Picture of Health
University of Florida students learn to use dance as a healing method
Everlea Bryant wasn’t a medical student. She was a dance performance major at the University of Florida—which made designing a dance program for youth with sickle cell anemia especially daunting. Individuals with sickle cell anemia have a range of limitations, including osteopathic issues and severe, sudden pain crises that can be triggered by dehydration or too much exercise.
To create the program, which Bryant completed as part of her Dance in Healthcare certificate at the University of Florida, she examined hundreds of medical journal articles, synthesizing information about the disease, its symptoms and effective (and ineffective) exercise programs. She summarized her findings and, working alongside Professor Jill Sonke-Henderson, developed a dance program that incorporated contemporary jazz and hip-hop movement while allowing for frequent breaks and avoiding jumps, squats or weight-bearing moves. Bryant’s project was implemented through Shands HealthCare in Gainsville, Florida, and continues to operate today.
The Dance in Healthcare certification is a joint effort of the UF School of Theatre and Dance and the Center for the Arts in Healthcare Research and Education (CAHRE), which was co-founded by Sonke-Henderson. The 12-credit course of study incorporates seminar, studio and clinical coursework. Students learn the historical and contemporary use of the arts in healthcare, examine links between medicine and dance and participate in over 120 hours of clinical work at hospitals or other healthcare facilities. The goal is to develop creative artists who use movement to connect with people in a healthful way.
Dr. Rusti Brandman, co-director emeritus of CAHRE, says that life in the hospital can be a restrictive, passive experience for patients. “For an artist to come in and take what’s important to you—a movement or type of music or idea—and implement it as a dance or painting is very validating and healing,” she says.
While arts in medicine is a relatively new field, a 2007 survey of more than 1,800 healthcare facilities found that over 40 percent of them had arts programs. Artists such as Liz Lerman, Anna Halprin and Mark Morris have incorporated dance in healthcare into their companies’ work. And dancers like Bryant have found the UF training and certification a helpful credential and tool.
The dance-in-healthcare model, Brandman notes, operates differently from dance therapy. Dance therapy uses a psychotherapeutic model; practitioners use movement as a diagnostic tool and work toward a desired outcome. Dance in Healthcare, meanwhile, is therapeutic, but the artists attempt to connect with patients and contribute to their mental, physical and emotional well-being. Unlike dance therapy programs, which focus on patient outcomes, dance in healthcare emphasizes the ability to connect with patients through the creative process, without prescribed results.
When working in a healthcare setting, a dance artist’s goal is not necessarily to teach patients specific techniques, but to lead them through their own creative processes. “The artist is a kind of tour guide,” Brandman says. “Thus they need to have a keen awareness of the other person.” The UF certificate is open to non-dance majors, but students are expected to have an intermediate proficiency in at least one dance technique, as well as an acquaintance with improvisation and dance composition.
Hands-on clinical work, which introduces students to the logistics and life within the hospital, is an integral part of the certificate. Students shadow Brandman, Sonke-Henderson and other artists-in-residence as they work with patients. This work might take shape as one-on-one sessions in a patient’s room, a group workshop or a hospital performance.
The movements the dancers model and perform are patient-driven. For example, a woman awaiting a lung transplant describes the type of dance she will do when she’s recovered. Then an artist at her bedside translates these visions into improvised movement. Group workshops or onsite performances may be more technical and directed at patient health, such as helping individuals with cystic fibrosis practice Pilates and Laban breathing exercises.
The certificate is a unique credential for dancers seeking to launch or enhance their careers. Not only does it increase a dancer’s skill set and marketability, Brandman says that the ability to connect a funding proposal to health-related goals is “one more way that a company’s grant proposal might stand out.”
Bryant sees a direct link between her coursework and her current position as the owner of a Pilates, health and dance facility. “I had to learn how to deal with limitations, and work with medical partners, in an extremely structured environment,” she says. “When a client comes to me now and says, ‘I have such-and-such limitation,’ I don’t even flinch.”
Sara Versluis is a freelance writer in Virginia.
Originally published in Dance Teacher, June 2011