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The joy of dance for people living with dementia

Published: 01 February 2024

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A smiling older man and woman dancing under people's arms

Participants in a Moving Minds session at York St John University

The Moving Minds project was founded in 2016 by Elaine Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Dance at York St John University. Weekly sessions held at the University provide opportunities for people affected by dementia to take part in dance and improvisational movement sessions. The focus during sessions is on playfulness, social engagement and autonomy.

Activities are participant-led with emphasis placed on the abilities that people have; acknowledging individual responses and ways of moving. Up to 20 people currently attend the sessions, with participants accompanied by spouses, friends and family or professional carers who dance with them as part of a community that celebrates everyone’s contribution.

Moving Minds now holds sessions in several settings in York, alongside the on-campus sessions aimed at those living independently. Foss Park Hospital holds weekly sessions for patients with dementia and those on the older adult mental health wards, and a 12-week course is being rolled out on the dementia ward at York Hospital run by Drama graduate Sian Whitley with support from ward staff. Taster sessions are held at various ‘memory cafes’ in the city and a pilot project has been delivered with early-onset hubs in York. To date, the Moving Minds project has worked with over 300 people, with the desire to expand their work to people living with Parkinson’s disease and survivors of stroke.

A growing body of research has demonstrated that, for people living with dementia, participating in dance activities has physiological and psychological benefits including stress reduction, encouraging social interaction, maximising cognitive function, and reinforcing a sense of identity.

Describing the impact of the Moving Minds project Elaine Harvey said:

“Moving Minds explores how dance, with its focus on touch, reciprocity and connection can facilitate a greater awareness of non-verbal expression and communication in a condition where spoken language can prove problematic. 

“Not only does the project ask what dance might offer people with dementia, but also what they might offer dance. We’re looking at dementia through a new lens, exploring how creative practices, such as dance, might provide opportunities to examine the body’s potential for innovation and creative action.”

The free, one-hour sessions are led by Elaine or Stephen Wey, Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, with support from up to four student volunteers typically from Dance or Occupational Therapy courses. The Moving Minds project gives placement students the opportunity to develop valuable skills in planning and facilitating dance and creative movement sessions. Several students who have worked on the project have gone on to develop similar projects following graduation and are now working professionally within the area of arts and health. 

Recent graduate Sian Whitley became involved with the Moving Minds project in the second year of her Drama: Education & Community degree. Describing the journey it’s taken her on, she said:

“I thought I knew the direction I wanted my professional practice to go in. I then got involved with the Moving Minds project and it quickly introduced me to different ways of working and facilitating. I met a new group of people and fell in love with the environment and the work. I have continued this work as a graduate intern, developing my own practice as a facilitator. My experience with Moving Minds has enabled me to secure full-time work as a Drama and Movement practitioner.”

Alongside the Moving Minds project, Elaine Harvey developed ‘Dancing with Dementia’, a national participatory arts project developed in response to lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic. It explored the idea of dance as a metaphor for dementia, with participants asked to record their response to the question ‘If dementia was a dance, what kind of a dance would it be?’. In collaboration with sound artist Chris Gregory, their responses were woven together with music to create a short documentary reflecting the embodied experiences of living with dementia. Dancing with Dementia has received recognition through screenings at national and international film festivals. Watch the film on YouTube. Elaine will be talking about the film in February 2024 as part of the Global Health film festival.

Visit the Moving Minds webpages to learn more about the project.

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York St John University, Lord Mayors Walk, York, YO31 7EX

01904 876 466

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