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July 2007 Issue

The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music's "The Cardiac Dance The Spirals of Life", a ballet written by Gerry Buckberg, MD, alumnus of the College of Medicine
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College of Medicine Alumnus Develops 'Artistic' Way to Teach About Heart Function

By Katie Pence
Published July 2007

The audience that entered the Patricia Corbett Theater in late May experienced more than art in the form of dance.

Through their motions and choreography, 11 performers in red leotards etched with blue arteries taught spectators about the shape, function and life of a human heart.

The UC College-Conservatory of Music's (CCM) dance division performed "The Cardiac Dance-The Spirals of Life," a ballet that educated as well as entertained.

The brains behind the new production was UC College of Medicine alumnus Gerald Buckberg, MD, who received an honorary doctorate from UC last month.

During a trip to Spain, the UCLA cardiac surgeon was inspired by the work of Francisco (Paco) Torrent-Guasp, MD, who arrived to teach surgeons about heart failure, yet Buckberg says he learned more about the normal heart.

"Paco had a totally new way of thinking about the heart," Buckberg says. "The heart is really shaped like a football, and it twists and untwists as it pumps. I also realized that the heart becomes round, like a basketball, when heart failure occurs."

As he examined the motion and the transformation of the heart, Buckberg simultaneously developed techniques to protect the heart during surgery that are now used by surgeons around the United States and the world.

Soon afterwards, his artistic side came to life.

"I thought it would be interesting to make a ballet based on the function and shape of a heart," he says. "I realized the heart has a beautiful, sequential motion that can be mirrored."

With this in mind, Buckberg contacted Doug Lowrey, dean of CCM, and Shellie Cash, director of the CCM dance division.

Cash says she was blown away by the concept. 

"My first thought was 'What the heck is a cardiac ballet?'" she says laughing. "But I think it's a really awesome idea."

Dancers used motion and rhythm to recreate the movement of a heart in its many stages.

"We wanted to anatomically bring the heart to life," Buckberg says. "I suggested the CCM dancers could use the ballet as an educational tool to show how the heart works and get people to begin to think about its motion differently-musically."

There were also visual aids in the theater lobby displaying the "helical heart" shape as well as Buckberg's technique of returning spherical heart muscles to an elliptical football shape by refolding the heart muscles toward normal configuration.

"Dr. Buckberg wanted this ballet to be an educational experience," says Cash. "It was up to me and the collaborative team to create something with artistic and aesthetic qualities, as well as the educational component."

Buckberg, known as "Uncle Bucky" to the dance crew, attended several of the rehearsals to make sure the movement on stage accurately represented a beating heart.

Although he acknowledges the rarity of this art form, Buckberg says it was the perfect way to enlighten people about how the heart truly works.

"The concept of the dance of a heart has such a symphonic quality," he says. "With all the pieces working together to form one functioning vessel-it's just beautiful."

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