doctors were not only open to these new experiences but in fact, according to Sorge, “they loved it. They tried contact improvisation, they rehearsed steps with their eyes closed. They were really present and feeling it…not just going through the motions.”

“I had two guys who were having trouble with finding their rhythm.  So I told them to go across the floor holding hands and they would find their rhythm if they worked together. And they got it!”  One of the men later wrote in his journal, “I don’t think I have ever held hands with another man. So I realized that I have to get over these weird societal fears I have.”   “I just thought that was so moving,” Sorge said.

Sorge also kept a journal of the pilot program, writing after each class, to take down what the students did and said about the session.  After the last class, the future doctors attended a performance of Koresh Dance Company’s premiere of La Danse. From their journal writing, it was obvious that they have come down with “the dance bug big time”.  The next Dance and Wellness course is already being scheduled for Spring of 2020.

***Photo provided by Raymond W Holman Jr Photography: Dance & Wellness instructors Teresa Van Denend Sorge & Dr. Joanna Chan

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

View All Posts