Case Study

Moving Minds – dance project for people affected by dementia

Moving Minds

Elaine Harvey, founder of Moving Minds dance project shares her insight into the therapeutic power of music through movement.

Holding brightly coloured scarves that trace and extend her movement, Margaret leads a processional dance through the spaceEmbracing this role with exuberance and leading the group off through the studio, her arms move with energy and grace in time to the music. The session finishes and still she retains this energy as she leaves, dancing arm in arm with her husband; animated, vital, her face full of joy.

On her first visit Rita refuses to remove her coat for entire session, opting instead to sit cross-legged, hands in pockets, avoiding eye-contact with everyone but her carer. I notice a small and private dance begin when, during the final song of the session, Rita’s right foot moves in time to the music. The following week her hands join in too. The week after, the coat is abandoned.

My privilege, over the last six years, has been to witness the dances, great and small, that have emerged as part of the Moving Minds project; a venture at York St John University that invites people living with dementia, and their partners, family members or carers, into our dance studio for free weekly dance and creative movement sessions. The project was on hold during lockdown but has recently restarted in-person sessions and we are keen to welcome new members.

My career as a dance-maker and facilitator spans two decades and a diverse range of settings and groups including survivors of domestic abuse, refugees and in mental health settings. In this time I have witnessed the extent to which dance can transform and affirm the lives of individuals and communities. More recently I have focused on the significance of dance as an artistic and social practice in relation to conditions classed as neurodegenerative, such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia. There is a growing body of research that strongly suggests that, for people living with these conditions, participating in dance activities has several physiological and psychological benefits including stress reduction, encouraging social interaction, maximizing cognitive function and reinforcing a sense of identity.

We experience the world, first and foremost, through our bodies. We express ourselves and communicate with others through our bodies and yet the emphasis of our sense of self is often placed on our minds – we live in our heads. In dance our experience is not dependent on verbal skills and we can connect more readily with our embodied self and with others.

Throughout this project participant-dancers have made reference to experiencing a sense of coming ‘back to myself’ or ‘feeling more myself’; suggesting an enhanced awareness of identity or embodied ‘selfhood’. Dance, as the creative and aesthetic extension of our embodiment, allows people living with dementia to experience their bodies as a field of activity and affectivity, and can, with the right invitation, act as a spontaneous expression of their identity. Dance, with its focus on touch, reciprocity and connection can facilitate a greater awareness of non-verbal expression and communication in the context of a condition in which spoken language can prove problematic.

What has certainly emerged, over the course of the project, is that the participant-dancers involved attribute value to their experience of dance as an opportunity to connect and as a powerful celebration of all that remains.

The sessions are open to all levels of ability and experience, including those who may need to remain seated. There are refreshments afterwards and a valuable opportunity to sit and talk with others.

Sessions take place on Wednesday afternoons from 1.30-2.30 with tea & coffee afterwards. If you or someone you know would like to try out a session you can book a place via email at [email protected] or call/text 07881 922343.