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A Dancing Doctor Makes His Rounds

Peter Selwyn as a dancing doctor in "Grand Rounds" a dance by Tamar Rogoff at La Mama

One day in 2016, I noticed a note, almost lost in the day’s emails, from an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Like me, he had learned about palliative care by necessity, in the grim early years of the AIDS epidemic. Also like me, he had become more deeply involved in palliative care as AIDS became a more manageable chronic disease. He was writing now to ask if I would be interested in talking to a choreographer who was creating a dance piece about end-of-life and palliative care. Intrigued, I said “Sure, why not?”

Within minutes came a reply introducing me to Tamar Rogoff, a well-known choreographer and producer. She was developing a piece called Grand Rounds, set in a hospital in the 1950s. In a phone call we discussed the show, which would be based in part on period music, popular literature and history. Tamar described her interest in exploring themes of illness and death and the world of the hospital in a multigenerational family, as seen mostly through the eyes of a 10-year old girl. She also explained her fascination with becoming a nurse—inspired by the Cherry Ames young adult novels of the 1950s—and her own history as a doctor’s daughter who accompanied her father during weekend hospital rounds.

Tamar was curious about the world of doctors, hospitals, end-of-life care, death and dying, and how all these affect and are experienced by patients, families and healthcare workers. Her vision for Grand Rounds was as a collaborative project: a flowing, almost dreamlike narrative, involving an ensemble cast including professional dancers and actors as well as people from different communities and populations affected by chronic or life-threatening illness, and an intentionally broad range of ages, body types and physical abilities.

I was intrigued to learn how movement and theater were modalities of healing for Tamar, who had explored these themes in a recent piece that involved professional dancers while featuring a young man with cerebral palsy in the lead role. Tamar offered to come to the Bronx to do a movement workshop with our staff and any patients and family caregivers who might be interested. She gave several classes, attended by a range of staff, caregivers and patients from the Einstein Montefiore Cancer Center and other programs, in which she invited participants to move, be aware of how they felt in their bodies and experience how movements can evoke feelings. It was a fascinating process.

After the workshop, when she asked if I might want to be part of the cast, along with any of our Montefiore patients and family members who might likewise be interested, I immediately said “Yes.” My receptiveness was based not only on seeing how she led these workshops, but also on my own experience in recent years involving movement and dance, and the healing power of “dropping into your body” as a way of feeling more whole, present and integrated in body-mind-spirit.

That came from a workshop led by Gabrielle Roth that I had more or less stumbled into in 2012. Gabrielle had developed a movement-meditation practice called Five Rhythms, a kind of free-form ecstatic dance based on five archetypal rhythms: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. I learned and saw—and experienced myself—how people of all ages and abilities were able to enjoy, engage in and benefit from moving freely and unselfconsciously. Seeing the adults in that workshop again move their bodies as children do, rediscovering what it felt like just to be alive and moving and free, was amazing to witness and take part in.

I was struck by how, as Gabrielle said, “the movement is the medicine”: letting go of some of the constriction and “stuckness” that we often become accustomed to can help healing, and help people feel more comfortable and at home in their bodies rather than alienated from them. Eventually, I started collaborating with Gabrielle and her Moving Center organization to bring Five Rhythms to our Bronx community. There are now several ongoing classes for our staff, caregivers and patients at Montefiore.

From Five Rhythms to Grand Rounds seemed the logical next step. Tamar asked me to play the role of a doctor in the piece, but first she wanted to make sure that I could dance, as the part involved mostly short dance pieces—including a solo—interspersed between the longer interpretive sequences involving the play’s principal cast members.

One afternoon in late 2016, she invited me to go down to the theater’s rehearsal space, where she set up a video camera and asked me to dance to a clip of 1950s mambo music while holding a doctor’s bag. “Dance with the bag,” she said, laughing. “Just have fun with it.” Telling myself to “dance like no one is watching,” though someone obviously was, I just let it flow. After about five minutes she stopped the tape, smiled and said, “Okay, I see you can dance; where did you learn to move like that?” I think my Five Rhythms experience had opened something in me, making me more spontaneous, less self-conscious and otherwise able to channel my inner dancer. Who knew?

The play had 14 performances over a three-week period in April and May 2017 at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, a mainstay of experimental theater and dance in the East Village. I was in the supporting cast in the hospital scenes, which also included a patient from Montefiore and her daughter—who had participated in Tamar’s workshop in the Bronx—playing a patient and a nurse, respectively. Over the following weeks, we met as a full cast, with multiple rehearsals on weekends and some evenings. Though this made significant demands on my time, I became familiar and happy with the routine of working in the Bronx at my “day job” and then going down to rehearse at La Mama as our ensemble grew more connected, proficient and focused while the play grew and coalesced.

This whole experience was engrossing, uplifting, fascinating and inspiring, though it clearly pushed through some of my usual boundaries—a point driven home when I saw myself on the Einstein website home page during the show’s run, in full theatrical scrubs with arms outstretched, doing an extended dance pose. Walking out into the bubbling energy of the East Village after each night’s performance brought back how I had felt as a teenager, when I would go to the Fillmore East (around the corner from the theater) or to St. Marks Place.

Above all, I was inspired by seeing how dance can become a mode of expression and empowerment for all of us—especially for those who have challenges and limitations in daily movement, but who seem able to connect with new capacities in dance. Watching one of the cast members (a middle-aged woman with advanced multiple sclerosis) do a duet with another (a young woman who is a professional dancer and yoga teacher), I was awed by how their bodies became instruments of their souls, expressing profound feelings eloquently yet without words.

On the show’s closing night, Tamar gave each of us little thank-you gifts and cards. On my card—which had the image of me in costume as the “dancing doctor,” arms outstretched, as if ready to fly, big smile—she wrote, “To Peter, who is not so much a doctor who can dance, but a dancer who is also a doctor.” Later at the cast party, we all reminisced and started our goodbyes as we each, maybe a little reluctantly, prepared to go back into our regular day-to-day lives. As I was leaving, Tamar said, laughing, “I know I said this would be my last production, but now I am not sure. So maybe I’ll call you in a few years.”

I’ll be waiting…

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Peter A. Selwyn, M.D., M.P.H.

Peter A. Selwyn, M.D., M.P.H.

Dr. Selwyn is chair, department of family and social medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director, palliative care program at Montefiore.

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