Dancing to Explore Relationships
The “open exchange of ideas” described in Grinnell’s mission statement does not end at the edge of campus.
Susan Sanning, director of service learning and civic engagement, facilitated a curricular service learning collaboration — a workshop for medical students at Des Moines University at which Lauren Sheely ’14 performed a work-in-process dance that explores her relationship with both dance and Crohn’s disease. The mutually beneficial workshop was part of Lauren’s Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in advanced choreography. Celeste Miller, the associate professor of theatre who organized the workshop, also led the students in a series of movement exercises.
Dance and Discussion
Lauren has been dancing since the age of four. Before Grinnell, she danced formally — mostly ballet, a style that prizes poise and form over all. After arriving at Grinnell, she met Celeste, who introduced her to a more personal form of dance that prioritizes expressing emotion over pure technique. Working in this form of dance inspired Lauren to explore the relationship between her history with dance and living with Crohn’s disease, a diagnosis she received in fourth grade.
Most of the DMU students had some background in the arts — an undergraduate major in creative writing, a minor in trumpet performance. Some just had an appreciation for art and an enthusiasm for the places art and science intersect. Dr. Norma Hirsch, assistant professor of behavioral medicine, medical humanities, and bioethics, went so far as to say, “medicine is an art informed by science.”
The dances that Lauren performed left the medical students with many questions about form, content, and how they were devised. Due, in part, to the vulnerability Lauren displayed in her performance, the DMU students didn’t hold back with their questions. One med student was surprised that she didn’t see more frustration or resentment in Lauren’s performance. Others asked what Lauren learned as she was creating these pieces. Dr. Gary Hoff asked “Why dance?” “Because of the undeniability of the body,” Lauren said.
Movement and Metaphor
The movement exercises that followed further examined the undeniability of the body and its usefulness in helping the students understand the doctor-patient relationship through embodiment and metaphor. Celeste led the med students through a number of exercises centered around trust — leading a partner whose eyes were closed around the room, switching partners, and sculpting the partner’s body position.
The responses to these activities were telling, and forced the medical students to operate on the level of metaphor rather than restricting themselves to the physical. One student commented on the anxiety experienced when a partner left them somewhere in the room with their eyes closed, and they waited for another unknown partner. This helped the students empathize with a patient who has been referred to a specialist. Another noted the two types of sculptors—some people placed the partner’s body how they wanted it to be, and others suggested.
The medical students attested to the fact that the movement exercises made concrete what they had already learned about patient care. The physical exercises illustrated dependence and uncertainty and went a long way toward putting them in their future patients’ shoes. Lauren incorporated the DMU students’ reactions to her program into her final performance on May 6 in the Flanagan Studio Theatre. She shared the spotlight with Celeste’s other MAP students, Ana Novak ’14 and Benjamin Zeledon ’14.