Channel creativity through movement.
Self-expression can take various forms, and some of us prefer to let our bodies do the talking. That’s where creative movement programs like Sharing Dance kick in.
“Dance provides opportunity to express emotions and engage with others without words. Particularly for people living with dementia who may find verbal communication a challenge, the opportunity to express oneself through movement may be especially empowering,” says Dr. Rachel Bar, Director of Research & Health at Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS).
Launched in 2016 in partnership with Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences, Sharing Dance Older Adults is an eight-week program that engages seniors in various community settings. Pre-COVID, classes took place in care settings with live facilitators, and during the past year, the program has pivoted to streaming, plus the recently launched Sharing Dance At Home mobile app.
"To maximise the accessibility of the program, different movement options are offered within a creative context ... Dancers are encouraged to move in whatever way feels right for them."
– Rachel Bar
Research into the advantages of physical activity programs suggest they may provide people living with dementia with benefits such as better functional ability and improved cognition and mental health. But at this stage, there isn’t enough evidence to make a causal connection, much less identify the exact mechanism of action or optimal physical activities to get the desired result. Yet anecdotal evidence points to the clear benefits of creative movement, says Bar.
“As a physical experience, dance constantly calls on the body and mind to move through space in three dimensions, in different directions, and in coordination,” she says. “In addition, it's an opportunity to express oneself emotionally and creatively. And of course, it's fun, which is why older adults who start dancing tend to keep dancing.”
And the more they keep dancing, the more they can stay active, be social and enjoy this creative outlet.
Sharing Dance comes in two versions. In Your Seat is a seated class for people with significant cognitive or physical challenges, while On Your Feet is a faster-paced class that combines seated and standing movements. Each 45-minute-long class is structured after a traditional dance class.
“Within our protocol, each dance is guided by a physical and artistic goal,” explains Bar. “To maximise the accessibility of the program, different movement options are offered within a creative context. For example, there is no right or wrong way to ‘reach for the sky' or 'float like seaweed.' Dancers are encouraged to move in whatever way feels right for them.”
It’s an approach that resonates with program participants.
“[The facilitator] told us not to worry [about following steps]. Because I’ve got Alzheimer’s, I get mixed up, but I don’t care. I didn’t do the same thing that they were doing but I kept going and I really had fun,” reported a recent participant in Brandon, Man., where a four-year pilot study is now underway to examine Sharing Dance’s potential to improve social inclusion for people living with dementia and their care partners.
"One of the most satisfying parts about teaching dance to older adults, particularly those living with dementia, are the transformations that happen within a class."
– Rachel Bar
“Dance draws people together,” said another participant in Brandon, and Bar notes that it’s that very connection she strives for as an instructor: “One of the most satisfying parts about teaching dance to older adults, particularly those living with dementia, are the transformations that happen within a class,” she says.
“One of the first great transformations I witnessed was with a long-term care resident,” Bar adds. “At the beginning of the class, a tiny woman was slouched in her wheelchair. I wasn't sure if she was awake or asleep. As the class began, I saw her sit taller, open her eyes and smile. When I passed her a bright-coloured scarf to dance with, about midway through the class, her movements began to get bigger, more complex and exciting. I remember one of the staff saying to me afterward, ‘I didn't know she could move like that.’ There is dance inside of all of us, and whether they are three or 93, I feel so very privileged when I have the opportunity to support the dancer inside someone to come out.”
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