I don’t dance. I have no rhythm and a tin ear. My attempts at dance, usually fueled by alcohol, amount to rocking back and forth or flailing about as if having some sort of bizarre seizure.
So it’s ironic that I married a classically trained dancer who realized after high school that she did not have the body to be a prima ballerina and decided to go to nursing school. Nevertheless, she regularly took master’s classes with the American Ballet Theater during time she was in college at Georgetown. For her, trying to dance with me is an exercise in saintly patience combined with steel-toed shoes.
It’s different in the operating room. She has been my first assistant for twenty years and when we operate together, it’s as close to dancing together as we will ever get. There is a rhythm to surgery, a practiced flow of movement and action not unlike a dance. When two people have worked together for a long time, they learn to anticipate each other’s moves and respond without cues or conversation, just like practiced dance partners. It’s actually harder for a surgeon to be a good assistant than for a nurse or technician. Surgeons tend to want to control the operation and forget their job is to make the operating surgeon look good. It’s like both partners in a dance trying to lead at the same time. A good assistant, like a good dance partner, knows when to lead, when to follow, and how to make the dance flow smoothly. They can’t make a poor surgeon look good, but they can make a good surgeon look great.
I have often felt this strange symphony of motion in the operating room with a good assistant. Athletes refer to it as being ‘in the zone’, and I suppose skilled practitioners in any field have a similar experience.
My wife and I dance well together in surgery, in part because we have always been on the same wavelength and in part because she has a natural understanding of physical movement. Her dance experience has given her a grace and economy of motion that never fail to excite and impress me. There is no one I’d rather have with me on a complex robotic or laparoscopic case. Dancing in the OR is a form of intimacy as intense as any on the ballroom floor.