Passing the Flame | Judith Sachs

I love teaching adaptive dance to older dancers. These are individuals who may never have danced before and whose movement is generally limited. So when they discover what they can actually do sitting in a chair or holding onto a chair-back, it’s inspiring. Over the past three years, I’ve developed a teaching style and a set of tools that are concrete and repeatable. I’ve learned what works with my students and what doesn’t. And I have also learned how to coach professional dancers who are new to teaching adaptive dance. They have to learn to simplify the combinations they usually do in their classes so that their students can “get” it.

But when I was asked by Tidewater Arts Outreach in Virginia to teach a workshop for professionals in the geriatric and rehabilitation care field, I needed to reach another level of explanation. In preparation for working with these potential teachers, I asked myself, “do I know enough to teach inclusive dance to people who come from other disciplines?” I’ve always been good at explaining myself and being specific about the why, where, and how. But with adaptive dance, I’m combining pedagogy about how to approach the students, which activities work best and how to break them down, what music to select, and even where to stand and sit vis a vis the chairs in the room.

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The invitation to do the Tidewater workshop came at a time when I had already decided it was important to reach outside the dance community to expand the scope of the work I was doing and to lay my best cards on the table to share with others. There are many people working with seniors in the arts, but fewer in the realm of dance, because it’s assumed that “old people” can’t dance. I wanted to spread the knowledge that they can, and they can do a lot more than they think they can.

To do this I have to challenge prevailing opinions in geriatrics about what the elderly are and are not capable of. The caregivers of the elderly and disabled have been instructed to offer activities at which their clients can never mess up. The theory is that the more success, the more self-confidence. (This is similar to the attitude that kids have to get a prize for whatever they do, no matter how lackluster it is.) But those of us who work in the field of inclusive dance have learned over time that people catch on — it’s not really a terrible thing to try something, make mistakes, try it again, correct a few errors, try it again, and finally, do something creditable that makes you feel you’ve accomplished a goal.

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My work with ANYONE CAN DANCE is based on the Dance for Parkinsons® program, developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group and Brooklyn Parkinson Group to be an actual dance class for people who are not professional dancers. These classes do not address symptoms or medical conditions, and they are run as though the people who walked or wheeled in were grownups, who don’t have to be jollied along and babied.

So it was somewhat of a novelty to many of the participants in this workshop (fifteen women who came to learn had a variety of backgrounds in nursing, social work, arts, and advocacy) when I said that in that afternoon’s master class for the residents at the rehab facility we might do a really fast dance number, or we might improvise movement with no instruction, or we might divide the group in half and have one side beat one rhythm and the other side, another. “How will the students react? Suppose they can’t keep up?” one nurse-practitioner asked. I shook my head. “If I walked into a professional dance class filled with 20-somethings, I’d be able to do about 1/8 of the work. I would figure out how to belong to this group. And that’s key.”

After lunch, we joined about twenty residents of Lake Taylor for a master class. Most were in wheelchairs, since this was a rehab facility, so I chose the pieces we would do to accommodate the students’ physical abilities. I had previewed some of these chair dances in the morning while teaching the teachers.

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As I walked around the room and greeted the dancers who had just come in, they looked a little puzzled. When I started teaching directed breathing, I heard one woman say, “This is stupid.” But two pieces later, I heard her comment, “I love doing this!” Seated for most of the hour, we tackled a Sun Salutation, a Bach suite, a country-western tap number, a Latin salsa, and a lovely improvisation to the old folk song, “The River is Wide.” At the end of the class, I put on Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” which I knew from previous experience, is a “fail-free” piece of music.

Not only did the staff come in from the kitchen and the front desk, but a gentleman in a wheelchair asked for two of the women who had taken the seminar in the morning to help him to stand. He supported himself on his feet, holding the back of chair in front of him, while they supported him under each arm. The look on his face—and on mine when he got up—was dazzling.

After the class, I did a debriefing with the teachers I had trained that morning, and there were dozens of questions as to how to get started. How could they introduce the concept of chair dance to their administrators and make time in a busy schedule, how could they develop playlists and where would they get the music, how would they get their dancers moving if they couldn’t remember steps? Could they copy the pieces I had taught them today? Was there anywhere online where they could learn more about adaptive dance?

They seemed so eager to get started, I had to think that they would make this happen.

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