Dance is potent medicine that can teach us how to find joy, calm and belonging within our inner landscape regardless of external circumstances. I began dancing at the age of 3 – initially ballet, then jazz and other highly choreographed forms. Learning how to move my body according to others’ instructions, I lost touch with what I believe is a universal and innate power to listen to the body’s own somatic impulses and capacity for self-healing. In 2011, I happened upon a conscious dance practice called Dance Journey. I walked into the studio and saw people dancing effortlessly and ecstatically. I did not fully understand what I was witnessing, but I understood that these individuals were liberated in their bodies and this community had much to teach me. I dove into the conscious dance community, immersing myself in the practices of Authentic Movement, Ecstatic Dance, Soul Motion and contact improvisation.
I came to realize what I was learning in these dance practices – body awareness, efficient use of effort, physical listening skills, embodied empathy, somatic presence -- were highly applicable in healthcare settings. I am a Harvard-trained Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Family/Community Medicine at UCSF and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG). I am also Medical Director of HIVE, a program at ZSFGH promoting reproductive and sexual wellness for people living with HIV. In 2013 as part of a larger process of integrating the various elements in my life, I began informally teaching these somatic skills to UCSF medical students, birthing doulas and obstetrics/gynecology and family medicine residents rotating on the Labor and Delivery unit at ZSFGH.
Then, in September 2013, my life circumstances changed dramatically. At the age of 44, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fed by my work with Anna Halprin (Life/Art Process), Tina Stromsted (Authentic Movement) and Valerie Chafograck (Soul Motion, founded by Vinn Marti) as well as shamanic healing and insight meditation, I felt prepared and resourced when I received my diagnosis. The evening of my diagnosis, I went to Soul Motion class. This had been (and continues to be) my weekly sacred ritual. That evening, I danced my fear of death, my fear of leaving my young children motherless, my fear of being disfigured and unlovable, my fear of dying alone. Loving community surrounded me as I mourned, bawling on the dance floor. I invited my cancer and my fears to be my dance partner. I allowed my body and heart to feel the full experience of grief. I felt depleted, defeated and detached from joy. Then something remarkable happened near the end of class. I noticed that my body started feeling vibrant in relationship to energetic music. I tracked sensations in my body and noticed that I was experiencing joy. My body was teaching my mind that I could feel joy. I knew in that moment that dance would be my medicine.
I danced nearly every day after my diagnosis – allowing my body to express itself fully. In addition to helping my varied emotions have an avenue of expression, my body helped my mind make decisions about which surgeons to use, which surgery to undergo, how to navigate my relationship with my children. Many friends asked me how they could help. I felt abundantly resourced and decided what I really wanted was for everyone to celebrate life with me. A week before my surgery, I heard the Beyoncé song “Get Me Bodied” and I knew that I wanted my community to dance to this song in a virtual flash mob. I asked the anesthesiologist if I could dance in the operating room, and I created a Facebook event – inviting my community to join me in a virtual dance party. The day before surgery, I rented my favorite dance studio with my close friend and danced over and over again to Get Me Bodied – I felt safe and joyous and connected as my friend and I danced together. This experience imprinted joy in my body in relation to this song.
The next day I walked unmedicated and calm into the operating room. When the song started, joy filled my body and I danced ecstatically with my operating room team who, I learned afterwards, also experienced tremendous joy and freedom. I felt intimately connected with my community and my surgical team and converted the operating room into a sacred healing space. The anesthesiologist videotaped the dance and a friend posted it on YouTube while I was undergoing surgery. The video went viral while I was still under anesthesia and, since, many others around the world have started dancing before their surgeries.
Following surgery and chemotherapy in 2014, I returned to work -- committed to sharing what I had learned with others facing health challenges. I started Foundation for Embodied Medicine (FEM) and began offering embodied medicine workshops to young women with breast cancer at Commonweal. Devoted to addressing healthcare disparities based on economic status, I began teaching embodied medicine workshops at ZSFG to underserved, poor adults with cancer engaged in the Community Wellness Center’s Cancer Awareness Resources Education program.
Contemplating my place in the interconnected network of beings, I understand how the abundant opportunities for my healing have been largely informed by my privileged socioeconomic status and the life into which I was lucky enough to be born. Having dedicated myself to caring for the underserved my entire career, I am deeply committed to undermining the sociopolitical forces and structural biases that separate us based on wealth, race, educational status, gender identity, immigration status and other attributes that contribute to an unjust and inequitable healthcare system. As a physician, cancer thrivor, dancer and, most recently, primary hospice caregiver to my best friend up until the moment of her death, I have a deep connection to patients, caregivers and medical providers. I hold dear my obligation to share the gifts I have learned through my career and my own healing. In July of 2016, I took my Bodhisattva vows to affirm my chosen path of service. As a physician, dancer and enthusiastic envelope-pusher, my personal vision is to gracefully revolutionize medicine through embodied presence.
The body is the cure.