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“The Spirit Thickened”: Making the Case for Dance in the Medical Humanities


In comparison to other art forms, dance remains underrepresented in the medical humanities, especially within the academic medical setting. Several factors, including perceived lack of applicability to patient care, contribute to this pattern. This paper contends that, to the contrary, learners across the medical education spectrum stand to gain much from engaging with the movement arts, including improvement of clinically-relevant skills such as physical self-awareness, observation, communication, and mindfulness. This paper makes the case for the nascent subdiscipline of Movement and Medicine, developed by the authors and piloted for inclusion in medical humanities curricula within a medical education context. Movement and Medicine employs a dance-inspired pedagogy to a) promote awareness of personal movement and embodiment tendencies and b) harness that awareness to gain more profound, sensory insight into the embodied experiences of others—experiences of health, illness, or otherwise. This work outlines the research, rationale, and philosophy behind Movement and Medicine; concretely defines the subdiscipline and situates it within the medical humanities landscape; proposes practical approaches to engaging with and applying this material; and describes a Movement and Medicine course developed for one American medical school.

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This study was funded by the Rudin Medical Ethics and Humanities Fellowship at NYU School of Medicine.

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Correspondence to Nina Shevzov-Zebrun.

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1 While other names and titles for this area of study—namely the broader ‘health humanities’—are commonly used, here, the term ‘medical humanities’ is used as this work is concerned primarily with medical provider education across levels and categories—including undergraduate and graduate, nursing and physician, etc.

2 Note: the field of dance and movement therapy—well-established and practiced—is out of scope for this work. Here, we discuss dance not as a clinical or therapeutic tool, but as a focus for medical humanities scholarship and provider education.

3 We are aware that some specific forms of theater are silent, and that many dramaturgical exercises—within Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, for instance—call for silent, movement-based communication. The line between such theatrical art and dance is often blurry, and the specifics of this distinction are complex. Rather than create artificial boundaries, we encourage collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas and dialogue to enhance both disciplines.

4 We appreciate that dance is often set to music which may or may not contain words, and which shapes part of the experience of dance for both performers and viewers. The actual dance itself, however, involves wordless physical movement, expression without language. Music is complementary to, but not necessary for, dance.

5 While the details of their development and application are out of scope for this work, we acknowledge that these (and other) choreography-recording “languages” are exceptionally valid and useful for transmitting movement knowledge and history in certain contexts. However, they are not universally used across the dance world, and not all dancers (let alone lay people) know how to interpret them. These recording systems, therefore, are simply not equivalent to the written language used to write and record literature.

6 According to Scarry, “work” can be an “embodied physical act” even if consisting of non-physical labor but nevertheless engaging the “whole psyche.”

7 A physician cannot be expected to have life experiences mirroring those of all his or her patients; furthermore, even if physician and patient do experience the same event (i.e., the same natural disaster), their experiences and reactions will be markedly different due to a variety of internal and external factors. True empathy, therefore—true identification with an experience or emotion—is hard to come by. For this very understandable reason, imagination and theory are invoked as aids.

8 Vygotsky’s initial conception of the “Zone of Proximal Development” involves a human, living teacher as facilitator of learning and development in that Zone. Here, we extend Vygotsky’s initial definition of “teacher” creatively to encompass an activity: dance (which, of course, often involves other people—teachers, co-participants, etc.).

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Shevzov-Zebrun, N., Barchi, E. & Grogan, K. “The Spirit Thickened”: Making the Case for Dance in the Medical Humanities. J Med Humanit 41, 543–560 (2020).

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