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Tap dancing through medicine, from surgeon to song-and-dance man

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2005 - Autumn


While a medical student at Yale, Brock Lynch, M.D. ’47, sang and tap danced in a hospital fund-raising play. He remembers thinking, “Should I be in show business or medicine?” But even though he’d started tap dancing when he was 8, Lynch wasn’t serious about changing careers. After World War II Navy service, he resumed his medical career and decided that someday he would return to the stage.

And he has. Since he retired in 1995 from practicing general medicine at the Northampton VA Medical Center in Leeds, Mass., he has been part of Young@Heart Chorus, a Massachusetts performing troupe, in which the average age is 80. Other men and women who sing in the group were engineers, insurance executives, building contractors and teachers in their younger days. Rather than croon Cole Porter songs or others of the same vintage, the 73- to 91-year-olds sing tunes from the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, U2, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Clash—the same loud music that they once told their children to turn down.

In the last seven years, the 22-member group has toured Europe 10 times and visited Hawaii and Australia. Lynch sings tenor and dances, although there’s not much demand for tap when you’ve got an electric guitar and professional drum set. Young@Heart plays to sold-out audiences in Europe; in 2001, the King and Queen of Norway gave them a standing ovation.

Because of their age, choice of music and humorous and whimsical performances, last June they were written up in Time magazine. The group disco dances to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive,” and Lynch is one of three soloists in “Once in a Lifetime,” originally sung by the Talking Heads.

When they go abroad once a year, for a week or two, Young@Heart members face a grueling schedule, usually one performance each night over four nights. This fall, they traveled to London for two weeks, where the group performed 12 straight shows, including a matinee and evening event on a Saturday. These performances come after long plane rides and jet lag. (They always travel with three wheelchairs just in case.) The group pays tribute to each country it visits, so it may learn a song in Dutch while in Antwerp or perform Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” in Australia.

Back in Northampton, there are weekly rehearsals, sometimes more, where Lynch and fellow members stand for two hours straight. That’s a feat for anyone, but particularly for septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians whose collective conditions include arthritis, heart disease, macular degeneration, hip replacements, high blood pressure and cancer. (There are chairs at the back of the stage for anyone who gets tired.) Lynch, who jogs three times a week for 10 minutes, doesn’t complain about the pace, however. “Young@Heart puts a schedule into my life,” said the 81-year-old, “and without it I’d be in a rocking chair.”

These days, the only rocking Lynch does is on the dance floor. But that’s nothing new. Everywhere he studied or practiced medicine, he would tap dance and sing in charity hospital shows. After his New Haven theatrical debut, Lynch performed during a surgical internship at the University of Cleveland Hospital and his residency at Malden Hospital in his hometown of Malden, Mass., and at New England Medical Center and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston. He tapped his way through Mitchell Air Force Base on Long Island while he was chief of surgery and also when he became a teaching fellow at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Then there was more performing while in private practice with his father in Malden for 18 years, followed by more dancing and singing when Lynch moved his work life in 1975 to the Veterans Administration hospital near Northampton as a general practitioner. During the 20 years he practiced there, his surgical skills were frequently requested in the emergency room, leading to the saying, “In a Pinch, Call Lynch.”

Within a month of retiring from his VA post in 1995, the self-taught tenor auditioned for Young@Heart. He danced and sang his way through “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “You’re the Cream in My Coffee”—a far cry from the rock and roll he would churn out as a group member. “In show business, when you audition, the director always asks what your talent is,” said Lynch. “In my case I said, ‘For you, I’m a singer who dances, but if you ask me what I really am, I’m a dancer who sings.’ ”

He is also a doctor who dances and sings.