Dance and Dementia

I’m heading into Halifax this next week to share the work on how dance and dance therapy addresses dementia in the aging brain/body. As I also have an aging brain/body, my interest in the ways in which dancing can help forestall a precipitous decline has increased. A lot!

My first experience with dance therapy with this population was on an Alzheimer’s unit at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.  As I entered the unit on my first day there, it looked like everyone was napping. Or possibly unconscious.  The very air was dead. Sheppard Pratt is an older but elegant hospital and it felt a lot like being in a closed Victorian drawing room.  I quickly learned to go around greeting each person and telling them my name (many times!), leading them to a circle of chairs, and  attempting to begin a session with everyone in some degree of focus.

When the music began, however, the brightening happened.  Eyes came alive.    People sat up.  And importantly, memories flowed.

“Oh, I remember the tea dances in Patterson Park! Do you?…The sailors would come into the harbor and it would be Friday afternoon and I would dress up and go…”

“Oh yes!  I had such a pretty dress! It was pink…”

“There was a small band, remember?”

“And the band was in the..what is the word?….”  “Gazebo!”

I would ask some questions and then suggest that we find a partner and dance.   They would actually look into each others’ eyes and they would flow together…

As my colleague Donna Newman-Bluestein points out, “People with dementia are quite attuned to others’ feelings… therefore…we need to create loving, caring environments so they feel emotionally safe.”  In other words, people with dementia need to be seen, heard, and moved to move, as do we all.  She goes on:”…there’s an energy inside, waiting to be tapped, and I want to tap them. These are resources otherwise lying dormant.”

What happens as a result of dancing together and joyfully is that we all get a lot of history, we are reminded of great music, and we get some great advice, including recipes.  What the participants get is simple: they are seen. And they are valued.


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