Filipa Pereira Stubbs argues that dance in hospitals can transform patients’ recovery and explores the distinction between dance and physiotherapy
“It’s such a joy; quiet, bubbly joy.” Veronica
Dance is an artform that that helps us to connect with our selves, with other people, and with the environment around us. The natural state of the body is to be in movement, this maintains health and helps us process vital information about the world around us and how our body is behaving. However, being a patient typically means spending long hours, days, and sometimes months sitting in chairs, lying in beds.
Sometimes prolonged inactivity is due to serious ill health, to bodily complications and fragility, but even those patients whose health allows some independence and mobility find little stimulus to do so. Not moving ruptures our connection with ourselves; enforced stillness and lethargy becomes irritating, tiresome, exhausting and at worst, depressing.
My role, as a dance artist working in a hospital is to create dance sessions that take people away from their clinical setting; I offer something different. There is no set programme, but there is a structure that allows people to engage at a level they feel most comfortable with. Essentially, a dance practice awakens creativity, and works from the places of wellness within an individual. Rather than fixing the broken, there is an assumption that with the right support, people can find for themselves what they can do, need to do.
In hospital we are engaging with natural movement, improvised movement sequences, individual response. We are not teaching dance steps, nor are we choreographing to entertain an audience. We express ourselves through the body, through movement. Furthermore, we remember and reengage with bodily intelligence that can help us take more control in finding our way back to health, integrating this into clinical treatment.
“It’s not a dance class. Don’t bring your tutu.” Seline
There are other movement programmes in hospital, mostly in the form of physiotherapy. These help people rehabilitate, get moving, find their feet, literally helping many people walk out of hospital. The difference between physiotherapy and dance is that the former sets goals, has a clinical outcome, and (like most medical treatment) works on those parts of the body that needs fixing. Dancing addresses similar physical issues around tone, coordination, muscle development but it is achieved as an enjoyable and almost effortless result.
What is more – with dance – it is the dancing that is the point! Essentially the movement is an autotelic activity – an activity created for pleasure, rather than an objective treatment goal – something that is inherently pleasing, something that gives immediate positive feedback, and offers the potential for success. Dance is something everyone can be good at, which lifts the mood, which brings hope and reassurance and ultimately alleviates anxiety. Paradoxically, one can feel well in a very ill body.
“Better than drugs. I’d sooner have this all day, than drugs. This is stress-free – makes me feel so much better.” Tricia
By bringing people into their bodies whilst bringing them out of themselves, we help them to take part in something that is bigger than themselves, their illness, their ailments. Dancing is fun; music is a wonderful stimulus in itself. Throughout the sessions stories are shared and motivational advice given and received. There is time to develop more meaningful and personal relationships with the people we rely on to nurse us back to health. Through shared movements we can create shared moments, shifting the usual relationship of the patient and carer. There are tears, and laughter and many kinds of dances – it feels entirely different from lying alone in one’s bed waiting to be fixed, waiting to get better.
“I am so impressed. It has made me feel so much better. To tell you the truth I nearly cried. There was a feeling of fellowship. You’re not alone in your difficulties; it’s really so good.” Janet
Filipa Pereira Stubbs is Lead Dance Artist at Cambridge University Hospitals, working with patients in elderly care, diabetes and endocrinology, neuro-rehabilitation, stroke rehabilitation and renal wards.