Steppin’ Towards Wellness: Dance for Veterans

Dance/Movement Therapist Collaborates with Steppin’ Dance Instructors to Foster Wellbeing and a Sense of Belonging for Chicago Veterans

Editors Note: Each year, through #GivingTuesday grants, ADTA sponsors professionals in dance/movement therapy as they engage in advocacy and education initiatives within their community. Grant recipients work with community organizations to develop innovative dance/movement therapy services for underserved populations. In this blog post, #GivingTuesday grant recipient Isabel Mulcahy describes her collaboration with instructors of a cultural dance born in Chicago to make a difference in lives of local veterans. Footage of her program is documented in the video below, along with that of other #GivingTuesday grant recipients.

Isolation and emotional numbing are two main symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for Veterans. The Steppin’ Towards Wellness (STW) program, funded by the American Dance Therapy Association’s (ADTA) #GivingTuesday grant, aimed to relieve these symptoms, as well as provide veterans an opportunity to experience wellbeing through participation in a structured dance class. Project objectives included: functional movement training, promotion of self-esteem, access to emotional release, increased sense of belonging, exploration of self-identity, stress reduction, relationship development, and community reintegration.

Steppin’ Towards Wellness was developed and conducted through the recreation therapy department at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center with a veteran population who were commuting primarily from the South Side. The South Side of Chicago is the birthplace of Steppin’. As a recreational therapist and dance/movement therapist employed at this facility, I take a hands-on approach to rehabilitation in physical, emotional, social and cognitive domains of health, following the wellness model approach.

Recreation therapy (RT) focuses on a person’s abilities rather than disabilities, and I use this focus, along with my dance/movement therapy background and knowledge in Laban Movement Analysis, to help participants process their body experience on a deeper level of understanding. The program idea emerged as a collaboration between myself as a dance/movement therapist and two experienced Steppin’ teachers to teach the dance culture of Chicago Steppin’ through a dance/movement therapy lens. The hope was to increase a sense of belonging and self-identification with Chicago’s history through a structured form of movement to complement military culture of organization and directives. The program served approximately 10 to 20 veterans over the span of ten weeks.

In the Steppin’ classes, veterans used movement to attune and connect with their partner to execute movements with free flow. Tension and release exercises were practiced to increase understanding of roles within a dance partner relationship. Movement directives were taught to veterans – giving them opportunities to take the lead role to increase autonomy and self-confidence. Chicago Steppin’ music was played to allow vets to re-experience their youth and reconnect with their narrative as Chicago natives. These dance/movement therapy interventions were made through a lens of recreation therapy – embracing a person’s abilities to help re-create who they are. By coming to a new level of acceptance and understanding of one’s individuality, reintegrating into a community becomes a cohesive process.

During my four years of working with veterans, I learned that community reintegration is fundamental for the healing process and essential to the treatment goals.  Isolation can greatly affect veterans as evidenced by observably avoiding stimuli that may remind them of trauma or common difficulties readjusting to civilian life. Therefore, the dance classes offered relationship building skills as well as several planned community reintegration activities. Veterans, with support from each other, were able to leave the facility to practice their newly learned dance skills with civilians in the Steppin’ community. Collaborating with a local ballroom and the Chicago Park District, veterans also involved their family and friends in the process. As one veteran said, “We begin to feel better and comfortable socializing with other people; we don’t want to be alienated.”

One of the hopes for the program was for it to become self-maintained by the veterans and to continue to run as part of recreational therapy services. As one veteran noted, “we try to help each other to get beyond” the basics of the dance. This hope has become a reality as veterans continue to mentor each other about the dance, practicing Steppin’ weekly at the VA and attending local Steppin’ dance activities on their own. In addition, a performance group has emerged! Seven veterans performed at our local Creative Arts Therapy show. “It’s like a ripple effect, we then send that same feeling out to those people [who] are around us, it gives us peace of mind [and it helps us] stay focused on what is happening right now!”

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