Open Floor for dancers with mental disabilities

Every month a group of residents from the Alzheimer’s and dementia geriatric wards at the Donauspital in Vienna, Austria gather together for a special dance class. Many are in wheelchairs, a few are able to stand. Some of the patients babble excitedly whilst others just sit there, lost in themselves, indifferent to their surroundings. At one point in the class, Idan puts on a favourite golden oldie from their youth. He uses simple instructions to get them moving, inviting them to place their hands on different parts of their bodies. As he and his assistants move amongst the dancers, helping those who don’t understand or have trouble following the instructions, the atmosphere in the room slowly transforms. The change is palpable, faces soften with smiles, eyes are focused and the mood is charged with emotion. When Idan invites the dancers to share a word or two at the end of the session, those who are able to speak say words like “peace”, ‘calmness”, “happiness”, “love” and “connection”. 

Over 1000 kilometres away in the village of Sint-Lievens-Esse, Belgium a group of patients with mental and learning disabilities at the Schoonderhage Daycare Centre for adults are also gathering to dance. Daniel, the teacher uses soothing music and simple language with his dancers, some of whom are withdrawn, confused, hesitant. Others, like Idan’s dancers are in wheelchairs or severely impaired in their mobility. He asks them them to hold a little bird in their hands and warm it by placing it close their hearts. Then he invites them to open their arms and let the little bird fly away. He steps onto the dance floor to show them what he means so that those who don’t understand his words will understand through his movements. Two of the centre’s staff members are at hand to help those who need it, helping some of the less mobile dancers to move in the space. Soon the dancers are joining in, waving their arms to the music. Some are laughing and singing along. Here too, the atmosphere transforms as the dancers drop into their bodies and connect with themselves and the others in the space. At the end of the session the group forms a circle and sits in contented silence holding hands for a while before going back to the daily activities offered by the centre.

Originally from Israel and now living in Vienna with his wife Marion whom he met on the dance floor, Idan is a yoga teacher and theatre director trained in the Theatre of the Oppressed approach pioneered by the Brazilian Augusto Boal in the 70s. Idan discovered conscious dance in Ireland where he was working in post conflict settings with political and community based theatre. He tells me that the possibilities he saw in Open Floor made it the logical next step in his professional path. “It was the missing piece of the puzzle,” Idan says. He was inspired to run Open Floor sessions at the Donauspital after watching Alive Inside, a film by Dan Cohen during his teacher training. Later he witnessed the power of dance for himself when he visited an uncle suffering from dementia in hospital in Israel and music was put on at a party happening that day. He offered to run a one off session for his uncle and other patients on the ward and was blown away by the experience. “It was so touching…I had to hold myself back from crying when I realised what a difference it can make…there is healing there, I can give these people a reason to stay alive! When I got back to Austria, I knew I wanted to do more.” 

Daniel expresses much the same sentiments. Originally a librarian, who turned his passion for sound and voice healing into a career, he has been working with mental disability patients at the Schoonderhage Daycare Centre for the past three years using harmonic singing and sacred sounds drawn from shamanic traditions and the many ethnic instruments he plays to support them. Unifying movement and voice in his work made perfect sense, he says, telling me how excited he was when he discovered Open Floor after 12 years of conscious dance. “What touches me is the simplicity of it. These people who have difficulty speaking and moving really communicate and come alive through movement. They have so much more freedom. They just need to be welcome and allowed to be themselves.”

 

Idan and Daniel agree that working with mental health patients has been a steep learning curve and that they have had to adapt their teaching and find creative ways to overcome physical and mental disabilities presented by their dancers. The trick for both of them, it seems, is to simplify everything to it’s most basic meaning.

“I did a lot of reading and realised that people with dementia are more in their head than in their body so I chose to focus my first session on Grounding to help them really drop into their body. I also saw that many had stiff joints so I started with simple exercises to open and close the hands and then worked my way from the edges of the body to the core, helping them to transition from Fixed to Fluid. I also use the eyes as the Anchor because once we can achieve eye contact - boom! - immediately there they are, present!” Idan says.

Daniel tells me that his first class was nearly a “disaster” as he quickly realised that most of his dancers didn’t understand the instructions he was trying to give them. “So I started to include very visual elements using examples of objects and animals that they know, I showed them how to stomp slowly like an elephant or tiptoe fast like a little mouse. And they got that, because they know how these animals walk and could imitate them.” Choosing feet as his anchor works well for his dancers and he is using Core Movement Resources with them, even though they have no awareness or understanding of the concepts themselves. “When I ask them to take a balloon on a rope in each hand, pull them closer to their body, let them take off on the wind, into the sky, to the sides, following the balloon with their hands or to move through the space around the chairs I use as a sort of obstacle course, they are doing Expand & Contract and Vector without knowing it!”

 

The use of chairs is crucial for both teachers. Many of their dancers cannot stand or have limited mobility and having the chairs placed in the centre of the dance space rather than at the edges of the room means everyone is included and can take part fully in the dance, whether they are confined to a wheelchair for the entire session or need to stop and rest occasionally.

 

When I ask them what impact they think dance is having on their students, Idan and Daniel enthuse about the changes they have both seen over the course of the last year.

 

“It’s amazing,” Idan says. He tells me that now when he starts a class he has to reign in the more eager patients. “They are so excited and ready to dance that I have to ask them to sit down as we always start from seated. Before it was the opposite!” Idan says he can see much more aliveness, connection and emotion in the group one year on. “The class becomes much more than just dance. It is now a social event where they are connecting with themselves with each other and with the younger dancers assisting me. It’s very touching.”

After 10 lessons, Daniel confirms that the transformation in astounding. “They are lining up outside the room 10 minutes early now! They love it.” he grins, obviously proud and moved by their enthusiasm. He tells me how their range of movement has expanded beyond recognition, “In the first few classes I had to demonstrate repeatedly how to move each part of the body…there was no point in saying ‘Move your shoulder’ because half of them didn’t know what that meant. When I asked them to turn, they had no idea how to do that so I had to use chairs and get them to walk around them so they would understand what I meant. Now they are doing the warm up by themselves and twisting and twirling around the dance floor without the chairs. They are so much freer and expressive in their dance. And the smiles! You can tell they are really enjoying it and having fun.” Staff from the Daycare Centre are also impressed with the results and say that the patients are more active and have a wider range of movements in Daniel’s classes than in the gym sessions they also attend.

Both teachers are nearing the end of their training and on their way to becoming fully fledged Open Floor teachers. I ask them if they’ll continue the work they are doing in mental health in the future.

“Absolutely.” says Idan who wants to up the frequency of his sessions from once a month to weekly and is looking to set up a research project with the hospital which includes a control group of patients so that they can measure the impact and benefits more accurately. He’s busy putting together a video to secure crowdfunding for the project and his dream in the pipeline is to one day teach others to work with sufferers of Alzheimers and dementia. 

Daniel is also keen to do more. “I want to work one-on-one with some of the dancers to go deeper. And offer this to other Daycare centres like this one so more people can access this healing. I know this can make a difference!”

Thank you to both Idan and Daniel for providing images of their classes.

My name is Audrey Boss. I discovered conscious dance one sweaty, euphoric night at St. George's Church in London with the amazing Sue Rickards over a decade ago and I never looked back.  As an Open Floor dancer, what I am constantly amazed by is the wide range of healing therapies that can include this approach. I’m on a mission to tell the world about Open Floor, because I experience the healing power of dance every time I step onto the dance floor. In my workshops, I have seen how introducing this type of embodied movement can have a deep and transformative impact. I am inspired every time I talk to someone who is taking the core movement resources that they are learning on the dance floor into their own field of work, often in innovative and groundbreaking contexts.