Since January 2016 Tuesdays have been a We Danced day. For three years on a Tuesday we have danced, laughed, sung, dressed up, decorated, drawn, written, touched, squeezed, hugged, sparkled, sprinkled, narrated, moved, heard, listened, talked, whispered, exchanged, remembered and imagined.
The format for this project has developed over time. We began in the first year with weekly sessions of four artists working with one care home and one school. Then in the second year we developed to working fortnightly as we expanded from two venues to four with two artists working with one school and care home and the other two artists in the other venues, delivering sessions on alternating weeks. Just before the final year began, we changed back to weekly sessions across the four venues and brought musicians on board. These changes evolved with our continuing development and learning on the project and as it progressed, what was possible with the remaining budget.
The project was set up as a pilot, a trial and error action project. Artists were not bound by one artistic idea but free to explore the endless possibilities the world has to offer (budget depending). Amazing or terribly daunting?! In 2016 at the beginning of our journey, I was in the latter category. Having no anchor off which to plan my sessions was at the time worrying. Well it’s still a little worrying, but I’ve learnt to trust myself and know that some of my ideas are good, and many of them are great! (I couldn’t have written that 18 months ago!) Going through my notes the other day I found this reflective bit of writing which I wrote in January 2018: (sense the impending doom…)
“What is it about this work that terrifies me so? I gained so much confidence and personal development last year and now feel as though I’m back to square one. I am leading in the first block beginning tomorrow and have already reached red alert, an anxiety high about it. In my goals for this year, one of them is to keep calm and not panic with work for the whole year. I know I get it done so why not trust myself, have confidence in myself that I have the time to plan each session. It will be a session that has ups and downs (as this work always does) but will have some really beautiful moments in it as well. Then I could enjoy my weekends and get a full nights rest and not let anxiety creep in. Why do I? How in any way, shape or from…. (this is a really good saying isn’t it? any way, shape or form covers all bases)…. So how in any way, shape or form is not allowing myself quality relaxation and sleep time depriving myself of this helpful? Not in the slightest.”
A bit dramatic reading it back, but that was my truth and I wanted to reflect on that here. The learning and development from this project has been substantial for us as a team and for me individually. Growing in experience, understanding and confidence has made this project easier – well not easier, easier means without great effort, which although it may appear effortless because we are professional, it is not easy. Lets say less scary, its made this project less scary – and also opened doors for other projects and opportunities.
One of the first things to change were my EXPECTATIONS. This wasn’t a sudden change but when I realised my perspective had shifted, it was a BIG change. Learning that when you have planned a session that you think is great but when executed it falls flat on its face, does not mean you have failed. If Jill doesn’t want to join in today, if Roger shouts ‘Go Away!’ before you’ve said good morning, if Muriel would prefer to stay sleeping in her chair and if Janette walks out half way through a session, you may come away thinking negatively and feeling deflated. When entering a care home environment you are visiter free to come and go, whereas in most residents cases they are there for the rest of their lives. The flow of a session and atmosphere you wish to create can depend on the atmosphere when you arrive. How is everyone today? What is the atmosphere as you enter? Are songs from the ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ musical playing? Or is it the Jeremy Kyle show on the TV with another classic title ‘You’re boyfriend killed my hamster!’? (True, one care home often had JK playing on the tele…) You have no idea when the last time Jill had a visit from her family, if Roger has been upset by another resident, if Muriel had a good nights rest and if Janette is distracted by something she can hear outside. I learnt that working in the moment, being present and celebrating who is in the space, responding and receiving from the residents, judging the atmosphere and altering a plan or diverting completely if necessary is the best way to work. Sometimes an aim of a session is simply to try and lift the mood and leave the residents with a smile. For adults living with dementia, the memory of the session may not remain but the emotional memory will.
My language changed. ‘How are you today?’ at the start of a session became ‘its lovely to see you today’ and at the end of a session ‘see you next week!’ became ‘it was lovely to see you!’ or ‘thank you for dancing and sharing with us’. Certain go-to phrases aren’t always helpful when working with older adults. I became fond of beautiful questions to open a session my favourite being: ‘if you were feeling like an animal today what would it be?’ Sometimes verbal beginnings to sessions were unnecessary. Entering the space with a performance, introducing a theme, idea or prop in an improvised play accompanied by live music is a great way to cut through a stagnant, stale atmosphere and immediately change the tone (which sets the expectations!) Starting a session with a magic moment opens the space for further possibilities and opportunities of magical moments to arise. (SONG POP!)
I used to think to wake someone who is sleeping to join in a session was too imposing. During the third year of We Danced, a dementia care mapping expert came to observe a session with the residents and after fed back her observations and results which were scored. Up till this point I had occasionally been waking people up, depending on how deep in sleep they looked or if I’d already seen them awake that session, but had felt uncomfortable doing so. When we talked about this, she explained if someone is asleep when you arrive they have no opportunity to make the choice to join in. They may wake up right at the end and have missed what was their only opportunity for a connection that day. By waking someone up you are able to offer an invitation to the session, then that person has the choice whether to accept or decline. This is embedded in my practise now and I am very comfortable that it is.
What did you learn?
What did you enjoy?
What were the challenges?
Up until this project most of my community practice experience was teaching dance and technique classes to children and young adults and delivering creative sessions in primary schools. It goes without saying the expectations I had for these sessions were way off the ones needed for working with older adults, frailer older adults and adults living with dementia. Even though over time I changed my expectations, I never lowered them. Working with people who are at the end of life, you feel a greater responsibility to the work and to their lives. Managing this against the challenges, which are often out of your control, can lay a heavy weight, a greater responsibility and pull at your heart strings. (SONG POP!)
During the project there was ongoing learning and development including training sessions with experienced practitioners working in the field, Dementia Friends training, as well as our own continual research. From this learning there were 2 key elements that stood out to me, the first being the term Person-centred Arts…
“Person-centred Arts is process-based and the session content is led by the participant, either directly, through choices made by the participants during the session, or indirectly, because the artist has responded to participants interests and behaviours. The role of us as artists is to be a leader, a facilitator, a participant and a performer within the session”
On learning this I realised I have always worked person-centred or have aimed to. I enjoy being spontaneous, going with the flow and try to inject fun wherever possible, the only drawback I’d had until now was a lack of trusting my instincts (even if I felt something was right I might question and overthink it, allowing the moment to pass by). Once I had the definition, had it explained to me and experienced playing with the ideas with other practitioners, it gave me the permission to commit and embrace it fully within my practise. The second big game changer was the method of Timeslips…
“Timeslips is an evidence based, award winning, person centered approach which offers an elegantly simple revolution in older adult care by infusing creativity into care relationships and systems. It improves well-being through creativity and meaningful connection by using playful and imagination-based questions to build stories from words, gestures and sounds”
The TimeSlips method is a creative writing approach specifically developed to enable those living with dementia to feel empowered by celebrating their ability through using imagination to create stories in response to images and / or objects. The idea being to forget memory and embrace imagination. Our initial focus on the project was dance and movement and to encourage the residents to engage through movement every session (we are DANCE artists and the project was called ‘We DANCED‘ after all). We used music from all across the years, certain golden oldies working a treat every time (SONG POP! or our own SONG POP!) Focusing on a specific time such as the 1940’s-50’s and using music, props and images associated with that era would of course trigger specific memories and stories…
“At the old co-op on Middlewood road. That’s where I used to go dancing a long time ago. I can’t remember how to do it now. We used to dance in partners with the boys. I’ve not seen any of them for years it was so long ago. I wouldn’t let any of them see me now looking like this. I look like an old hag”
“I used to dance. Me and my husband use to go to the City Hall ballroom in town for the tea dances, I dont think they do them now. Sequence dancing was my favourite dance and the all the girls used to wear the frilly lace underneath their dresses, so when the lads swung em round their shoulders you’d see the ruffles” – Lillan (laughing Lillian)
“Mary had always danced, but only started having lessons aged 30. She started doing old time and modern sequence dancing, and went through her medals with the IDTA until she became a qualified teacher” – Arthur, husband
“I think it’s a beautiful pastime. It is really a beautiful past time. People. And we used to have some fun when we was dancing. We used to say “Oh he’s coming again” you know and things like that. But I would never refuse a dance. Margery used to say to me – that was the woman that used to take the dancing beforehand she used to say to me take him Lillian tonight, Lillian, try, try your best with him. It were one of the men couldn’t dance he didn’t want one foot or another. But I got round with him” – Lillian (Legs eleven Lillian)
Just some of the many beautiful stories and anecdotes we gathered. As you may know from tea with your favourite Nan many older adults love to regale us with stories from their youth (my great gran lived to 103 and loved to tell the same 3 stories every time we saw her, no prompt necessary, she loved it). But for many older adults living with dementia taking a trip down memory lane just isn’t useful. Using Timeslips allows memories to emerge naturally but they are a byproduct of being creative. When working with imagination anything goes! If a story is half fact and half imagined – marvellous! Extracting the facts to understand is not necessary. The individual’s experience of writing the story (or remembering a memory) being celebrated and positive is necessary. Everyone’s contribution to a Timeslips story is validated and celebrated, whether a sentence, word or sound. I wrote a number of stories with both residents and children and found it very liberating as you are free to be taken anywhere with the story using the structure of the questions as a guide. The questions! BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS! Using open ended or beautiful questions allows participants to contribute to the creative process without feeling pressure of being right or wrong. Movement of course remained a focus throughout the 3 years and was often embedded within the stories, but by incorporating the Timeslips method we were opening more creative channels thus creating more possibilities rather than restricting us to less creative vocabularies.
FORGET MEMORY, EMBRACE IMAGINATION
We all know from years of delivery that planning can be you’re best friend but also a hindrance if you are too precious. Throwing a plan in the air and being reactive can be as helpful as having the best fall back plan! For me building the confidence and trust in myself to do this took time and grew slowly (and still growing!) Spending quality time in the studio as a team exploring ideas, discussing challenges, sharing fears, celebrating successes and discovering break throughs enabled this. Just the same as practising the skill of improvisation as a professional dancer, we practised working with one another, the ability to share and hold the space, flowing between the foreground and background and exchanging between a leading and supporting role in order to develop a shared language – a language built on mutual experiences of successes and failures. Ideally we’d be in the studio every few months building on our experiences and developing our shared language but unfortunately due to a tight budget (when is there not?) I felt this was not as often as we needed. In reality we exchanged a few quick words post session – what worked / what didn’t / what could be carried forward to next week – before heading off to deliver another session as freelancers do.
The beauty of this project was the length of time – not 6 weeks here or 10 weeks there but 3 years! 36 months (minus the holidays) to genuinely plan, shift and adapt the project. One major decision was bringing musicians on board. We had worked without musicians for two years and although using recorded music is a reliable resource, working with live music offers another dimension. It developed my practise by allowing me to be more present and in the moment. Previously I’d prepare playlists in advance, consequently having the creative potential of a session limited to the music on my iPod. Having a professional musician to work with is a much better energy to bounce off than Amazon Prime or Spotify! By adding another professional skill to the mix, the lead artist had additional support and yet another creative channel was opened allowing us to further expand our enquiry into a holistic creative approach. Singing became embedded in the sessions and singing openings were extremely practical as introduced playfulness from the start of a session (SONG POP!) Prior to this we had sung and used instruments but really theres only so much of a tune I can get from a triangle! It took my sessions to a new level (a level which on reflection would have been reached sooner had the musicians been involved from the start).
Even though it was an intergenerational project, as I reflect back my focus was more squarely on the residents. For example, when I planned sessions I was thinking: How will this affect the residents? Will it be joyful? Will it work in the moment? How can the residents engage with this on multiple levels? Can I engage one to one with a resident? Will everyone else’s focus remain engaged? Planning and delivering sessions with older adults alone is one thing, but working with two generations on an intergenerational project is another. Everything we did with each group was continually examined for possibilities that might translate to the other group, specifically how can the residents experience this in the best way possible? Another question I asked myself was how can we keep a connection between the two groups in the 4 – 5 weeks when they are separate leading up to the 45 minutes – 1 hour when they will be together? Creating a connection within this short time frame was a delicate task. During a meet up many of the children needed one to one support in that initial engagement with a resident before having the confidence to continue alone. It was also difficult to maintain these relationships throughout the project as the children often rotated each term. Understandably the school wanted as many pupils to experience the project as possible, however this did impact our aims in creating longevity and a project legacy.
A resident sits in their chair, a child stands in front, I kneel between. I place one hand on the residents arm and the other gestures in the empty space between the resident and child. The child says their name, the resident can’t hear. The child is too far away and speaks too quietly. I usher the child forward and ask them to speak louder, show them how loud I am speaking. I encourage them to move their body forwards as they speak. The resident looks at me, says what, I can’t hear them. I repeat. The music changes, its a sing along one. The resident starts to sing, the child doesn’t know it. I take the residents hand and the child’s hand and we start to move to the beat, I gesture to the child to take the residents other hand. We begin to sway connected altogether. The residents eyes widen and light up as they focus on the child, they smile. The child shyly smiles back. After a few moments I join the hands that I have been holding of the resident and the child. I move away…
I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post (I know, way up the top there…) about creative freedom and not having a product to work towards. Although this was the case we did work towards our meet up days. In the 4 – 5 weeks prior to a meet up day much of a sessions content was creative explorations but ultimately we were crafting a structure for the coming meet up. When negotiating a space with residents, nursing staff, up to 30 children, school staff and artists, my instinct was to over plan out of fear of appearing under prepared and ‘losing the crowd’. As the project progressed and my learning and confidence grew I aimed to use a loose structure with a few fixed points to anchor the session rather than a complete plan. The moments of stillness and breathing space were the most important as allowed conversations and connections to develop between the residents and children within the beautiful chaos. If all the time was allocated to an ‘activity’ there was no space for magical moments to emerge. We prepared both the residents and children for the meet ups but in different ways. With the children we discussed their expectations of the care home and the residents, their knowledge of the ageing process, how they perceive ‘old’, their experience of dementia and how varied it can be. With the residents we delivered sessions that were a similar experience to what the meet up would be helping the songs, dances, discussions and the emotions created from these to be recognisable to the residents.
We were creative carrier pigeons, a postal service of visual and audio exchanges, messengers of collaboration and celebration!
For the people who’ve seen the documented version of this project – the images and the videos, the quotes, poems, stories and testimonials – it is a dream. The version which presents itself with no struggle or challenges but pure gold dust content, full of joy and love, rich in emotional value, I can totally understand why people want to share and shout about this project! When I scroll back through our Facebook page of 3 years of uploaded content, its easy to forget any troubles or hardships encountered along the way. (SONG POP!) No wonder Yorkshire Dance wanted ‘to champion the good work done in Yorkshire’ (their mission statement after all) and make films about the project, said YES when the BBC local and ITV Calendar news wanted to film some of the meet ups. We Danced was positive, beautiful and created a lot of joy for many people, BUT it was also a lot of other things too. For us the artists, the planners, the deliverers, the messengers, the sharers, the awe sprinklers, the joy spreaders, the magic creators, the shakers and quakers it is 3 years of…..well ALOT!
The biggest thing I have learnt is to TRUST MYSELF
No, the biggest thing I have learnt is to work PERSON CENTERED and then TRUST MYSELF
No wait, the biggest thing I have learnt is to SPREAD JOY, then to work PERSON CENTERED and after that TRUST MYSELF
No hold on, the biggest thing I have learnt…… ok so I’VE LEARNT A LOT, put it that way!!
I came across this image whilst writing this blog post, it had popped up on my Facebook news feed. Whilst already knowing and working by this formula, it was useful to be reminded again, and to see it visually. As a freelancer I’ve done a lot work in the past for free and loved it and done paid work and been relieved when its finished. I won’t be paid for writing this but I am richer and better off with regards to the other two points of the triangle. This project has lasted for 3 years, 3 YEARS. I want to write this so that I can articulate, better understand and process the many emotions and experiences from this time. In doing this I carry forward what’s useful and leave behind what’s not, taking the learning that I need. This is an area of work that I want to work more in, I have worked a lot more in since this project began and I love it. If anyone reads this blog and finds it at all helpful then thats an added bonus (and feel free to drop me an email with your thoughts as this has turned into a mammoth one…)
I haven’t even mentioned how one resident named Emmy inspired the character of Granny in my solo show Beam, as one area of my practise informs greatly and inspires another. Maybe thats a separate blog post but you can read about that show here. I will say that Emmy was a lovely lady with a generous smile that was infectious and lit up a room. I’m using past tense as Emmy unfortunately passed away during the project as did many other of our lovely residents. It was inevitable for some residents and we knew it would happen working across such an extensive period, but receiving that news and being witness to a persons deteriorating health is moving and upsetting. Meeting and being inspired by Emmy was one of my great moments and many joys that I had working on this project and I’m so grateful to her and all the residents I met for inspiring me. This clip of how Katherine Tate met the inspiration for her character of Nan couldn’t be any further from my experience but its just so enjoyable to watch! Enjoy! :
Session Plans & Creations – A Scrapbook Collection
♥ ‘Red’ is a story that was created by the residents of Herries Lodge using the image below. We began the session with a short performance using balloons to ‘Blackbird‘ by The Beatles which progressed into a group improvisation with the residents where we balanced, bounced and passed the balloons on and with different body parts, danced with them to various tempos of music, expanded and released our bodies like balloons and talked about journeys we would like to be taken on by our balloons. After this we then began to write the story using the Timeslips method and beautiful questions:
What would you like to say…
is happening in this picture? / she is called? / she can see? / hear? / smell? / happens immediately after this picture is taken? / later on in the day?
How would you like to say our story ends?
What would you like to say our story is called?
By Bill, Pete, Carol, William, Derek, Douglas, Ken & Jill
Someone is playing with balloons, a big bottom
I think she’s tiptoeing through the tulips
She’s running away, she must be because she’s got her back to me
She’s wondering where the balloons are
She’s singing ‘fly me to the moon and let me swing among the stars…’
She’s called Joyce – Naomi
She can see a big bottom! She’s looking ahead
She’s in a cornfield, out in the open space
It’s a warm place; she’s in Malta on holiday!
(Except there aren’t any cornfields, it’s just a rock!)
She’s eating ice cream, a lollypop – an ice lolly
It’s raspberry. A Las Vegas lollypop as big as Manchester
(Actually as big as the UK)
She’s going to get it developed
The balloons will pop and they’ll float up to the stars
She’s very sad; she says ‘oh no mum, I’ve lost it!’
She’s shattered and has a rest
She has a swim on Sliema Bay
How does it end? I’ve no idea.
Bye Bye blue
Bye Bye love
Bye Bye happiness
(But I’m still quite happy!)
♥ The Feather Extrazanga! – this was an impromptu one off session with the residents full of carnival colours, floating feathers and a parrot. Using Samba tunes and classics to get residents shaking their tail feathers, we played, danced, dressed up and were transported to the streets of Rio with our mini carnival…
♥ ‘The Rough Weather‘ is a story that was created collaboratively between the residents of Herries Lodge and the children of Watercliffe Meadows primary school. For the last year of the project we decided to work with an over arcing theme to give an anchor off which to plan our sessions, and we decided on The Wizard of Oz. This block of sessions was based loosely on the twister taking Dorothy and the house from Kansas into Oz. I performed a short improvised performance of being in the eye of a storm, we played with a real parachute – lifting high, low, fast, slow, travelling over and under (mostly with the children) – we created our own vocal storm and we created a dance based on being in the house in the storm to ‘Rip it Up’ by Little Richard. Using the Tea Light House as a stimulus we created the story using the Timeslips method and beautiful questions:
What would you like to say…
this is? / who lives here? / the inside looks like? / smells like? / sounds like? / happens inside? / our story ends?
What would you like to say our story is called?
We wrote the story first with the residents, then after reading it to the children, they listened and added in their own lines. The parts of the story written by the residents are read by Marjorie and each child who added a line reads their own. I then edited it together and during the meet up we listened to the story altogether with the house alight and the main lights off creating a magically calm and peaceful atmosphere: ‘The Rough Weather‘
♥ A session exploring the autumn and winter seasons. Here you can hear Pat tap dancing to Simon playing ‘Singing In The Rain‘
♥ I love listening to Pat’s enthusiasm in this clip as I improvised moving, travelling and dancing along a walk way of yellow fabric on the floor (when you hear her and Mary exclaim ‘oh! very good’ I did a few quick running steps into a running-man balance). We were exploring the yellow brick road in the session and created our own pathway through the residents lounge using anything and everything yellow! We then repeated this process in the children’s classroom taking it high, low and zig-zagging it through the space before we all took explored moving along our yellow pathway together.
Photo credits : Charlotte Armitage