Dancing as therapy in Cork's Valley View Day Centre

Claire O’Sullivan discovers a class that uses dance as a vehicle to communicate therapy.

Dancing as therapy in Cork's Valley View Day Centre

THERE’S a man in a Munster Rugby jersey standing alone on the wooden veranda as I make my way up the steps to the day centre. Staring into space, he looks wretched, barely registering the presence of the half dozen people who troop in the door past him.

The Valley View Day Centre is a bright, warm, friendly space with taupe walls, a brown porcelain-tiled fireplace, and floor to ceiling windows that look out onto the lawns that make up much of the enormous St Stephen’s Hospital complex.

Upon entering the room, your eye is immediately drawn towards striking charcoal portraits sketched by the mental health patients from around Co Cork who also use this room for art therapy. There’s about 35 people standing around but it’s clear that psychologically they are somewhere else. Many of the men and women pacing around the dancefloor look scared. Others, heads down, seem to drag their bodies behind them rather than walk. A dank despair hangs in the room, it’s as if the electrons in the air have rearranged into some awful configuration of anxiety.

A stench of stale cigarettes and sweat clings to the middle-aged man who sits down beside me, rubbing his hands anxiously.

Dance movement therapist and psychiatric nurse Eileen Murray is chatting casually to people but then she wanders over to the music player and Arvo Pärt’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ begins to fill the room with its haunting piano and violin.

“Just focus on your feet as you move,” she calls out. Slowly people begin to move, to sway, to zig-zag self consciously.

Meanwhile, Eileen twirls slowly around the room. “Focus on your feet, forget about your head, this is about your feet,” she calls out gently. I can’t get my eyes off one young girl in a hoodie, hair in a ponytail. She could be 15, she could be 18. She can’t relax, is pulling at her lips, gnawing at her nails. There’s also the ageing hippy with the cropped hair. She too chews her nails but it seems she’s finding something in the music as she sways clasping herself.

There’s also a guy in his 30s. Dressed in low-hung jeans and a grey on-trend sweater, you’d think he could be mooching around town with his girlfriend and not here.

Most people couldn’t be described as dancing. Some just stand in the middle of the floor or walk around slowly enjoying the piano sound rising through the air.

However, as the music moves to Nightmares on Wax’s ‘Les Nuits’, you can see how the easy flow, the relaxed beat is ever so slowly changing the atmosphere. What began as a shuffle for some becomes more free flowing. There are those then that just can’t find concentration and return to the chairs surrounding the dance floor.

“As you move, try and move your head about, from the inside out, softening your brain. Relax your head around, let the tissues of your brain soften,” says Eileen. “This is not about your head, it’s about your body, let your body move you, there’s nothing right or wrong, your feet are flowing feet.”

In the corner sits a lady in her 60s, wearing a buttoned-up heavy tweed coat, hat, and scarf, she just sits there watching the others get lost in motion. All around a calmness is entering the room and it’s at this point that Eileen begins to play with the altering mood.

As Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ begins to fill the room, the tempo builds. Eileen is swirling calling for people to start to “bring their spine into it” and bring “clear shapes” to their dance. I begin to notice a flicker in people’s eyes, a faint curl of a smile as they begin to enjoy the beat, the drums, the endorphin rush that rock music brings.

Eileen is calling for people to dance with partners now and this brings another visible response. Smiles continue to burst out as people swing from partner to partner. The young fella in the low-hung jeans is moving his body like he’s lost in a club. Hands deep in his jeans, he’s forgotten where he is.

The young girl in the hoodie is actually grinning as Eileen asks the class to dance now from their hips.

But it is the man with the rugby shirt on the veranda who has transformed most. He actually looks almost joyful.

This isn’t just a dance class though, it isn’t just about aerobic exercise or about generating endorphins — here, dance is a vehicle through which therapy is communicated.

Dance movement therapy is an internationally recognised therapy — a “form of moving meditation that puts the body in motion in order to still the mind”, says Eileen who has been practicing dance therapy for 10 years now.

Originating in the 1970s with Marian Chase, one of the best known first dance therapists, it is increasing popular with people suffering from mental health problems and serious illnesses. “It’s not unlike yoga or mindfulness but with more freestyle movements and less rigidity,” says Eileen. “It’s based upon the theory that the mind and body are inseparable, participants describe it as a way of shifting inertia and altering stuck emotions.”

Dance, I think, is also something that can feel more natural, dance requires less concentration from an angst-ridden mind than perhaps yoga or other forms of meditation.

“You see yourself, the clients go from being static to less rigid to fluid,” says Eileen. “They smile, laugh more, and are more content in themselves while they are dancing. They become more connected with their physical body and people around them and this in turn takes the attention away from the thinking mind.”

HSE consultant rehabilitation psychiatrist Dr Alan Corkery says dance therapy “can achieve significant improvements in quality of life”. He adds: “The response from participants and their families to this new initiative has been overwhelmingly positive.”

I spot my lady in the tweed coat and the hat on the dance floor as Alison Moyet’s ‘Love Resurrection’ continues the upbeat mood. She’s raising her hands in the air, dropping them, and raising them. It’s a childlike move, but is her very valid response to the emotion and sense of release in the room.

Eileen then asks everyone to stand in four or five lines and copy the dance moves of a leader who will stand out in front. Incredibly, there is little problem finding volunteers. I don’t doubt that if this request had been made at the start of the class, it would have been met by a stunned silence. The woman who ends up leading is a residential mental health patient. But last Tuesday afternoon, she was a woman with natural beat who was just thoroughly enjoying herself. Why wouldn’t she lead?

Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ signals the end of the class and people sing along, waltz, sway, and raise their hands in the air as this most spiritual of tunes cements them. The class had been so well designed that most, even those who had sat through much of it, are by this stage lost in the emotion, and far from their troubles. Sitting there, I feel like I’m witnessing some kind of spiritual transformation on a group scale. The urge to get up and join them was overwhelming. Never before had I seen the mood in a group change so radically.

“I felt so bright,” one woman said as she left. “I feel so good,” said another. The guy in the rugby jersey agrees: “For a moment, I really let go. When are we doing it again?”

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