Dancing with Persons with Dementia


Why do I care so much whether anyone dances with people with dementia? I don’t know about you, but I certainly have experienced feeling unseen, unheard, and not valued. I know that, over time, the experience of feeling such disconnection can lead to discouragement, powerlessness, and, eventually, depression. It was for this reason that I became a dance/movement therapist: to help others find through dance and expressive movement the personal power to make a positive impact in the moment as I did.

When I dance with people, some of whom have advanced dementia, I see them come alive; moving joyously; contributing spontaneously through their movement, their words, their smiles and playfulness; engaging with and being supportive to one another. I don’t see this picture in the media all that often. And I think, “Really?” Researchers can pour millions of dollars into trying to find a cure – they haven’t come close yet – and put next to nothing into researching interventions that clearly help the person lead a better quality of life, based on the evidence of the senses of all the staff and family who see and hear it. For a moment, I feel once again unseen, unheard and not valued.

Thankfully, those dance/movement therapy groups remind me that I/we can make a positive impact, in the moment – the only moment that we have, the only moment when we dance. We can make choices about moving in ways that feel good or not. Above the entrance to Creative Dance pioneer Barbara Mettler’s studio is a Zuni saying, “We dance both for pleasure and for the good of the City.” Turns out that when we take care of ourselves and others, that it is good for both our individual and collective health.

How does the dance/movement therapist do that? S/he uses the observational hrcpicspriscillatook 005skills that are a requirement for becoming a dance therapist. Whether the movements are large or small, s/he follows participants’ lead, exploring what s/he can do to make those movements a little larger so the participants can experience more deeply what s/he sees them saying. S/he helps them feel more connected internally or externally, looking for shifts in use of energy and affect. Using group process and group dynamic skills also required to be a dance/movement therapist, s/he builds on what is present in the space to create a group improvisation, of which all are part. Not what is missing, but what is happening. S/he is building a group energy where there previously was none. When I run these groups, I feel a sense of my own efficacy and model that to the folks I work with. And in return?

I come away refueled. I feel energized by connecting with what really matters, our relationships with one another. It’s not about what we know, or what we do, it’s about who we are ~ human beings. In the space of that group, we all know what matters. The importance of this is not limited to the particular group of people who experience it, nor only people living with dementia. If others could see and hear us, they would be uplifted; they would understand that this is the only thing that truly matters, in the end, for any and all of us. Who among us does not know suffering, does not know pain, does not have something that they can’t do? Yet, despite that, we can laugh, we can sing, we can dance, we can experience joy, fulfillment, and caring for one another, and know that our lives really do matter.statues


To learn more:

Bräuninger, I. (2014). Dance movement therapy with the elderly: An international Internet-based survey undertaken with practitioners. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, (ahead-of-print), 1-16.
Coaten, R., & Newman-Bluestein, D. (2013). Embodiment and dementia–Dance movement psychotherapists respond. Dementia, 12(6), 677-681.
Hill, H. (1995). An attempt to describe and understand moments of experiential meaning within the dance therapy process for a patient with dementia (Doctoral dissertation, La Trobe University).
Hill, H. (2001). Invitation to the Dance: Dance for people with dementia and their carers. University of Stirling, Dementia Services Development Centre.
Karkou, V., & Meekums, B. (2014). Dance movement therapy for dementia. The Cochrane Library.
Kitwood, T. (1997). Dementia reconsidered: The person comes first. Oxford: Oxford.
Newman-Bluestein, D., & Hill, H. (2010). Movement as the medium for connection, empathy, playfulness. Journal of Dementia Care18(5), 24-27.






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