Sit down and dance!
When those words, “Have a seat and let’s dance,” first came out of my mouth it sounded very strange. I never imagined I would find dancing in a chair so darn much fun.
It started after I left my job at the age of 60 to write. My husband suggested once, and only once, that I might teach dance classes at senior centers. Let’s say I was not supportive of the idea. And as to dancing with people suffering dementia, having lost a brother and dad to Alzheimer’s I wanted nothing to do with it. On the practical side, I had free-lanced for many years before my school job, and I knew how much time goes into setting up a single gig.
What changed all that was a friend and fellow teacher who left The Northwest School when I did and founded an organization called Silver Kite Community Arts. Jen Kulik, PhD., is all about the power of the arts to enliven us, and connect us to each other. “Let us play” could be her motto. But play in a way that shares who we are. So Jen proposed that I work for her. She’d set up the classes and I’d show up and teach. That’s what happened. I am now one of a host of teaching artists leading arts experiences for older adults and multigenerational groups through Silver Kite.
A tremendous organizer, Jen got out there and connected with the whole network of senior services and living communities that you all probably know about because you have explored them for a parent, or for yourself. Or you are living there now. What beautiful facilities and what remarkable, dedicated, sunny, people work and live in these settings. Totally turned me around on this.
But how to approach a dance class for people with limited mobility? We were aware that dance was gaining in popularity, and highly valued for this population, with some programs specifically geared to people with Parkinson’s, for example. We soon discovered the thriving tradition of circle dance in the UK. Two pioneering women in particular, Kath Kershaw and Cynthia Heymanson, offered descriptions and video online that were extremely helpful to me, especially their class structure. Here at home, in the January 2017 issue of the NFO News, Freidel Cohen wrote about the circle dancing she leads in California, with an emphasis on spirituality.
From working with dancers at the other end of the age spectrum I know how much kids -- OK, all of us – love to have things in our hands to play with. Sticks, maracas, scarves, and (my latest fave) ribbon sticks are all available from – I know, I know – Amazon. But the greatest of these is the giant stretchy band, suggested by the British women. I found one in use when I went with my grandchild to the wonderful Music Together program. They use a colorful, scrunchy-like elastic band available from a company called Bear Paw Creek. I start and end with everybody holding on to one of these because it connects us, yet we can still move safely within our own range of motion. Opinca becomes a dance of bouncing elbows, zigzagging the band, and stamping feet. The last waltz is a sway and loop-the-loop.
In between the first and last dance, we cruise around the world capturing – while sitting -- the most characteristic and fun elements of each dance. The wheeling arms in An Dro Retournee. The footwork in Tinikling. The forward and back in a contra dance. (“Lean.”) The march in Los Machetes. And of course, the machetes (sticks). I always promise that when they get good enough I’ll bring in the real machetes. Added bonus: I get to tell every group the same joke and it always cracks me up! Stamping, kicking, twisting, reaching, bending, sitting tall, bouncing shoulders… all are possible in chairs.
If the group is able and willing, in the middle of the class we do two or three dances on our feet. Parliakos becomes tiny steps and bounces, holding onto each other for stability. Nigun Atik is a slow walk, and that hand on the shoulder helps with support. If it’s an energetic group, we do an up-tempo free dance to something like Jailhouse Rock. That’s a folk dance, right?
I don’t expect anyone to remember what’s next. I give a vocal cue most of the time, like you would in a square dance. I do encourage the sense of pattern. But I’m not trying to teach anything.
And that’s something I delight in, after all the years of having lesson plans and learning objectives. I’m not an instructor, or even a cheerleader. I am there to do something I love with wonderful people who participate in whatever way they can. I invite them to make themselves comfortable, and I really mean it.
Chairs are comfortable. Chairs are safe. Dance is uncomfortable, even dangerous, in the minds are most Americans I’ve come to believe! If possible, leave “dance” out of the title of your class. Seriously! And know that nobody will have any idea what you are talking about when you describe it. When they see it, they’ll come on board.
I hope you will try this. Over and over again I’ve discovered that no matter what mistakes you make, every circle you form will operate like a village. They’ll help you; they’ll help each other; they’ll make it work. Kind of magic, really.
Susan Wickett-Ford teaches Friendly Folk Dance through Silver Kite Community Arts. A lifelong dancer and dance teacher, she has served as president of the Dance Educators Association of Washington and Northwest Folkdancers, Inc. She is a screenwriter with a film in preproduction called Lovers’ Waltz. Learn more at SusanWickett-Ford.com.