considering the nature of best practice...
As a result of a recent project I've delivered on behalf of Green Candle Dance Company in partnership with Creative Arts East, I was invited to write a guest blog about the reflective role of the community dance artist.
The article is on the Green Candle Dance Company website here: http://www.greencandledance.com/2017/03/28/the-reflective-role-of-a-community-dance-artist/ and I've also recreated it for my own blog below...
For this recent project with Creative Arts East, we have been interested in the nature and format of the delivery of these sessions and what the value and role is of a specialist practitioner. With a long standing commitment to high quality, specialist practice, Green Candle has always sought to develop knowledgeable and reflective practice and ensure that our dance artists represent this quality in all our participatory work.
We invited our Community Dance Artist Danielle Teale to discuss the multifaceted nature of the delivery of these sessions and what is required of a skilled artist working with such a diverse range of people across multiple locations…
When reflecting on the planning and delivery of these sessions for people with dementia and older people at risk of isolation in the community, I began to recognise the sheer breadth and scope of the role I and other dance artists in my position hold when it comes to managing a delivering a class of this type:
- The exploration of movement with diverse bodies, experiences and needs in the room;
- The accessibility of the activity and the use of various forms of communication through the body and verbally
- The navigation of sensitive relationships between carers, partners, artists, and in some cases staff members;
- The set-up of the space for maximum engagement and safety;
- The management of the energy and atmosphere of the session and the sensitivity to shifts in dynamic and mood;
- The use of resources such as music and props to develop that atmosphere;
The role of a dance artist could be described as that of a mediator – ensuring the delicate balance between all these multifaceted layers is maintained in order to provide an experience that is fun, engaging, supportive and nurturing for all dancers, as well as safe and effective as an activity. No small task!
Due to the nature of this project, (4 venues, each with 6 sessions every other week over a period of 3 months) there was time to reflect on the delivery in a much deeper way than is usually possible. In addition I filled out a reflective log after every class – a fantastic tool that Creative Arts East have implemented in order to capture learning and build on the project and skills required over three years.
It is a constant ebb and flow process during a dance session of this diverse nature to ensure that the challenge of moving is engaging but not overwhelming, and that achievement is possible for all members of the group. When the challenge of effective communication is at the forefront, as it often is in dementia settings, the ability to attend to each individual in the room and ensure they are achieving their fullest capability is often demanding on the dance artist.
On the subject of challenge – I have often encountered a misconception that older dancers and dancers with dementia need a diluted, simple or ‘slow’ version of a dance exercise in order to achieve. However, I would recommend that challenge is an important tool to develop muscle memory, strengthen neural pathways and build confidence.
For people with dementia, challenge could be defined as pushing the boundaries of physical movement capacity; enabling the contribution of ideas and improvisation; or working with new people and in new spaces that are unfamiliar. All of these things can cause anxiety, concern or distress if mismanaged, however in the dance setting where there is no right or wrong and all contributions are valid, there is no better place to introduce new challenges.
Whilst these sessions in Norfolk were set up for participant and carer or partner to dance together, it is not expected that the carer has a knowledge or understanding of how to support their partner to achieve their movement potential. In fact it is a valuable aspect of the programme that the carers often attend in order to enjoy and appreciate dance for themselves, so that their care giving and supporting role can be alleviated for one hour of their day.
It was really apparent to me that there are two major difficulties for a dance artist to overcome when it comes to partners or carers, and both can result in a reductive or negative expectation of what is achievable by the dancer with dementia.
The first is vulnerability – the partner of a person with dementia can often be uncertain in a new setting and sensitive due to a shift in their role within the relationship or concern about how their partner will react. Ensuring the partner’s confidence is considered is a vital role for the dance artist and can often be more challenging than working with the dancer with dementia. Some carers will put up boundaries in order to protect themselves and their partner, others will stop their partner from trying for fear or negative response.
This leads to the second of two challenges – control. In the new role as a carer the partner may want to reduce the potential for spontaneity in order for them to manage in a scenario which is increasingly challenging to predict and impossible to control. The result can be reductive or negative behaviour from the partner, stopping the dancer with dementia from partaking fully in the class.
For the dance artist, this issue can be carefully managed over time if subtle tasks are introduced where the partners move chairs, dance with other people in the group, or can begin to see that their spouse is comfortable dancing with a volunteer or the dance artist themselves. In this project it felt we were just getting to these small breakthroughs in some settings and I would suggest that consistency and longevity are key to these achievements being maintained over the long term. Trust in the dance artist can only be built up by the partner and dancer with dementia over time.
Whilst both these points are pivotal to the success of the classes, there were many other considerations that arose during this project:
Group Size: A small group can create intimacy but it can also lack energy. A big group can be chaotic and often results in people being overshadowed; but it can also create a powerful dynamic and vibrant energy of collectivity and togetherness.
Venue: Familiar venues can bring a sense of comfort but can also mean that people are less likely to sacrifice their comforts such as their favourite comfy arm chair in order to enter into the mind-set of the dance setting. New venues or settings enable the dance participant to see this as special or unique and take the activity seriously. However, unfamiliar surrounds that take a person with dementia out of their normal routine could be distressing if not handled appropriately.
Longevity of the group: Is this an existing group or a group of individuals coming together for dance… and if it is an existing group have they ever danced before? Whilst they may have less inhibitions when asked to do creative tasks, they may also have a lack of respect for the unique environment of the dance setting and could find it difficult to adapt to new ideas or new people. Although a group of relative strangers coming together as individuals may take a while to build in confidence and rapport, the long term impact for them could be greater as a result of the shared journey together through dance – learning and appreciating the skill and artistry of dance will bring them new perspectives shared together in the experience of the classes.
This project along with many others I have delivered has given me much to consider, reflect on and learn. Most importantly, a reminder of the humanity that is present in all settings when working with people, and the importance of recognising each unique person and their multiple emotional, physical and social needs within one session. Clear and honest communication and empathic understanding are at the heart of my practice - getting to know the individuals is my key to success.