Every Friday at 2 p.m., eight elder women ages 65 to 100 come together to share stories from their life, stretch, breath, connect, move and dance! Chairs are arranged in a circle in the middle of the room and the music, ranging from Elvis Presley to polka and big band, begins.
These women have lived full lives and are seeking support, meaning and connection with one another. Most of them are widows, some have children and grandchildren, and a few have been single for years. Each one has a story to tell and a piece of wisdom to share.
We begin the group with going around the circle with a verbal check-in. Each woman has an opportunity to share what is happening in her life and knows she is being listened to. There is an atmosphere of respect as each participant feels valued and seen through the listening and sharing.
Joan talks about her struggles in taking care of her husband, and Ellen responds with the supportive words of, “I know exactly what you mean,” and “You also have to find a way to take care of yourself.” This is the sharing through language.
We then move into breathing and stretching. These women are tuned in to their breath. They know that as long as they are breathing that there are more things going right for them than wrong — and they are deeply appreciative of this. With each out breath comes a long sigh. We encourage the sighs to get as loud as they want, and fairly soon the entire room is filled with the lovely echo of “ahhhhhhh.”
Necks and heads begin to slowly stretch, and I quietly move around the circle, giving each woman a gentle neck and shoulder rub. Their appreciation of touch is deep — so rarely does anybody make physical contact with them in a way that is loving and gentle. Most physical contact they get is relegated to medical or dental procedures where they are told to do this or that — mechanical at best, these experiences of being in body end up feeling empty.
We all stand in a circle as the music begins. We hold hands and support one another as we begin to move rhythmically from side to side. Each session is different and unique. There are no particular dance moves that we do. The purpose of dance-movement therapy is to give form and expression to our basic human need for play, touch, movement, interaction and connection.
Movement becomes ritualized and synchronized as we begin to raise our hands toward the ceiling in unison. I ask what it is that we want to be raising toward the sky, above our heads, and the women call out, ”Gratitude, love, compassion, healing.” As our arms and hands move down toward the floor, I ask what it is that we want to bring back down into our lives, and the voices say, “Friends, family, loved ones, pets, nature, connection.”
Movement becomes the language of connection, not just in what we are doing with our bodies, but the power that comes from sharing our hopes, intentions and needs as a group. Universality exists in how we move together as well as in what we share together.
Sometimes grief is in the air. How could it not be? Given the full lives each of these women has gone through, moments of sadness, longing and loss are likely to come up. When this happens we respond by reaching out, holding hands and supporting one another, creating a space to verbalize this loss and to look around and know that connection and care are available. The power of touch, eye contact, proximity and movement is enormous for all of us, but more so for elders who rarely have these interactions in their day-to-day lives.
After moving for about 15 minutes, we take a brief water break. At this point, all the women are feeling proud of what they have been doing and pleasantly surprised by the ease, playfulness and spontaneity in which they have been engaged. Giggles and laughter are common, and usually there is an ongoing refrain of, “I can’t believe how silly we get to be in here. This is so much fun. I feel so free. This is the time of the week where I feel the best about myself.” As the facilitator of this group, I, too, have a big grin on my face. The joy is contagious.
After the break we pull out scarves and wave them in the air, stomping to the beat of the music as we do — and again, a spontaneous movement ritual begins to emerge.
Irma, who is 100 years old, with polished red fingernails that she is eminently proud of because she has a man do them for her, is shaky on her feet. She comes in on a walker, pushes it to the side and is determined to move and dance — and she does! Every woman takes care of Irma so when we are standing in a circle, Joan and Ellen are also scanning to make sure Irma is OK and steady. The support is immediate, physical and attentive, with touch and language being the glue that sticks us together.
Music and dance are universal languages that invite us to interact in playful and connected ways. Once Elvis gets going, we inevitably begin to pair up and the women are invited to dance with a partner. Hands are held, hips get moving and each dancing duo begin to discover their own movement. Everyone is included, and if one part of the pair is slow, then the other woman adjusts her movement to support the dance that is created between the two of them.
Joan and Irma dance together for a few minutes, then go around the room and find a new partner. Each dance is unique as the women learn instinctively how to listen to rhythm in the music and respond to one another, discovering ways of moving that are comfortable, expansive, safe and playful. They all get a chance to try on each other’s movement repertoire, connect and make contact with one another.
The group ends with coming back to our chairs and taking a few breaths. Slowing down and breathing together, we close our eyes and take a moment to connect with the life force within us. When we open our eyes we orient to the outside, finding something pleasant in our environment to look at and we register this pleasurable sense in our body. Going around the circle, Joan, Irma, Ellen and the others share what they have noticed: “I see the light coming through the leaves of the oak tree and it reminds of the light that is within me, always there, even if I may not notice it sometimes.”
Dance-movement therapy creates a container for elders to experience pleasure, joy, depth and play through the body. It is in this very ancient form of human interaction that we come to reconnect with ourselves and others.
— Wendy Elliott, M.Ed., is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and board certified dance-movement therapist, who has been a body centered psychotherapist for more than 25 years. She is a board member of the California Association of Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors, facilitates Dance-Movement Therapy and Authentic Movement groups locally, and has a private practice in Ojai. Wendy also teaches in the Master’s in Clinical Psychology Program at Antioch University Santa Barbara, where students in Healthy Aging concentration specialize in supporting the needs of elders and their families from an holistic perspective.