Healing the Soldier

Veterans Find Support in Dance Programs

Veterans Find Support in Dance Programs

Exit 12. Photo credit: Tracy Dorman

By Karyn D. Collins

The dance world has a long history of working with military veterans, from choreographers who have celebrated the heroics of veterans or looked at the vestiges of war, to a range of movement therapy programs for veterans to address needs like physical challenges or such emotional issues as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today, that tradition can be seen in a variety of programs across the country including those administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. Victoria Hutter, assistant director for press and public affairs with the National Endowment for the Arts, said current NEA programs like its Military Healing Arts Network have roots that stretch back decades. For example, the foundation for the Military Healing Arts Network, which includes writing workshops as well as research on the benefits of arts programs for veterans, stretches back to a 2004 NEA-managed program called Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. That program involved about 60 writing workshops in some 30 military installations around the world.

Hutter said that dance movement therapists are slowly being incorporated into the current network of creative arts therapists the NEA supports at 11 clinical sites across the country. “It’s movement therapy. They’re not learning any dance styles,” she said. “It’s really about getting people to work with their own bodies and allowing that experience to help them cope with various psychological health issues they’re experiencing,” Hutter said.

Hutter added that there are different timelines for when each clinical site will add dance movement therapy to its programming. And an NEA-sponsored clinical research summit held in September also included a panel on the movement therapy program being added to the Creative Forces Network.

The nation’s network of facilities and programs under the Veterans Health Administration have made great use of movement-therapy programs for many years. For example, the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System supports Dance for Veterans, a dance/movement program that “uses movement, creativity, relaxation, and social cohesion to treat veterans with serious mental illnesses,” according to the VAGLAHS.

As part of that support, VAGLAHS and other VA facilities have begun conducting studies showing the   effectiveness of dance and other movement therapy programs. A 2016 VAGLAHS study, for example, found a 25 percent decrease in stress among patients in its Dance for Veterans program who had chronic schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, PTSD, and other serious mental illnesses.

Here’s a look at some examples of other programs working with and reflecting the experiences of veterans today.

Concert Dance

Choreographers – from Kurt Jooss and Paul Taylor to Liz Lerman – have all found inspiration in the experiences of soldiers and veterans.

The concert dance company Exit 12 is part of that oeuvre, but with a twist: the company not only focuses on the experiences of veterans and reflections about war, but is led by a military veteran. Roman Baca, a ballet dancer who served in the Marines for eight years, said his personal experiences act as constant inspiration for his choreography as well as the projects the company has initiated.

“We started as a way to communicate the military experience to audiences, to get them to self-scrutinize the wars, self-scrutinize the violence and conflict globally so that maybe we could take a better look at why we were fighting these wars that had been going on for so long,” he said.

After about four years of focusing on creating and performing works that emanated from his own experiences, Baca decided to broaden his New York-based company’s mission to connect even more directly with veterans. “It became apparent that although we were performing a lot there were different ways we found to better connect with the community,” he said. “One of those ways was to start connecting veterans with dancers and audiences.”

Baca started bringing veterans into the studio and creating work with them as collaborators. “The benefit of bringing them into the studio and getting them to work with our dancers is that suddenly the story was being told from more angles and with more perspective,” he said. “The dancers were getting it firsthand from people who experienced it, which rounded out their process and understanding of the topics we were tackling.”

Since September 2017, Baca has been directing his company from London where he began pursuing a master’s degree in choreography on a Fulbright Scholarship. But, Exit 12 has continued to do the work with veterans that Baca started. And Baca has not only been choreographing but has been working with veterans organizations in London. His latest project: creating a new version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” through what Baca calls, “the military lens. I see myself coming back [to the United States] with the knowledge gained from this experience,” Baca said, when asked about his future plans after completing his graduate studies. “I see myself continuing to lead the company to help people understand the impact of war, not only on our veterans but on our loved ones and the communities.”

Dance Activities

Deborah Denenfeld’s Dancing Well: The Soldier’s Project is difficult to categorize. Part social dance for veterans, part therapy, it utilizes the power of community dance to help veterans grappling with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.

“To the best of my knowledge we’re unique in the world,” said Denenfeld, who launched Dancing Well in 2011 and currently runs the program in Louisville, Ky. “We use live music and a dance caller, kind of like a square dance caller, who teaches exactly what’s going to happen and prompts everything right before the people do it.

“It’s not lead and follow (type of) couple dancing. That would involve someone having to make a choice.”

Denenfeld said veterans who have attended the classes, which are offered intermittently throughout the year when funds are available, praise them. A small sample study conducted on the program earlier this year also yielded positive results, she said, though outcomes are categorized as preliminary because of the small sample size.

“The preliminary results are that [the program] did lead to significant improvement in feelings of connectedness and that is important,” Denenfeld said. “Connectedness leads to not isolating. Isolation leads to depression and increased suicidal thoughts.”

But Denenfeld cautions that her program is not dance therapy in the traditional sense. “I am not a dance therapist. I am a dancer primarily and a dance leader by choice,” she said. “Dance therapy enables the participant to explore creatively how they’re feeling and to use that as a way to grow therapeutically. We are not that.”

Indeed, Denenfeld said she requires that veterans in Dancing Well who are affected by PTSD or a traumatic brain injury must be involved with some sort of therapy or have a medical professional they’re working with.

“We are a great thing that goes along with therapy but we are not therapy,” she said. “This is a fun thing to do together and you might find your life changes by participating.”

Non-traditional Therapy

There is traditional dance therapy and then there are programs like Sylvie Minot’s Syzygy Dance Project.

Minot’s Sausalito, Calif.-based program offers movement therapy classes to a variety of what Minot’s project calls “underserved” communities including veterans, the elderly, and inmates. The project offers classes in locations throughout the San Francisco Bay area, including the VA Palo Alto Health Care System where Minot and her team lead classes that are part of programs for veterans recovering from addiction, older veterans, and veterans dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.

Minot said the foundation of her classes comes from her modern dance background as well as her training in 5Rhythms, a movement meditation practice. “I use 5Rhythms as the foundation, but I call the classes and my organization Syzygy Movement because we use a number of ways to get people into the movement, into their bodies,” Minot said. “It’s about letting them find their own way to move. For example, we might talk about, ‘What does trust look like? What does strength look like?’ And it’s all about how does that look like in their body.

“It’s dance they create rather than me coming in with movement that they have to follow. We find what movement is in their body, what they’re capable of moving, what they’re comfortable with moving and we string it all together.”

Minot said that part of the key for her students is the license the class offers to bond in a shared experience that doesn’t require speaking. “When they dance together, the boundaries of race, culture, and class all fall away and you’re just listening to the music and moving to the beat,” she said. “All that personality and misunderstandings and other stuff that comes when you’re talking, all that falls away.”

Minot noted that a big part of the work she does with veterans is about releasing emotions. “There’s a lot of pent up anger or depression there inside for many of them that sometimes feels like it’s too much to talk about,” she said. “This is a way they can move [those feelings] out of their bodies. It’s really a good way to release the stress, the anger, the depression.”

Karyn D. Collins

Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for more than 30 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, the Camden Courier-Post, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, William Paterson University, Seton Hall University, and Bloomfield College in N.J. A faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque and Mahwah, N.J., Collins is also a fo


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