I found M curled up in a chair next to the nurse. They were in front of a computer screen, watching the rolling words of a Frank Sinatra song, singing along. I asked if M might be interested in joining the music and movement group. She turned a surprised but keen and bright face to me.
Yes, downstairs, here at the hospital.
The nurse reassured M that this was indeed so, and I was the dancing lady, and reassured
me that M could easily and comfortably walk the distance with me. So, after rearranging M’s dressing gown just so – “but I’m not dressed” was her only protest – we sailed off.
M’s steps are light and she glides more than she steps. Her posture is upright and her eyes are searching and curious, even in a face where all expression sometimes drains away. Her smile is luminous, and sparks responding huge smiles from people we pass. She is charming, like a hostess in an P.G. Wodehouse novel. Decorum and grace seep through her bones. She has presence. And yet her face holds a tightness, and an anxious wariness.
As we walk through the hospital, M confesses to me aspects of her relationship with dance, which becomes a tale about a sister whom she protected. I gather the threads of these stories; M’s sentences trail off as her words slip off their shape and identity and become word-like sounds; the gist of the sentence loosens and floats away. The melody of the sentence is there, but the words dissipate. M’s face is animated, and her eyes fill alternatively with tears, and then with laughter and love as she imparts her stories to me.
We reach our dancing space where Debbie my colleague is waiting. We settle and arrange ourselves comfortably in our chairs, and I tell Debbie of M’s great love of dance. I find a first song – a piano piece by Phamie Gow. As the first notes ring out – clear, soft and sweet – M’s eyes widen, and her hand flies to her heart. She leans forward and stares into our eyes, hers filled with wonderment – as if to say, “Really?! This? Music? Here? Now?!” Debbie and I are both startled by the passion and intensity in her eyes – we are moved by her reaction, and have to laugh to express our delight – we too both love music and dance, and completely understand her excitement.
Usually we begin our movement sessions with a calm warm up, carefully leading people into awareness of their body, but M is lit up, and beseeches us, “May I?” and springs from her chair. She catches the melody with her hands, and steps into a current of sound and movement, dancing as if at a ball, nimbly and and elegantly moving across the floor. Debbie swoops and joins in with her, as I quietly and quickly push back the small circle of chairs to give M the space she needs.
M holds out a hand to each of us, and knowingly takes us along the floor, swaying one way, then another, her feet stepping out a quick foxtrot rhythm, her hands tracing beautiful lines. But it is the look on her face that is wonderful. Her face is composed and delighted, smiling with the comfort of one who has arrived and finds themselves thankfully and finally in the right place. She smiles to us encouragingly and affirming that yes isn’t this marvellous, isn’t it wonderful to be dancing together.
When we sit back down again, M tells us with words of thanks how good that was. And yet, across her obvious delight she also expresses her confusion that this is in fact what we are doing, dancing, and how could this marvellous thing be true? Her anxiety arrives as she conveys to us that others would disapprove, oh yes, they wouldn’t understand. They are stupid. Thick. Carefully, she laughs her unkind words away. We reassure her that it is ok to be doing just this, that we are there to move with her, maybe more gently this time? and her
eyes fill with gratitude and calm again.
It is in itself a dance witnessing M become peacefully at one with her dancing self, and then clouding with a sense of wrongness, that she might be misunderstood, that something isn’t quite right. As her words do not deliver entirely, her eyes convey this dance of emotions and feelings. Repeatedly she stops and looks at us as if to read in our eyes that this really is happening. She cries out in recognition when I play songs she loves – Glen Miller, Nat King Cole – ah yes, yes, yes! And she tells us this is lovely, so lovely, so very lovely, and thank you so very much.
On the ward, the staff know that M loves to dance, and in fact she spins off into dancing at all times. But dancing alone, as I witness her once, standing outside the ward doors, she looks like a restless ghost, her attention is inwards, her smile is a polite statement of protection. When she danced with us, together we were able to acknowledge a vital part of herself, she felt our recognition of herself and could be herself, could express some niggling fears. Safe, and comforted by familiarity, she could loosen her carefulness and could restore a real connection with herself and others. We are making no demands of her, we are joining in with her, we are listening, we are real. Where her words fail her, M’s movements are clear, expressive, assured and entirely beautiful. As the hospital competently treat the symptoms of her illness, her depression and apathy have lifted. Dancing with companions have given her the further boost of a sense of wellness and a joyous life-affirming experience, that in M’s case was an essential part of her personality.