Talking with The famous pre-surgery dancer

Name: Deborah Cohan
Age: 45
City: Berkeley
Position: OB-GYN at UCSF Medical Center, professor


J.: Your highly energetic dance party to Beyonce’s “Get Me Bodied” in the operating room before your double mastectomy in November went viral on YouTube ( Where did you get those moves?

Deborah Cohan: I started with ballet at age 3, but wasn’t particularly good at it. When I was young, I was an avid watcher of “Soul Train.” In college, I didn’t drink, so I’d go to parties and dance. That was my release and way of being joyful in the world. About two years ago I started doing conscious dance, which is when it became a spiritual experience for me and a way to tap into my most core inner self. When I’m in my most genuine place is when I can tap into the joy of dance; I let loose and the body knows what to do.

Dr. Deborah Cohan (left) and the surgical team dance in the operating room before her cancer surgery in November. photo/youtube

J.: Did you know everyone dancing with you?

DC: I didn’t know my surgeon or any of the people who were part of my surgical team prior to meeting them through my diagnosis, though the anesthesiologist was hand-picked by a good friend of mine, who asked the head nurse if it could happen. Some friends and residents who I helped train did take part.

J.: What was the purpose of it?

DC: I wanted to feel connected to my community. Also, I’ve been working some contact improv and other dance into my work with (medical) residents. I have a theory that people in touch with their own bodies make better surgeons, so it made sense, not only for my own emotional release before surgery, but I wanted my surgeons to be in an embodied place before they operated on me.

J.: Currently your video has 7.7 million views on YouTube. Did you have any idea it would go viral and inspire so many people?

DC: Absolutely not. A friend posted it to YouTube only so my parents could see it, and other friends who couldn’t be there. I remember waking up from surgery and a friend was holding my phone, tracking it, my phone was going off the hook.

The media attention wasn’t the important part of the experience, but it has connected me to people all over the world in this really intimate way. I’ve had email exchanges with people with cancer all over the world. I’ve danced on Skype with other women about to undergo mastectomies in numerous places. I’ve received videos of people dancing for me from India and the Canary Islands. I’ve always intellectually understood how connected we all are, but this has been such a gift on this profound level to feel so connected to humanity.

Cohan after a round of chemotherapy

J.: What’s your Jewish background? Are you involved in the Jewish community?

DC: I grew up in Bethesda, Md., where I attended religious school until I chose swimming over it in sixth grade. But I’ve always felt very connected to Judaism, and my spirituality has certainly grown as an adult. My kids attend programs with Camp Kee Tov, Urban Adamah and Wilderness Torah.

J.: Where are you now in your treatment?

DC: I’ve finished my fourth and final cycle of chemotherapy, and have one small reconstructive surgery left.

J.: Can you share one or two other interactions you’ve had because of the video?

DC: There was a 3-year-old girl in Ohio named Jewel who was having eye surgery and kept watching my video before it. Her mom made a video of her dancing and saying “I’m Deb Cohan,” as she really identified with me. She wasn’t at all afraid before surgery.

Also, a woman in England was diagnosed with breast cancer and one of her colleagues sent her the link to my video. She wrote to me that it helped her not be afraid. I hear that over and over again, women who are getting mastectomies are telling me “you inspired me not to be afraid,” or “you’re so courageous.” But the issue is not that I have courage, but, in fact, they’re able to recognize courage within me because they have it in themselves.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."