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Bring in the Dance!

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

The past 9 months or so has been a time of great reflection as it started to register how dance, something which holds much emotional space in my heart can be transformed from the deeply personal to the inclusively communal.

In particular, how dance can offer a space of connection, focus and joy to people with Parkinson's and people living with Dementia.

Last Spring I took part in a spectacular live training at Toronto's National Ballet School taught by David Leventhal from NYC's Mark Morris Dance Group, and Toronto's own Sarah Robichaud, founder of Dancing with Parkinson's. Participants spent the weekend learning the reason's why dance is such a natural fit for the Parkinson's community and how we can best, and safely teach it.

As David at one point explained why dance is so powerful, 'Parkinson's is the anti theatrical disease.' So in order to counteract those tendencies which slowly begin to shrink our natural forms of self expression, we need to practice expanding our full spectrum of movement.

Through dancing we develop a better sense of balancing, strength, endurance, coordination. There's also something to the simple presence of the music itself. It is the invisible partner we make visible simply by listening and responding to what it is offering. The more we listen, the more our embodied sense of rhythm develops. For People with Parkinson's who tend to freeze, finding this rhythm, either in the steady sound of someone's steps, or in a tune they hear, may help develop a strategy to unfreeze.

The use of imagery is a wonderful way to engage dancers. Grounding the feet down like the roots of a tree, feeling the arms as branches swaying in a gentle breeze as the crown of our head reaches skyward towards the warm sun can help help relieve insecurities and comparisons to other dancers. Familiar images nurture possibilities in movement we may not have considered otherwise. I am often surprised by how imagery in my own dance practice opens my mind/body in new ways.

There are many crossovers in teaching Dance for Parkinson's and dementia- music, rhythm, imagery, solo, partner and group work to name a few. One difference in teaching dance to people with dementia is the emphasis on non verbal communication. For many people with later stage dementia words can become confusing and create anxiety. As Donna Newman-Bluestein says in her excellent training manual for Bringing Dance to Dementia:

'Communicating without words requires a certain level of comfort with one's body, with expressive movement, and with emotions, as well as a heightened sensitivity to the social context in which such communication occurs. Because we live in a culture where these abilities are not highly valued, this training is needed to reinforce these interpersonal and embodied skills.' (1)

I enjoyed learning with Donna and her teaching partner, Heather Hill, more about the Movement Qualities developed by Laban, and later dance therapist Barbara Mettler. By learning about these qualities, embodying them in our own bodies, we can better understand how to apply in a dance class environment.

The qualities are broken down into 4 categories of movement; Force/ Weight, Time, Space and Flow.

With Force, we come to understand how we may use it actively or passively, such as the difference between moving with a feeling of Strength compared with a feeling of Lightness in the body.

Time is the tempo of our movement, so moving quickly in relation to moving slowly. Noticing which quality we are drawn to will help us understand our personal tendencies.

In Space we are examining the movement qualities of Direct vs Indirect. I think of direct as focused, sharp, arrow like movements, while indirect is, well, the opposite. Foggy, soft, mist like movements which get to where they want to go eventually, but take the long route.

When exploring Flow, we delve into the spectrum between Bound Flow and Free Flow. Bound Flow are movements which may be controlled, restricted, deliberate, while Free Flow movements are more relaxed, easy in quality.

No quality is deemed better or worse than its opposite. All are necessary for different tasks, some may just call more to us personally, and that's always useful to know. These qualities, I am coming to appreciate, help me become more fluent in the language of dance.

In my trainings both with Dance for Parkinson's and Bringing Dance to Dementia, I am learning and experiencing dance in new ways, with a deepening appreciation and respect for an inclusive art form which doesn't get the credit it's due. In a world which often feels like whichever individual screams the loudest and longest wins- Dance offers an alternative communal pathway whose time has arrived not a moment too soon.

(1) Chang, Newman-Bluestein, "the Dance of Interaction, training manual" pg 2

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