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Off the Clock

Marla Bruns, MD, PhD

Dancing Through Life — Why She Trades Her Doctor's Jacket for Ballroom Glitz

Shaw, Gina

doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000544504.63329.46
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ARTICLE IN BRIEF

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A movement disorders specialist discusses her off-hours passion — competing in ballroom tournaments.

Marla Bruns, MD, PhD, a neurologist at the Neuroscience Institute at Rochester Regional Health in Rochester, NY, provides general neurological care with special expertise in memory care, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease. When she's not consulting with patients, however, you're likely to find Dr. Bruns trading in her doctor's white lab coat for a sparkly, swirly, elegant gown to compete in regional ballroom dance competitions.

In an interview with Neurology Today, she discussed being at the top of her competitive game, how and why she finds the time to enter dance competitions, and how her ideas about dance have shaped her practice and attitude toward life.

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HOW DID YOU FIRST START DANCING?

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, they always had an annual Viennese ball as a fundraiser, so I took a crash course in the Viennese waltz for that. Before that, the only time I had done any real ballroom dancing was in the sixth grade, during a two-week after-school “charm school” with a dance class, so that we could do the foxtrot at our end-of-session party.

During my medical school years at SUNY Upstate, I'd go to an outdoor swing dance event once in a while. But it wasn't until I was in residency at the Ohio State University and won a gift certificate for a free lesson at Fred Astaire that competitive dance really became a passion of mine. They talked me into signing up for a competition. It was amazing, and I was hooked.

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WHAT ABOUT BALLROOM DANCE COMPETITION APPEALS TO YOU?

I guess, being in medicine, I'm a little bit competitive — type A — and in dance, you're competing against yourself for a proficiency score. That went along with everything I'd learned trying to get good scores in medical school! Even more so, though, it's a complete escape. Nothing matters when you step into that world.

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WHAT TYPES OF DANCE DO YOU DO?

Currently I do four styles of dance. The first is known as American smooth, and it includes primarily the waltz, the tango, the foxtrot, and Viennese. Then there's American rhythm, which is the rhumba, cha-cha, and swing. Alternate dances are the salsa, samba, West Coast swing, paso doble, and merengue. I also do International standard, which in addition to the waltz, tango and foxtrot, includes the quickstep. The difference between International standard and American is that you never break your hold, you're always in the hold with your partner. Last is Latin, which includes the cha-cha, rhumba, samba, and paso doble; it's very similar to rhythm, except more structured.

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WHICH IS YOUR FAVORITE?

Whatever dance I'm doing, that's my favorite!

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ARE THERE ANY STYLES YOU DON'T DO?

I don't do jive. It's too fast and too hard on my knees. My teachers will say that I just don't do it yet!

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HOW OFTEN DO YOU PRACTICE AND COMPETE?

I compete three times a year. Most of the time I practice three or four nights a week, but as I get closer to competition I'm doing four or five nights a week. It can get expensive — private lessons are $80 or $90 for a 50-minute lesson, although group classes are included with your lesson program. When I was a resident, I'd do only two lessons a week and as many groups as I could. After that first competition, I was broke!

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WHAT ARE THE COMPETITIONS LIKE?

The ones I go to are all regional and run by Fred Astaire Dance Studios. When I was in my attending position in Columbus, there were eight studios in that region, and here in the New York/New Jersey region, there are about 28, so the competitions are three times as large. I usually compete in pro-am, which means I'm partnered with one of my teachers from Fred Astaire Rochester, although in the past I've also done fully amateur competitions, partnering with a friend from Ohio who's a gastroenterologist.

At my most recent competition there were 18 couples in my category. There are usually three or four judges who are professional dancers. Each event has quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals — it's deep competition and very high quality dancing. You can get scores in the 90s and still not make it to the finals. But oh, the experience, the adrenaline, the sparkles, the sequins!

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WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR COSTUMES?

I can't just rent dresses or buy off the rack because I'm not the skinniest person, so mine are custom made and they're beautiful. I met a designer/seamstress at a competition in Ohio who had plus size dresses I tried on, but they weren't me, so she said she could make them. It's expensive, but I don't have children — I spoil my niece and nephew, but I don't have to save for college!

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WHERE WILL YOU GO NEXT WITH YOUR DANCING?

I'm currently at the bronze level, which is a very big level that has several strata to it: social bronze, full, and advanced. I'm almost done with everything I can learn at that level, and I'm almost to silver. A couple people from the team here in Rochester are at gold level, so I have goals to keep chasing after. And they're people of all ages — Tao Porchon-Lynch, a woman who competes in my region from the Hartsdale studio, is almost 100!

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HOW DOES DANCE FIT IN WITH YOUR NEUROLOGY PRACTICE?

I'm always raising awareness for how dance can help prevent memory loss, and have raised money for the Alzheimer's Association's “Longest Day” program with dance-a-thons. There is a strong body of research to suggest that staying physically, mentally, and socially active helps to delay the onset of dementia, and ballroom dancing is a way to do all three of these things in one activity. For example, a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that dancing reduces the risk of dementia by 76 percent. And it's a complete exercise — I'm always telling my patients that. It's good stress relief, a great social outlet, and almost anyone can do it. If you can walk, you can dance!

“Off the Clock” is a series featuring neurologists and neuroscientists who pursue a rich array of hobbies, interests, and passions outside of their work. Want to nominate someone for a feature? Send your suggesions in (and why they are good candidates) to NeurologyToday@WoltersKluwer.com.

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