In 2020, older adults were greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. To provide relief, respite, and connection amidst challenging times, many programs for older adults adopted a new virtual format.
Among these programs are creative arts therapies, including music therapy, art therapy, and dance/movement therapy. I’ve been facilitating virtual dance/movement therapy (DMT) groups for older adults for the past two years and found tangible, meaningful, and hopeful outcomes for participants.
In this blog post, I’ll share some of the specifics of how DMT can be facilitated for older adults in a virtual setting.
How dance/movement therapy can be facilitated for older adults in a virtual setting
1. Set the stage.
When older adults join a DMT group, especially if it’s their first time experiencing a creative arts therapy session, there may be preconceived notions about what will take place. I begin every group by clarifying the goals of DMT: to foster social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual aspects of self. While DMT involves movement and a variety of movement styles, my goal is not to “teach” participants particular dance forms, choreography, or performances. My approach is rather to draw on improvisation and provide participants with movement “prompts” as we engage together.
I start every group by acknowledging each participant by name and by making an observation about their space or how they are showing up that day. Perhaps it’s a fancy scarf they're wearing or a colourful painting behind them. If I’ve had these participants in the group before, I often try to follow up and ask questions about how things are going in their life which they have mentioned previously, like a grandson’s birthday party.
Making each participant feel seen and heard is essential. Then, I utilize a few songs to begin engaging the body in a warm-up. I often emphasize movement themes of flow in the warm-up, asking participants to move based on imagery such as water, wind, or different colours.
"I try to facilitate participant awareness of the contrast between moving and stillness."
2. Make space for participants to lead and create.
As the session progresses, I typically have a few songs on a playlist for that day with an intention for each song. It may be a salsa song to explore movement in the legs, or it could be some familiar tunes by Louis Armstrong.
Around the halfway point, I like to have a “movement pause”. Rather than using the exercise class terminology of taking a “water break”, I try to facilitate participant awareness of the contrast between moving and stillness. On this pause, we get water if needed, and take some moments to reflect on our embodied state. In one of my virtual groups, one of my regular participants has a grandfather clock that goes off every day at noon. We collectively decided to take our “movement pause” as signalled by her clock.
In these small ways, I try to provide opportunities for all participants, regardless of their cognitive abilities, to feel a sense of leadership in the session. Some other questions I frequently ask participants are:
What gesture might you use to verbalize this idea/feeling?
How does this song or lyric move you?
It's then my job as the dance therapist to weave together and acknowledge the verbal and non-verbal expressions of each participant.
"I’ve learned to expect surprises. I’ve been humbled, inspired, and grateful for the years of experience that participants have to share."
3. Expect to be surprised.
As the session comes to a close, I emphasize the importance of a physiological cool down by coming back to awareness of breath and gentle movements like swaying or rocking. I intentionally leave time at the end of sessions for participants to say a meaningful goodbye to each other because the resolution is possible in movement and in verbal dialogue. I want to make space for both in DMT.
Occasionally, I like to ask participants if they have any words of wisdom for the group before we depart. I’ve learned to expect surprises. I’ve been humbled, inspired, and grateful for the years of experience that participants have to share. One notable takeaway phrase from this past winter was from one of our community participants who has dementia. We talked and danced about the wintertime holidays in that session. Her parting advice for the group was, “We celebrate as it comes... and as it comes, we celebrate.”
As I continue to facilitate virtual DMT for older adults, I encourage other practitioners to find new ways to connect, validate, and empower their participants. It’s my belief that movement, music, and art are beautiful pathways to doing so.
Written by Eden Champagne