The dancing doctor

Colleen Cavanaugh delivers babies and ballets

Last spring, when Colleen Cavanaugh ’76 was choreographing an adaptation of Pippi Longstocking for the professional dance company Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island, she would sometimes arrive just as rehearsal began dressed in scrubs, the pajama-like outfits worn by doctors and nurses.

Although the loose-fitting scrubs made it easy to move during a dance rehearsal, Cavanaugh had a more practical reason for wearing them: she was coming straight from her job as a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist.

It’s all in a day’s work for Cavanaugh, who has followed what must be among the most unusual career paths ever taken by a Wheaton alumna—first as a professional dancer in New York and Europe, then an Ivy League–educated doctor, and now a prolific local choreographer.

Cavanaugh sees some commonalities between her two roles. Both require listening to and interacting with people, while maintaining a clear vision and focus. Both involve intuition, an understanding of how the human body works, and a connection between the mental and the physical.

Asked during a recent interview whether she could have limited herself to one of her two passions, Cavanaugh shook her head. “I can’t imagine if I hadn’t done one or the other,” she said. “I really need to do them both.”

Colleen Cavanaugh ’76Indeed, in recent years Cavanaugh has connected them more explicitly, creating ballets that integrate art and health by examining subjects such as teen pregnancy and domestic violence. Before doing the lighthearted children’s ballet Pippi Longstocking, her most recent work for Festival Ballet was Legacy of Loss, a dance work that featured narrators providing information about breast cancer.

Mark Harootian, a Festival Ballet dancer who appeared in Legacy of Loss and has worked with Cavanaugh frequently, said the subject’s importance to the choreographer came through during rehearsals.

“She was very passionate and serious, very sincere, about spreading the word about cancer,” he said. “It was quite satisfying for me as a dancer to be a part of the process of her creating a dance that shared her insights.”

Cavanaugh was gratified by the impact of Legacy of Loss, too—one of the dancers got tested for the breast cancer gene BRCA and found out that she is positive for the hereditary trait that increases the risk of developing cancer. Genetic counselors who attended the performance encouraged Cavanaugh to offer the piece to a wider audience.

First steps

Cavanaugh grew up in Cranston, R.I., a suburb of Providence, and made her dancing debut with The State Ballet of Rhode Island at age 4. She was encouraged to take it up by her father, a pianist, who died when she was 6.

Although in some ways not a natural performer—in person, Cavanaugh is quiet and somewhat reserved—she loved dance from the start. “To move—it’s just natural to me. My body’s been trained that way,” she said. “It’s almost like flying, that freedom.”

Still, when she was growing up Cavanaugh did not devote much thought to pursuing dance as a career. “I loved doing it, but there were other things I loved to do,” she said. “It wasn’t an aspiration.”

Leaps and bounds

Though Cavanaugh was not a star student in high school (“I was kind of a mediocre kid,” she recalled with a chuckle), her mother encouraged her to attend Wheaton because of its strong reputation and proximity to Rhode Island. The experience transformed her.

“I was put in this beautiful environment with beautiful professors, good classes, and all of a sudden I became interested in things,” Cavanaugh said. She majored in art history, drawn to its beauty and the way it provided a window on the wider world.

“I think the academics [at Wheaton] woke up my intellectual curiosity, and then art history woke up this sense of me wanting to explore art more,” she said. “I felt like I was such a late bloomer. It wasn’t really until college that I started to think about what I really wanted to do.”

While at Wheaton, Cavanaugh participated in the dance club and continued to dance in Providence. She realized she wanted to dance professionally during her final semester, which she spent at Connecticut College, with Wheaton’s permission. She danced constantly and made connections in preparation for her move to New York City after graduation from Wheaton.

There, she studied with the famed Juilliard teacher Alfredo Corvino, who she said “approached dance almost as physics.” She went on to spend a decade performing ballet and modern dance with companies in New York and Europe.

The New York Times praised one of her performances as “virtuosic,” and described another piece as “a sprightly exhibitionistic solo, danced very well by Miss Cavanaugh.”

Still, dancers’ careers are usually limited in duration, as age takes its toll. Moreover, by the mid-1980s Cavanaugh found herself growing restless with dance and considering what she could do next. “It wasn’t enough for me at that point,” she said. “I needed to do something else.”

A turning point

Although she had not taken any science classes at Wheaton, she found herself fascinated by biology after studying it at Hunter College in New York. She stopped dancing and got a job as a research assistant at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where she worked for two years.

In medicine, Cavanaugh found a new passion: “It’s not art, but in a way it is,” she said. She enrolled at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, choosing obstetrics and gynecology for its combination of medicine and surgery and for the opportunity it offered to work with patients in each stage of life.

Cavanaugh “was an excellent student,” recalled Dr. Donald Coustan, one of her teachers and the recently retired chair of the OB/GYN department at Brown.

Cavanaugh’s path from dance to medicine was a unique one, he said, but she didn’t make a big deal out of it. In fact, she was surprised when Coustan suggested she should include some of her old press clippings when applying for her residency as a way to stand out.

“She didn’t want to brag and blow her own horn,” he said. (Later, Cavanaugh would choreograph a dance in tribute to Coustan that was performed at his retirement party.)

Yet during her residency at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Cavanaugh found herself drawn to dance again—this time as a choreographer. It was a vital escape from the stresses of her new career as a doctor. “I always needed that balance,” she said.

Her energy impressed Coustan. “Residency in OB/GYN is very grueling and time consuming—it’s one of the tougher residencies,” he said. “Yet she was able to continue organizing dance recitals. In fact, she sewed costumes for the dance recitals for others while a resident.” (True, Cavanaugh said: “If there was no one in labor, I would sew costumes there sometimes.”)

Today Cavanaugh, who has two teenage children, works as an OB/GYN both in private practice and at Women & Infants, a top teaching and research institution. She is also a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Brown, specializing in adolescent gynecology and menopause.

She spends most days in the office, arriving between 7:30 or 8 a.m. and staying until 5 or 5:30 p.m. Three or four times a month she is on call at Women & Infants for 24 hours, delivering babies in the middle of the night, operating on patients and sleeping at the hospital. “The rewards are incredible,” she said, “but it can be extremely stressful and exhausting.”

Since finishing her residency in 1993, she has continued to spread her wings as a choreographer while practicing medicine. Her dances have ranged from short solos to full-length ballets, set to the music of everyone from Samuel Barber and Igor Stravinsky to Billie Holiday and Ani DiFranco. She even found time to run her own contemporary ballet company for four years.

Cavanaugh has now racked up a long list of accomplishments as a choreographer, creating dances for Wheaton, Rhode Island College and Providence College, presenting works in New York, Belgium and Italy, and twice receiving choreography fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. The council’s judges recently praised her works as “musical and original,” with “exquisite form and flow.”

Cheryl Mrozowski, chair of Wheaton’s Department of Theatre and Dance Studies, met Cavanaugh more than a decade ago through dance circles, and eventually invited her to choreograph at the college—not knowing she was an alumna. “I just liked her stuff!” Mrozowski said.

“Colleen is a very innovative choreographer,” and her hallmark is “very beautiful movement,” she continued. “She often sees complex rhythmic patterns in music, and weaves them into the dance.”

Mrozowski plans to bring Cavanaugh back to campus this fall to set an original dance for the Wheaton Dance Company. “She’s a very intelligent woman,” Mrozowski said. “I admire the fact that she manages to do it all.”

That raises the question: how does Dr. Colleen Cavanaugh do it all?

“I worked—really hard,” she said simply. “I still do.”

And Cavanaugh has advice for young people embarking on their own careers who find themselves torn between two passions. “Do both,” she said. “If you love both of them, I think you should definitely do both—because you’ll have it your whole life.” Q