Mike Cohn Adds Choreography and Dance to Long List of Achievements in Disability Inclusion

Mike Cohn’s life and work promote a culture of inclusion.

St. Louis Park resident Mike Cohn is a teacher, advocate, dancer and choreographer. He has also lived (for three times longer than predicted life expectancy) with a neurological disorder: neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation, or NBIA, genetically matched to only two other people in the world. While his disabilities include restricted physical mobility and some difficulty with speech, Cohn has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota, and in 1998 founded Promote Awareness, an advocacy organization for disabled people. At Promote Awareness, “we made videos presenting ideas about disability awareness to medical personnel, potential employers and educators,” says Cohn. The videos include frank discussions of assumptions medical staff and potential employers often make about people with disabilities.

The most recent of Cohn’s many ambitions was inspired four years ago when he decided to try dance as a form of physical therapy. Since that introduction, Cohn has danced, taught dancing and choreographed several productions. One such production, in which he also danced, is My Body Works, performed last spring at the Cowles Center by a group of 10 dancers with diverse abilities and disabilities, several of whom he met while taking and teaching classes at Young Dance, a Twin Cities dance program. Individual pieces in the show included several in which Cohn’s wheelchair and walker are integral to his dance performance, and another where six dancers become an MRI machine rolling over Cohn, complete with requisite loud and annoying noises. A particularly moving component of the production was a video of a Young Dance all-ability dance class, featuring participants of diverse ages and abilities, many of whom use wheelchairs and other assistive devices, some of whom tell us—with greater and lesser ease—what dance means to them.

You could say that Cohn’s My Body Works was an extraordinary performance, and in some ways, of course, it is. Yet in others, it is an entirely ordinary performance: People whose “bodies work,” albeit diversely, using dance as a form of artistic expression. On Facebook, Cohn writes, “I don’t want to be fixed; I just want to be normal. If normal means living with my disability, then that’s my normal.” In our interview he adds that he did not produce My Body Works in hopes of inspiring others. “I don’t do it for that reason. I do it to reach my potential and beyond,” he says. “I do it because I’m not going to sit back and let the world pigeonhole me.”

There’s not much chance of that. Over the years, Cohn has become a fierce opponent of “ableism,” a term for the privileging of able-bodiedness resulting in discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities. There’s an affecting dance number in My Body Works about just that topic. In it, Cohn is waiting in his wheelchair for a ride home outside the Walker Art Center and several passers-by give him money, as part of the ableist assumption that people with disabilities are dependent and require the care and support of others. Cohn has lived by himself in his own home for years, with periodic personal care assistance. He uses public transportation to get around town (“A topic for a whole other story,” he says with a laugh), and for personal mobility uses both a walker and a wheelchair. “I do what’s best for me” on any given day, he explains. He also has a letter board for communication, for times when his speech cannot be understood. One very funny dance in My Body Works is a paean to Cohn’s frustration with speech therapy.

Cohn’s sister, Leslie Zent, identifies three strengths that have secured her brother’s many and varied successes: He is a “creative go-getter, strong-willed (in a good way), and funny. My brother has a great sense of humor.” One of Zent’s earliest memories of Cohn is his advice when she had to have a bone marrow test to see if she had the genes for NBIA. “He told me I could scream and cry but I just couldn’t move,” she says with a smile. Clearly close, when asked who it was they would like most to see in the audience of a My Body Works performance, they answer, nearly simultaneously, “Our parents.” Both have passed away but were influential in Cohn’s learning to be the independent person he has become.

“Music and dance are great tools to change your life,” Cohn says. And of all the ways he has effected change in his own life, which accomplishment is he most proud of? “My engagement,” he says. In July 2017, Cohn will marry fellow troupe member Christine. She dances with him in several pieces in My Body Works, a partnership made all the more trenchant by their off-stage relationship.

And that MRI machine dance—did it produce a diagnosis? The show ends in a video clip of people who are part of Cohn’s real-life medical team.

“Dance fever” is the verdict, but not to worry—Cohn’s heart, and ambition, are going strong.