Dancing in the Dark
I was nervous about creating a dance class for people with Alzheimers because I couldn’t teach them steps. I couldn’t expect them to learn a sequence; I couldn’t do anything I usually do when I teach. When I walked into the beautiful facility, I felt totally unprepared. I had read that props
came in handy, so I had with me scarves, balls, maracas, tambourines, pinwheels, and a large supply of soap bubbles.
Dementia comes in many flavors—some people in the room are bored, some laughing, some hostile. One tiny woman in a walker with witchy white hair refuses to join the circle of chairs. “Come sit over here,” I invite her. “They don’t want me in their circle,” she responds, standing her ground. “That’s fine,” I agree (I have read that you should never say no but rather, deflect the situation), ‘You can sit here,” and I indicate a huge armchair with its back to the group. “Just listen to the music.”
She stands her ground. Then another resident comes over to her. “Edith!” she coos, “come sit by me,” and the woman allows her to lead her into the circle.
Some residents walk in; some are transported by wheelchair or walker by aides. I shake everyone’s hand and call them by name (I asked for name badges before I came), and tell them how happy I am to meet them. “What are we doing here?” a woman asks me. “We’re going to dance,” I tell her. “And sing.”
The circle fills up. Now there are 20 in the circle, many bandaged and bruised because people with dementia fall a lot. There are about 8 wheelchairs, some to accommodate movement problems, but some (I think) because it’s easier to transport people around rather than insist that they follow you. Several people try to get out of their wheelchairs during class and the aides rush in, not wanting any more accidents.
I walk the circle, telling everyone that this is a time to enjoy themselves. I open my arms wide and ask them what my gesture looks like. One woman says it seems like I’m holding a big beach ball. (She’s right!) “Yes, it could be a beach ball!” I say, “but it’s a hug.” I am borrowing this opening from one of the experts I consulted, and I’m afraid it sounds fake… but I continue. “I’m just feeling like giving everyone a hug right now.”
A few people smile faintly.
We start with a song I assume everyone knows. I put on Gene Autry singing, “You Are My Sunshine,” which was a suggestion given to me by another geriatric teaching artist. Lyrics that are easy to mime to. First I sing along with Gene, repeating the same stanza and the same movements even when he sings different words during different stanzas. The song is useful because it has such evocative words: “sunshine,” “you,” “make me happy,” “Skies are gray,” “how much I love you.”
I have been told that my job is to engage. The last dance teacher was fired because she just danced – and expected everyone to get up and dance with her. But just because you are moving doesn’t mean the crowd moves with you. All the choreography I do can be done in a chair or standing, so that’s no problem—the real difficulty is making eye contact with everyone in the circle. By the end of the song, at least half are making gestures like the circle of the sun and the hugging of “how much I love you.”
There are also those who sit stolidly, hardly moving, staring at me or deliberately away from me, like Edith. Each time I approach her—with a tambourine or a scarf or a pinwheel, she firmly rejects it. She and the woman who brought her in are like the cool girls, gossiping together through class, making remarks like, “This is silly. This is ridiculous.” Luckily, no one else seems to be listening to them and eventually, they get up and leave.
But I have some real successes. I put on “Lara’s Waltz” from Dr. Zhivago and seem them respond. I start to tell a story of a romantic ballroom on a dark night, everyone wearing ballgowns and tuxedos. I get up from my seat and sway, waltzing to the music. Now lots of people are swaying, so I dance up to them in turn and say, “Roy, will you waltz with me?” taking his hand, or “Beautiful waltz, Ruth,” taking hers. She beams and says, “YOU are beautiful.” Suddenly the job is easier.
Until the next piece I try, where I ask people to sing along to a simple melody and alternately lift and lower their arms. Now there are some people asleep, others chatting to themselves or others, and a shift change where aides walk through the room on their way to pick up clients for the next activity. The clock says 2:57 and I am drenched with sweat. I stop trying so hard and ask them to breathe and just enjoy the day.
It is over. When I text my dancer friend to tell her it was the hardest thing in the world, she asks, “How many more of these do you have to do?”
We’re all just dancing in the dark here.
My students always train me, and I am just starting this course. It’s not the hardest thing. The hardest thing is having dementia. Bar none. Research, prevention, awareness, and more of the same is needed urgently as we all age. And fingers crossed and double crossed that we and our loved one are spared.