Photo credits to Alison Su Photography

Andrea Rustad

Follow Andrea at @barre.and.brunch.
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  1. What is your background in both dance and medicine? Why did you decide to pursue those two disciplines? (This is more of an introduction, so feel free to expand on these topics!)

Photo credits to HwaYoun Ella Kang

I have trained in classical ballet since age three, and expanded my dance training by joining the competition dance team in high school, performing in musicals in high school and college, studying at the Joffrey Ballet in New York City for a summer intensive, and obtaining one of my minors in Dance in college at Boston University. As a Dance Minor, I was part of a student performance group called Dance Theatre Group, choreographed and performed aerial dance pieces- including a solo, and took classes in tap, jazz, improv, dance history, and choreography in addition to continuing ballet. When I was applying for medical schools, I hoped to be in a place where I could sustain my love of dance and performing, since this is such a critical piece of who I am and dancing brings me joy and helps me de-stress. I was thrilled that my medical school, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has a Dance Interest Group (DIG) and is in downtown Chicago near many different dance studios! I performed in ballet, contemporary, and hip-hop pieces last winter in our medical school showcase, and choreographed a musical theatre dance piece this summer for DIG and taught it over Zoom. Prior to the pandemic, I usually attended ballet class 1-2 times a week at the Joffrey Ballet. The walk along the beautiful riverwalk feels like a brief break from school and studying, and combined with dance class, leaves me feeling reinvigorated. I have also taken dance classes at other studios in Chicago as well. I have definitely missed being in a studio to take dance classes! During the pandemic, many professional dancers have generously given their time to teach free classes, mostly via Instagram live, so I have been doing a lot of at-home ballet and other dance classes. I am grateful for this opportunity to continue dancing, although I am very limited by space and flooring type in my apartment. I also taught some dance and barre classes – I am a certified barre fitness instructor – to fundraise for COVID relief and social justice organizations.

I am currently in my second year of medical school at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and although school is very different right now due to the pandemic, I really enjoy all that I am learning. Before medical school, I worked as a Certified Dermatology Technician over my summer and winter breaks during college, which was great exposure to daily medical practice. I love learning about the world around me and have a deep passion for science, which I dove deeper into as a Chemistry major and Biology minor in college. I also find the human body fascinating, partially stemming from my dance experience and interest. Applying scientific knowledge to help others while learning more about the human body’s injury and healing processes combined these interests, so I was strongly drawn to the field of medicine. Medicine is a unique profession because every day you have new opportunities to learn – from team members, mentors, and patients – and you can apply your training to improve the lives of others, both on a personal level through patient care and a larger societal level through research and advocacy.

  1. When was the first time you performed, and what part of that experience do you still carry with you?

I always love the indescribable thrill of being on stage. Since I was only about three years old, I can’t remember the first time that I performed, but my mom has lots of pictures! I danced to “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story in a green dress with polka-dotted sleeves that I remember thinking was so beautiful, and I also danced to “Tomorrow” from Annie, and did a tap number in a fringe skirt. You can see that the fun costumes were a big draw for me as a child! I do remember that I used to be very shy, and embarrassed that I did ballet because it was often made fun of by kids at school, however I continued to dance because I loved it. However, when I embraced my love of dance and performing, I became more confident and began seeking out more opportunities, both in dance and in other leadership roles.

  1. Such creative journeys often face great challenges and successes. Why is dance important to your identity as a medical student and what was a challenging moment in dance that you overcame that perhaps made you fall in love with dance even more? 

Photo credits to Bill Parsons

I believe dance helped me prepare for a career in medicine through teaching me valuable lessons in perseverance, teamwork, observation, and collaboration, while developing my creativity and ability to think on my toes (literally and figuratively). Pursuing a dance minor improved my analytical skills through studying the aesthetics, philosophy, and history of dance. Choreography and performance require awareness and trust in my abilities and strengths. Incorporating feedback to improve my skills is a valuable life lesson I’ve gained from performing, and has proven critical to learning clinical techniques. I can specifically recall one defining moment in dance performance that really challenged me. It was my performance of my aerial dance solo that I had choreographed during the spring my junior year of college.

The solo began with a complex drop I’d practiced diligently. My rehearsal had been my best yet, so I started the show feeling prepared and excited. However, during the opening, I unexpectedly flipped over and slid backwards, far down. It was a petrifying moment, and I almost panicked but managed to catch myself. Hanging upside down tangled in fabric and worried I would fall 30 feet headfirst, I was unsure what had gone wrong. I untangled myself eventually, but was so unnerved I had to climb down. Seeing the audience’s eyes on me as I stepped away from the silks in mid-performance, I was frustrated and ashamed. I had been so confident and invested much time and energy, yet felt that I had failed.

As being a dancer is integral to my identity, this caused me to question my abilities, as I had never made such a significant mistake in a performance. In examining what had gone wrong, I realized I had both hesitated and moved my arms incorrectly. Ever since starting aerial dance in college, I had wanted to choreograph and perform a solo. I knew if I caved to fear at that moment, I would never be able to do it again. I was determined to perform my solo, and mustered up my courage to try again.

I struggled to keep calm and was unsure if I could do it. Climbing back up the silks was terrifying; almost every ounce of my body resisted. I was shaking, but focused on being present and making the most of each movement. I took a deep breath and went for it – my drop worked!

When greeting the audience after the show, I was initially embarrassed, but many people approached to say they were impressed when I didn’t quit. This changed my view of my failure; I recognized I could learn from and be proud of my efforts.

When I reflected on what had happened, I’m glad I took time to analyze how I had made a mistake, instead of blaming the slipperiness of the fabric or other external conditions. Taking responsibility was difficult as it forced me to reevaluate my perception of my skills, but it was the only way to move forward. I didn’t panic or let my fear of making a mistake stop me, and focused on resolving the situation. It is essential to analyze mistakes to prevent repeating them. It may not have been my best performance, but it was an even greater feat that I combatted my fears and uncertainty to persevere. I believe the lessons learned from this experience in perseverance and staying calm under pressure will be tremendously helpful in medicine.

  1. How do you blend your work in dance and in medicine? What’s one piece of advice you can share for those aspiring artist-physicians?

On a practical note, when learning the musculoskeletal anatomy, I felt that my dance background and body awareness was very helpful. I could visualize movements or perform them myself to see how muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints connected and manipulated each other. I have also blended my interests in dance, fitness, health, and wellness with my blog, Barre and Brunch, and by dancing and choreographing for the medical school Dance Interest Group. Besides these skills, having an artistic outlet and background has shaped my character and helps me bring a unique perspective when approaching challenges in school or clinical situations. 

For anyone who has an artistic passion and is interested in medicine, please don’t give up that part of yourself. I have found it very helpful to maintain engagement in these interests during medical school, and have heard from those further in their medical careers that having a healthy focus outside of medicine is important during residency and as a practicing physician. Whether that’s by joining or creating artistic groups in school, taking art classes outside of school, practicing your art medium by yourself as a study break, or finding a way to make your studying creative with doodles or videos – any of these are helpful and fun! Neglecting the artistic parts of you that add to your happiness and fulfillment can lead to burnout, which is already a known problem in the medical field. Your artistic interests make you unique, and this individuality will help you connect to patients and be a better provider. Medicine is a busy field in which to study and work, so there may not be a great deal of time to dedicate to artistic pursuits, but finding ways to keep your creativity alive is vital. I have met many doctors who also have artistic hobbies – it is doable!

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