More and more dancing

It feels like the first week in New York has been about orientation and meeting people and spaces in an ongoing sense of newness and difference, and now, second week in, I am easing more familiarly and more deeply into the New York dance scene – dance scene as it relates to the world of ageing and health care and community.

I began Monday with going to a dance class myself – my body was aching from the long walks I have been doing daily; what better thing to do than dance my way into feeling less sore. I decide to go to Karen’s 5-rhythms class – the teacher who facilitated the Alzheimer’s group on the Friday. Her class was all the way up in Harlem – a neighbourhood I had never been to before. It was a very sunny bright day, the sun reflected in all windows and shiny street signs. The avenues pleasantly broad, the streets curiously green and leafy. There is a lot of community action happening on corners, people hanging out, deep in conversation or altercation. Equally, many people walking along, in monologue with themselves, working our their particular angle on the universe.

The studio is small and the group is small – its Monday morning after all. Perfect. After all the watching, and thinking, it is pure joy to reconnect with my own body, and take plenty of time to move to the wonderful music Karen shares with us. At the end of the hour, we sit briefly in conversation. One lady says that she had almost not come – she is in pain in several areas of the body. She told us that often when she’s in pain, or feeling harried or anxious, her immediate thought is to not come to dance – projecting that it won’t work to dance. Her realisation was that, on the contrary, bringing her ailments to dance allowed her to move differently, explore a different presentation of body, and gradually, feel much, much better. There was a lot of nodding and agreement from us all. Yes – bring the body always to dance. It’s always better to move.

Feeling restored and refreshed, I make my way west side – (am also finally finding my sense of orientation) – to Juilliard, to the Dance for PD class held there. Iconic Juilliard – also part of a complex of beautiful building spaces, shored in next to the grand Lincoln Centre. The group collects slowly, I am greeted warmly by different people. Some of the couples and individuals share their stories with me, easily and immediately telling me a lot. After the class, I sit with one of the volunteers and she emphasises just how much effort it can take people to come along to these sessions – it takes up a significant part of their day. But they come. Its the Mark Morris company, its Juilliard, its Dave Leventhal. And of course, its the dance.

One lady tells me “I never used to dance. I started at 65, six months after I was diagnosed, and now here I am at Juilliard – I never thought this is how I would get to Juilliard.”

A gentleman tells me, “I come because I believe its good to get out and do things…”

One of the questions constantly rotating through my head as I meet the different groups and programs is attendance – so far I have witnessed large groups, enthusiastic attendees. Is it strong community networks, teachers’ charisma and reputation, collective sense of cultural entitlement, a more dynamic and active attitude to ageing? People are generally much more open about their diagnoses, and life situations, and clearly are active in finding help, finding positive aspects of their disease or illness. In the classes, there is a sense that its great and important to just be there – even if you can’t do it all, its a good place to be. Its a vital place to be.

Another beautiful studio space, large, with big clean windows and views of blue skies. In the corner a grand piano, and the same extraordinary pianist. Again, the chairs are arranged within a circular space, all pointing into the middle of the circle, lots of space in between the chairs. In the centre, two chairs, and two teachers. Dave Leventhal, and another teacher whose name I never get in the busyness of joining in. Many volunteers integrated into the group – joining in with the dancing as well as carefully but unobtrusively supporting.

The general structure is similar, and we go through the paces of warming up and gathering energy and momentum to follow and create movement sequences. This class feels more creative and imaginative – there are more invitations to move freely and individually, less steps to follow. There is also more group work – coming together as a group to create a tableaux, working in threes and fours, finding ways of moving across the floor together. There is more touch, more personal choreography, more conversation, which could be why I enjoy it more.

Its very interesting watching Dave teach, and watching how people respond to him. They clearly adore him; when he teaches, his gentle and full-enthusiasm style brings radiant smiles to peoples faces, and they really throw themselves into moving. Similarly to the first class, not everyone can do it all – some bodies are contorted, stiff, sometimes dominated by tremors, and yet, we keep going, joining in as we can. What I’m trying to say is that there is a sense of our being a regular dance class, a dance company in fact, and the focus is on the momentum and rhythm of the dance work. Within that focus, individual people are finding their own ways to applying and enjoying themselves, and getting out of it what they can. It’s a serious as well as pleasurable activity. I see that people get a lot out of seeing themselves as a part of something bigger than themselves.

We finish in a big circle, and we end by passing something precious around the circle. I am feeling pretty weepy watching a husband pluck an imaginary flower to gift to his wife, watching a gentleman gesture thanks from his heart to the volunteer next to him. Through our gestures, our status as a strong connected group, and our full attention on one another, we temporarily transcend the sense of ill health, unfairness, bad luck, and distress, and we become the lucky ones – the ones who are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. We are visible and heard, we become special and important. It’s a very powerful experience. In all ways, its a very moving experience.

More soberingly, the question is how far does this kind of experience contribute to healing, to what extent can it stall or alter the progression of neurological disease, to what extent does it offer the body&mind opportunities to mend, renew, refresh in real and significant ways?

For those who are interested and can bear more reading, there is an article by Sara Houston and Ashley McGill about ballet and Parkinson’s – a study completed in England in 2012. It touches on all the key aspects of Parkinson’s and looks realistically at what information we can gather from dance work with this population.

After a stimulating conversation with Amy, a dedicated volunteer and teacher of Dance for PD, I end my afternoon at nearby Central Park – long shadows coming across the lush green grass ,and just watch all the different kinds of physicality going on – games, sleep, toddlers, family interactions. I am sure, from the intense squeals of happiness and jumping up and down, that a couple have just become engaged off to one side of me. Its lovely to have bare feet in the grass, and enjoy tranquility at the heart of sprawling metropolis.

And I end the day back at the Lincoln Centre indulging in a double feature tribute to Lauren Bacall. I love that when she first comes on the screen, the audience bursts into spontaneous applause. Her screen presence is divine and the way she moves – sexy languidity and purpose combined – is just gorgeous. The audience is enjoying her and Bogart so much, it feels more like a party than just some old film from the past.

Click here to submit a comment and click here to return to the blog.