5 Rhythms and Alzheimers
From the street the Stein Senior Centre looks like an office block – but arriving at the second floor, the feeling changes hugely. It’s still an office space but there’s a busy hum of conversation and action. I ask for the dance group, and am showed into a smallish, carpeted, low ceilinged room – tables one end, and a circle of chairs the other end. It certainly doesn’t look like a dance space, so I am hesitant, but I ask the one elderly gentleman sitting on his own at the table if this is where the dance happens. He nods affirmation. He asks me who I am – I explain I am a visitor from England. He asks me what I’m studying. I explain I’m not a student – I work and have a family. He listens quietly and then proceeds to tell me that you can always be student, and that Churchill always said you should continue to learn as long as you can. I’m delighted at the coincidence of him quoting (paraphrasing, really) Churchill, but luckily for him, am prevented from going into a full blown explanation of the grand coincidence of his words, by the arrival of a stream of people.
Firstly Karen, the 5-rhythms teacher, today replacing the usual teacher, Peter Fodera, who set up this group, and with whom I have been corresponding. Karen welcomes me warmly; I can’t tell if she forgot I was due to visit, but her easy way ensures that I am fine to join in, do as I like, and sure, why not, take photographs. One by one the senior participants arrive, mostly with carers, and in several cases as couples – two husband and wives, one mother and daughter. People are greeting each other very warmly – there is lots of banter and joking. This is only the second session back after the summer break, and clearly people are really happy to see each other, and are checking in on matters of health and family, and all sorts…
The session begins with us all sitting round the table. I notice the carers sit apart and to one side. As does the wife of one of the dancers. Apart from the seniors, there are several centre workers – Franny being the main person in charge of the group and the afternoon. Franny and Karen lead the session together. There are also several people from the 5-rhythms community volunteering support and dancing presence. Conversation moves slowly and with humour while Karen checks in with everyone. True New Yorker style, the conversation is frank and to the point – “Look at it this way, you may be losing your marbles, but you’ve all remembered to come here today!” Everyone joins in the laughter…indeed, making it to this group is a good thing. Life is good here in this group.
We get up from the table end of the room and head to the chairs end.
Karen’s style is about warmth, flowing, flexible, and encouraging. Her body is constantly moving and modelling as she invites people to relax into their chairs, and get in touch with their bodies. Hands, arms, elbows – she encourages shaking, flicking. Constantly checking in with people , she tells us all that what we are doing is great, and it looks beautiful. We wake up and shake our feet and legs. We contort, grimace and wake up the face.
Karen is clearly passionate about dancing and music, and her energy and delight is infectious. She urges the group to feel their bones, feel their body parts, get their bodies moving. The warm-up isn’t so much thorough as it is enthusiastic. Everyone seems to know the ropes however, and they join in in their own way, in their own time. Clearly this is a dance group where individual style and attitude is welcomed, and what matters is that the group stays together in energy and attention. Kind of like a big eccentric family.
Mood and quality of rhythm in music in 5-rhythms work is key, and teachers will draw on a wide range of eclectic music during one session. Karen begins with classical quiet piano, shifts to a gentle flowing Kenyan song by Ayub Ogada, and then brings in the favourite favourites, beginning with a gorgeous Sarah Vaughn song. She references the music constantly, telling people what it is, telling some this is the one they love, asking others if they remember these songs…
When the Sarah Vaughn comes on it seems to be a cue for people to get up and start dancing in pairs. Again, not everyone gets up, some people seem content sitting and watching, and Karen seems quite happy for them to do so. She focuses mainly on the people who are up. The general rule seems to be that everyone – volunteers, teachers, seniors – is encouraged to dance as they feel moved to. The group is integrated in the sense that everyone is encouraged to respond to the music fully and personally if they are so inclined. I’m curious whether this is a principle of this particular class – enough enthusiasm will inspire everyone to engage, or is it more an aspect of the free flow attitude of the teacher?
As the session proceeds, I notice that Franny carefully makes the rounds, inviting sitting participants to dance, as does another volunteer. Karen holds the central focus, and her colleagues move around the perimeters. At some point everyone has danced for at least some length of time.
The music is getting more vigorous and wilder; Karen checks in whether we’re up for one more. There are a couple of dancers, one gentleman in particular, who clearly love dancing. H has a lot of energy and charisma. He is a jokester and clown, there with his clearly long-suffering wife. At one point in the conversation at the beginning of the session, he had said in response to being teased about his constant clowning, that he would trade strength in for humour any day.
Generally, there is little evidence of struggle and suffering in the room – there is so much friendly banter, and joviality. There is one gentleman whose posture is stiff, and whose gaze is introspective and quiet. Another gentleman nods off now and again, but otherwise it isn’t obvious that this is an Alzheimers group. When I meet Peter, I need to ask him what the criteria are to join this group – early onset?
It feels like we have been dancing for some time…Karen takes us into chaos. Chaos is the 3rd stage of the Wave – the progression of rhythmical dancing. Traditionally, it combines flowing movements with staccato movements, meaning really shaking loose – going for unrestrained and full on dancing. Karen brings us into chaos through a klezmer piece – after a rather long string of stories from her about chaos episodes in her personal life – one of which is quite personal indeed. The group take all this information in their stride, seemingly enjoying the stories, and waiting for the dancing to begin again. As the klezmer begins, they join in slowly. There must be an element of tiredness for some of the participants – however, this is our last dance, and mostly everyone joins in.
We finish sitting back down. In our chairs we take it in turns to create our own movement responses to the music, which the group follows. I am sat next to M, who has clearly developed a persona as a bit of a grump, and slightly above all this dancing malarky. When it comes to his turn, having done no dancing up to then, he surprises us all by doing a beautiful and melodic hand dance….ending with flipping the middle finger at Karen. She takes it in her stride as she echoes his dance.
And so the dancing part of the session finishes.
Because two participants are celebrating birthdays there is a delicious and generous lunch treat provided by a participant’s daughter. Franny has also brought along ingredients to make egg soda’s – stuff of Americana folklore. She makes each participant an egg soda – all of whom have stories to tell about where and how they last saw those on the street. I am made one too – quite a disconcerting combination of sweet and fizzy, but its great to be in on the treat. No eggs in an egg soda.
After refreshments are over, as I had asked Franny if I could ask some of the participants questions, she organises the group into a round table conversation, and invites me to take the lead in talking about dance and movement. As in all else thus far, this lovely and genial group seem perfectly happy to have the visitor from England ask all sorts of questions…
Karen and the other 5-rhythms dancers have had to leave but the rest of us sit for just over half an hour, telling tales of dancing and life. At this point, the Alzheimers becomes apparent. Some stories are repeated several times, at times focus is lost, and sometimes things said have no immediate relevance to questions asked. But it is a wonderfully poignant and important exchange of ideas and stories, and on the whole, everyone follows along, and it feels like we are learning something important about each other. I invite everyone to join in; it’s great to hear stories from carers, centre workers, family and seniors alike.