Dancing with Vets

Posted on in Healthy Living by Kamala Tully

Bringing Movement and
Healing to the VA


The Bay Area is fertile ground for conscious movement practices like Open Floor, 5Rhythms, Soul Motion, Tamalpa, Nia, and Ecstatic Dance. Several of these practices were developed here and have strong communities that continue to attract new participants. If you’ve ever visited Open Floor’s Sunday dances in Sausalito, you’ll see 150 people attending what some say is their version of “movement church.” Equal parts morning prayer, moving meditation, community gathering, and raucous dance party.

The benefits of conscious movement include increased physical and emotional well-being; a deepening of your relationship to self, others, and community; increased access to joy, creativity, and spontaneity; a release of fixed patterns; and an opening to transformation and change. What happens on the dance floor can be indicative of how we live our lives.

As conscious movement becomes a more widely recognized healing modality, there is increased interest in bringing it to more people and diverse populations. One Bay Area nonprofit, Syzygy Dance Project, is currently bringing dance to several underserved populations—ex-soldiers at veterans hospitals, addicts in recovery centers, incarcerated women in prisons and jails, and at-risk youth. 5Rhythms’ movement teacher and founder Sylvie Minot works with 20 volunteers at six locations a week, using movement to help people overcome stress, anxiety, anger, and isolation.

One of Syzygy Dance Project’s outreach sites is the VA hospital in Menlo Park. Over 850 veterans have participated in this program. Movement classes began four years ago as part of an effort to provide a wider range of treatment options to veterans. Today there are different movement classes for men and women with dementia, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, omelessness, and substance abuse issues.

VA recreation therapist Christina Yee notices a difference when the elderly men with dementia dance. “It creates more movement in their bodies. Their typical small, rigid movements expand. They also have good feelings and show emotion. They reminisce about their younger years and relate to each other,” she says.

As the music begins on the dementia unit, Sylvie instructs the men to move their hands and tap their feet. Some are in wheelchairs, others use walkers, many need one-on-one support. Spontaneously, someone starts singing along to the music. He knows every word of “That’s Amore” and serenades the group. Another veteran moves in time to the music. He murmurs aloud that he used to dance with his wife. Years fall away as he and Sylvie twirl across the dance floor. Then another veteran, with limited mobility and jittery movements, holds a rattle in his hand and shakes it to the beat, an unexpected feat.

The music winds down. “It’s time for lunch,” a veteran calls out gleefully. There is still one last song. “It’s time to breathe,” Sylvie says. Slowly, in time to the music, everyone breaths in and out together. Arms raise up on the inbreath and release down on the out-breath. All eyes are attentive and fixed on Sylvie. For a few moments the group is quiet, peaceful, and still. Their sense of presence is palpable. “You have to go through all the physical movements of the first 50 minutes to arrive at this place (of stillness),” Sylvie says.

Across the VA campus in the fitness room, an altogether different group gathers—a dozen men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who are part of an inpatient substance abuse program. Some are also dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression, or a recent return from Afghanistan or Iraq. They fidget and jostle each other, visibly anxious at the prospect of spending an hour dancing with their peers.

According to a RAND study in 2008, one in five veterans suffer from PTSD, and lacking treatment, the number could be as high as one in three. The Foundation for Art & Healing is currently studying the impact of creative and expressive arts therapies for veterans with PTSD. They’ve found that using creative and expressive arts therapies as part of a treatment plan has shown significant and sustained benefit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other VA institutions across the country.

Darrell Green, a marriage and family therapist for the VA’s substance abuse program (and recent member of the Syzygy Dance Project board) says, “I see the vets going through the dance movements and how much they release. Dancing is intimidating; it gives them a platform to take risk.”

Sylvie incorporates specific exercises and a theme connected to a life skill to get this group moving and supporting each other. She always introduces herself as a recovering alcoholic of 23 years. She began dancing over two decades ago as a way to overcome her own struggles with alcohol and recovery. She says, “You wouldn’t be in this program if using drugs and alcohol was working for you. You have to find new ways of moving through anxiety, fear, shame, and anger. That is what we are doing here today.”

Monty Williams, a veteran in the inpatient substance abuse program, credits the movement class with bringing him back into balance. “I can’t explain the feeling you get. It’s more than working out, stretching your body, or cardio. It’s really spiritual, and it is good for my recovery,” he says.

On a recent Open Floor Sunday in Sausalito, Sylvie is playing the last song, which sounds like a heartbeat. It is the same song she uses at the end of class as the elderly veterans are breathing. Looking out at the group of dancers, she remarks, “The stillness in this room is the same stillness I experience at the VA. There is not a lot of difference when we release and drop in.” Anyone who does a movement practice regularly knows how healing that is.

Kamala Tully is a dancer and wellness professional. She can often be found boogieing at Sylvie’s Wednesday night public class in Sausalito. SyzygyDanceProject.org

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