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Student Spotlight: Philip Montana – Grace, strength, and endurance

Ten minutes into an hour-long solo performance at Lincoln Center Philip Montana pulls his hamstring doing a kick to the right. With no option to end his performance, a silent mantra of ‘I can do this’ loops through his thoughts and convinces him the second kick won’t be too bad. He kicks—and nearly faints from the pain.

“Had I been performing with a group, I could have left the stage and nobody would have noticed, but I had to keep going and I had to do the same kick at the end of the show,” the first-year Geisel medical student recalls.

Dance. It’s a rigorous discipline that requires mental acuity and physical control. Professional dancers are expected to be in great shape and most have a personal regimen designed to sustain their strength and endurance and to ward off injuries. Daily workouts complement two-hour dance class warm-ups prior to exhaustive five-hour rehearsals five days a week. “The most difficult thing about being a professional dancer is the maintenance,” Montana says. “Without it, it’s too easy to injure yourself.” Even with it, there are no guarantees.

For Montana, dancing professionally full-time with a variety of companies, including New York City-based Shen Wei Dance Arts, took its toll. After years of performing Montana experienced chronic pain in his lower back and shooting pain down one of his legs. The culprit—piriformis syndrome, a compression of the sciatic nerve by the piriformis muscle, a muscle that plays an important role in lower body movement and in maintaining balance.

Although his injuries weren’t career ending, they did shape his future. Being injured more frequently than he was not, Montana stopped dancing professionally in order to preserve his health and turned his attention to teaching. It was a difficult decision for someone who has been dancing since high school, who has a master’s degree in dance performance from New York University’s renowned Tisch School of the Arts, and who established his own dance company. Teaching would keep him connected to what he loves.

While training dancers in New York City, teaching Pilates to people recovering from injuries, and rehabilitating his own injuries, Montana had an epiphany—he wanted to become a physician. It was a natural choice fueled by an early interest in science and a desire to help those with injuries. Dance is important because it contributes to art and culture, but it doesn’t really help anyone, it’s ephemeral, he says. And Montana wanted to help injured dancers.

“I’d been thinking a lot about sports medicine and what draws me to that is being able to work with athletes and dancers,” he says. “As a group, dancers often don’t have access to health care and I want to offer my services to them. Aside from medical care, I can offer empathy from the perspective of a doctor who has been a professional dancer, I understand what it means when you injure your knee—your life is in that knee.”

Movement is important to dancers and Montana is sensitive to the fact that it’s difficult for a dancer to stop moving even when injured. He understands how dancers think and what injuries mean to their ability to perform—what their movements mean to them.

“I’ve spent much of my professional life scrutinizing the body—it’s what you do in dance. Looking at people is your job,” he says. “I want to be able to make a difference, to help someone with injuries see an immediate result.”

Drawing on his disciplined life in dance has served Montana well during his first year of medical school. Medicine and dance share more similarities than differences. Both professions require an exquisite attention to detail, demand memorizing large amounts of material—dancers must memorize complicated choreographed sequences—and require an understanding of anatomy. And much like a performance, all of the pieces are brought together in either an elegant diagnosis or a dynamic production.

Functioning as part of a group, dancers appreciate the role and the value of everyone in the company. Taking cues from each other, they have sharp observational skills—the same can be said about a group of health care professionals working together to attend to the needs of patients.

“If someone has not worked as part of team they may not understand the level of work going on around them or appreciate it,” Montana observes. “No matter the job—surgeon, anesthesiologist, or nurse—you have to understand that everyone’s job is important. You need to be aware of each other and try to maintain balance to keep the team together.

“In dance, you may notice that someone next to you is a bit slower, so you need to figure out how to balance that as a member of the team, how to compensate for it, and how to communicate it,” he adds.

Montana also points out that dance teaches you how to push yourself to the front without pushing others out of the way to get there. This is also an apt description of the Geisel School of Medicine’s academic culture.  “At Geisel everyone wants to help—students help each other and the professors also reach out and offer help to students. This collaborative energy is pleasantly surprising and was what drew me to Geisel in the first place.”

Everything you hear about Geisel is true, he says, the community is real and the doctors and faculty truly care about you and your interests. They want you to succeed.

“As a dancer, I’m comfortable being part of a group of people forging ahead for a single purpose,” Montana says. “And as a medical student at Geisel, I’m part of a group moving forward toward one goal. We each have our own job to do, but we are doing it together.”