Lately I’ve had the chance to dance with lots of younger and older dancers. During a dance residency in Homer, Alaska I danced with 300 plus third through sixth graders and their teachers, and later with teaching artists from across the state. Weekly, I teach a dance class with people who have Parkinson’s, a chronic and progressive movement disorder. On the face of things the two groups seem pretty different from one another; younger – older, smaller – bigger, highly active – less active.
But amidst those differences real similarities are apparent too. They are all dancers who are discovering how their bodies can move now. They are eager and game to give the work a try and to see what they learn through the doing. They enter class, in a studio, a basement room, a classroom, a gym, not knowing exactly what our dance time together will hold, but my invitation to think and feel themselves as dancers combines with their curiosity and inclination, and off we go.
The school dance residency and the Parkinson’s dance classes include and combine various styles of dance – modern to tap, musical theatre to creative movement, somatic training to ballet, with a touch of hip hop for good measure. The focus is not strictly on building technical expertise but on helping them develop greater physical awareness and capacity while exploring movement vocabulary and expressing ideas.
During the Alaska dance residency all the students danced with me during their school day, which was a change-up from the norm and a signal to take the work seriously. When we first met I asked them, “ When you hear the word dance , when you heard that we were going to dance together today, what did you imagine? What do you think dance is? How would you define it? What does the word or idea make you think of?”
Their answers were great. They said, “Dance can happen in lots of difference places, in your kitchen, or bedroom, in the street, on stage, on TV. There are lots of different ways to move. Dance is loose and it’s about energy. You can move in place, like in a chair, or you can travel around.It just feels good to do. Dances show feelings. Dancing is like talking with your body. Dances can be about you, or about somebody else, like a character. Dance has something to say. It uses your imagination and shows who you really are. It’s fun. It’s cheerful. It’s a kind of art. It helps my brain power and I understand things better when I move. When you’re dancing you can let it all out – it helps you not be afraid to try. It’s about trying again.”
Their answers were not dissimilar to the responses I hear in my Parkinson’s Dance group. They talk about how dancing helps them to move more easily while in class and throughout the day. “It’s funny”, as one woman said to me. “ I work so hard to get it – the rhythm, the patterns, to kind of find the flow and then all of a sudden, it’s easier, I’m dancing. In class, I really feel like I’m a dancer, and I never thought I’d feel that way again.”
The greatest similarity between these dancers is that their work constantly engages – and transitions between – the cognitive and kinesthetic. Dance is ephemeral. We dance and then the movement image is gone. But the impact of dancing remains. The younger students found ways to explore and express their ideas – about land forms, literary character development, causes of the American War of Independence – through purposeful movement choices that became a dance. The dancers with Parkinson’s work with issues of balance , freezing, and movement flow and express how good it feels to dance with others. They learn combinations, find ways to come back into the dance if they lose a step or two, and simply feel themselves, enjoy themselves, dancing.
Dance enables you to find yourself and lose yourself all at the same time. It can center and ground you while providing magical moments of release and connection. The process becomes “being in the moment”. As one young dancer I know said, “ It can be hard work. It’s not fun every minute but it always leads to fun”