It's an art form that's been around since man first walked the earth. In ancient Rome young soldiers who couldn't perfect the practice - in this instance short, choppy steps and swinging, rhythmic arms - were even denied full warrior status.
"It's just amazing the impact dance has had on all of history," said Doris Levy, gracefully reaching back with her hand and arm to represent time’s long continuum.
As a dance/movement therapist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, Levy has spent the past seven years using dance and movement in a slightly less warrior way: Encouraging and supporting patients faced with the often-difficult physical and psychological effects of illness and hospitalization.
Part of NHRMC’s Healing Arts Network, which promotes healing through a variety of expressive arts, dance/movement therapy teaches patients to express their feelings of separation, pain or despair through rhythmic body movements and creative gestures.
“When you're ill and in the hospital, you're faced with your own mortality, so coping becomes a big focus,” Levy said. “Dance therapy allows patients to feel that they have some degree of control over their lives, their healing and their place in this world.”
Getting a patient into motion often begins at the bedside, reinforcing one of the most important themes of the program as well as the network.
“Dance therapists, like all Healing Arts Network therapists, begin their work by meeting the patient where they are, physically and emotionally," Levy said. “I let patients give me the cues. We pick music together, and we usually begin just by breathing.”
After a while, arms, legs, hands and heads get to moving, she said, just as they did for one memorable patient.
“There was a woman suffering from a progressive disease, and she was extremely upset because in her absence her family was not continuing to do things the way she would do them, like preparing big family meals,” said Levy.
“‘Just see how it feels to let go,’ I told her, and eventually through movement she was finally able to just let it go.”
For Ashley Yates, a new NHRMC dance/movement therapist, shaking up the traditional Western medical model of separation of mind, body and spirit through dance and movement is what spurred her recent move from Los Angeles to replace Levy, who is retiring.
“Patients come to the hospital to heal physically, but there's also a mind, body and soul component that needs healing in order for the whole person to be healed,” said Yates. “Dance and movement, no matter how big or small, offer huge opportunities for healing for patients and their families.”
Yates said in addition to lifting spirits, teaching coping techniques and helping manage stress, dance/movement therapy has been medically proven to reduce physical pain.
“When I enter a patient’s room, they might say on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst, that their pain is a 10. Often patients state their pain has lessened after our sessions due to state of mind and body relaxation,” she said.
For patient George McAllister, dance/movement therapy made all the difference during his recent hospital stay.
"It was a lovely distraction from all the misery and pain around me,” he said. “I felt more positive afterwards. When you come to the hospital ask for the Healing Arts." For more information about the Healing Arts Network, please call Michele Erich, 815.5870, or Maureen Dugan, 343.7973.