The power of dance to transform lives

I recently presented at the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance’s 17th Pecha Kucha Night (21 June 2016) which was themed Extraordinaire.  Here’s the transcript of my presentation:

I have to dance! It’s my happy pill…it keeps me mobile, works my brain and feeds my soul.

I was born to dance and teaching dance is what I do best…I love it.

Across my career I’ve seen people’s lives transformed through their participation in dance.

So tonight I’d like to share with you 3 stories of extraordinary outcomes for a range of people through their participation in dance classes and projects I have lead over the last 38 years.

Back in the 80s I was a high school commerce and maths teacher but my life outside of school was all about dance – dancing, choreographing and teaching in private dance schools.  I was fortunate to be in one of the first Qld high schools to introduce dance as a senior subject. While I knew how much dance made me feel good, I was awakened to the power of dance for others, particularly by one of my first school dance students.  Emma (not her real name) had studied dance with me for all of her Year 11 & 12 and when she started she was one of the most uncoordinated movers I have ever taught – EVER!   She was a bright student who applied herself with great diligence.  Over the 2 years I saw tremendous improvement in her ability. But I was blown away when she came to me on her last day in Year 12 to thank me and tell me that doing dance was the best thing she ever did, that improving her coordination through dance impacted everything else she did, her other school work and her life in general.  That was an amazing moment in my life as a dance teacher – it was the revelation that I could make a difference in people’s lives beyond just teaching them dance steps.

The second story I’d like to share comes from a community dance project.  4 years ago I instigated Noosa’s One Billion Rising event – One Billion Rising is a massive global event that sees people dancing the same dance on Valentine’s Day to protest violence against women. There was an incredible response that showed how dance could draw a community together to do something positive in raising awareness of this scourge on our society. One woman who participated had some years earlier been in a 15 year violent relationship.  After the event she said that although she had escaped that relationship by moving interstate and changing her name she had always felt shame.  She said participating in One Billion Rising, coming together to dance to make a united statement showed her how much she was supported by her community and that she didn’t need to feel shame anymore.  All the work to make that event happen was worth it for that woman alone.

In recent years I’ve changed my focus from young to older people and I’ve developed a strong interest in the intersection of dance and health for older people as a means of both the prevention of and intervention in ill-health and ill-being by bringing the joy of dance to contribute to improving their quality of life.

The third and last story I’d like to share, is of a 73yr old lady who has a neurological condition who joined one of my classes for people with mobility issues. She used a walking frame, had very swollen legs and could hardly bend her knees when standing on two feet, although it improved over the duration of her attendance.  She did more seated than standing dance but each week she did more locomotor movement (using her walker). After the first class she said she really enjoyed it and she and her daughter said that it was much better than what her physio was getting her to do. I asked why and they said I had included a greater range and variety of movement, and the music was fabulous. Great music is a vital key to all my classes. During the second class I noticed she had great musicality, especially in her arm movements. I asked her if she had been a dancer. She said no, paused then said she was a singer. I said of course that made total sense. We’d been doing a seated Broadway routine to New York New York with top hats, it’s loads of fun and everyone loves it. Anyhow, later that afternoon I got the following text message from her daughter:  ” just wanted to say a big thank you. Mum doesn’t say much but she spent her whole life in the theatre as a singer and we would always hear her singing around the house. Since she became unwell we don’t hear her singing anymore but this afternoon she has been walking around the house singing New York New York. I can’t tell you what a big difference your class has made to Mum.”

So… bringing joy back into people’s lives is a pretty awesome feeling. But the story continues, at the beginning of her 5th class she had this huge smile on her face and turned to her daughter and said “Will you tell her or will I?” Her daughter said, “You can, it’s your great news.” I said, “So what’s happened?” And she replied, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, “I can pull my pants up myself! When I go to the toilet and my undies are around my ankles it usually takes forever to get them up and I need help as I can’t reach them. And I hold everyone up having to wait for me. Well, I’ve been able to pull them up myself! I can now reach down that far to get them.” I was so excited for her and her family for not only her great physical achievement but especially for the dignity it gave back to her.

I could tell you lots of similar extraordinary stories.

Whist the focus of my work is first and foremost on dancing, the classes I teach are designed with a major consideration of them being for improved health and wellbeing (ie for physical, cognitive, emotional and social benefits). My classes are about possibilities not limitations.

While we dance practitioners have always known the many benefits dance brings to people, a growing body of research is now showing clear evidence of the efficacy of dance and music for older people – older people in general, people with conditions such as Parkinson’s, dementia and other neurological conditions, people with various ageing issues.

Oliver Sacks the renowned neurologist once said, “While music alone can unlock people with Parkinson’s…an ideal combination of music and movement is provided by dance.”

It’s my quest to spread the joy and benefits of dance for this population through my classes and projects as well as in training others.  And while Dance may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is possible for everyone!

So exactly what is it about dance that makes it so beneficial for older people?

…Well that’s another story.



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