Mike Cohn was a typically active 8-year-old running across a park when he suddenly lost all coordination and fell flat on his face. Countless doctors’ exams later, he discovered that he was a victim of a rare neurological disorder that would quickly impair his vision and speech as well as his ability to move.
He asked his mother if she could change things to make him like everyone else. “She said no,” he said. “My mother made it clear that there would be no pity party.”
So he changed his outlook. Instead of worrying about what he couldn’t do, he started focusing on what he could do — especially those things that other people thought he shouldn’t be able to do. He got a master’s degree in education from the University of Minnesota and founded Promote Awareness, an organization that highlights the abilities of people with disabilities.
“He overcomes obstacles very fast,” said his sister, Leslie Zent.
Four years ago, Cohn developed a passion for dance and started taking choreography classes at Zenon Dance School. Now he has put together his own dance company, I Can Dance You Can Dance, which is presenting the show “My Body Works” at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis. The 10-person show — half the dancers have disabilities — is about Cohn’s life, “all the trials and triumphs — although there are more triumphs than trials,” he said.
The medical name for his condition is pantothenate kinase-associated neurodegeneration. Although he tends to use a wheelchair to ease getting around, he can move with a walker and “even take a few steps without it.” In one of his dances, he stands while turning his walker into a pseudo partner, swinging it around him as he moves and, at one point, lying on the floor and rolling the walker over his prone body.
“Dance is my therapy,” said Cohn, 48. “I’m up. I’m down. I’m on the floor. I’m all over.”
The therapy is emotional as well as physical. “When I first got sick, I felt ugly,” he said. Dance enables him to create beauty. “My body moves like lots of dancers’ bodies.”
He has been working on the show for a year. “It’s a labor of work,” he said. Asked if he meant to say a labor of love, he shook his head. “No. Work.”
And it’s work that he’s proud of. The show’s takeaway message is simple: “That dance is possible for anybody at any age. And that you shouldn’t judge people based on an image.”
Minnspirations is a regular column about Minnesotans who inspire and move us.