January 26, 2013
Thursday’s class, at a skilled nursing care facility in Virginia, was one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences in my dance and fitness career. The facility was an old, dark and depressing building, a sharp contrast to some of the newer Assisted Living and Independent Living facilities in which I teach. A startling welcome came from an elderly resident in a wheel chair, repeatedly screaming someone’s name on top of her lungs oblivious to my presence as I walked through the front door. Thank God they have a warm place to live and caring people to take care of them as many transition to their next step in their journey home.
As I entered the main part of the facility, the putrid smell of bodily fluids permeated the air. Residents, sitting in the hall or in their rooms, were sleeping or incoherently shouting. I’ve visited or taught in many facilities like this before, so I wasn’t shocked by the sounds or the visuals, but each experience is different and reminds me to be grateful for what I have, to live a health-conscious lifestyle, to keep my body moving and to be a kind, caring person and bring a smile to one face and joy to one soul every day.
Let me explain why this was the best experience ever. There were about 2-3 staff, 18- 20 residents, mostly in wheelchairs, with different awareness levels. Some were half asleep, some were fully asleep while others were totally disinterested in what was about to take place. I said hello to them, told them who I was and what we were going to do today. In response, some mumbled, some turned their backs to me, some left the room, others were having manicures, while others just sat there and one or two smiled. I showed them some steps and arm movements before I turned on the music and asked them to follow me This was the time for me to assess their skill ability and simplify the movements. Those who did respond were slow to respond , so I discarded my routine and offered them movements that they could do.
I asked the activities assistants to find me percussion instruments for those who were either sleeping or not participating. I wanted every person in the room to be engaged in this activity. I gave some people bells to ring or maracas to shake to keep them involved. It was important for each person in the room to feel the rhythm of the music and to move whatever they could move, since I know that music and movement increases blood flow, reduces the stress hormone cortisol and releases happy hormones in the brain called endorphins.
I felt so much joy in my heart when I saw every single person in the room participating on some level. No one was sleeping. They either tapped a foot or a finger and all applauded after each song. The energy in the room had transformed. They clapped 2 hands or one hand on the table. They stomped 2 feet or 1 foot in response to the music they were feeling. We had a ball. We chair danced to songs from all over the world such as, Zorba The Greek, a Middle eastern Belly Dance, a Cuban Cha Cha, a Puerto Rican Salsa, a Colombian Cumbia, a Dominican Merengue, an American Waltz, a Mexican Hat Dance, an Israeli Hora, the Hokey Pokey and even did The Twist in a chair. We were hootin’ and howlin’, giving everyone permission to make noise and release tension and frustration.
NOTE: This is not the actual photo of the French gentlemen, but rather a stock photo from Bing Images
The highlight of the program came at the end, when a slim, well-dressed elderly gentlemen from France, who spoke very little English told me, “I haven’t felt so alive ever in my entire life. I never danced before today. Thank you and God Bless you. I will never forget you.” He took my hands and kissed me on both cheeks. I wanted to cry I was so moved.
It’s in moments like these, that I realize the impact music and dance have on the lives of all people, especially those in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. One of the employees said she’s never seen so many happy, smiling faces in this facility as she did during this one hour. When the Activities Director came in and asked them if they had a good time, in unison they yelled, YES. “Do you want her back for more?” They all resounded a loud YES.
Thank you God for the opportunity to turn their lights back on, to return them to a level of aliveness and joy even for an hour. Most of these people would never have the opportunity to dance or move like this at this stage in their lives. There is no question, I am doing God’s work and being rewarded with millions. I am so blessed to be part of God’s vision for me and look forward to our next adventure together.
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