Dance for Older Learners (course), Royal Academy of Dance, Rose Bruford College - 21st July
"Shall we put our ballet shoes on?" Several of the teachers at the Royal Academy of Dance's 'Dance for Older Learners' workshop were unsure how to approach the day's first session. But the Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing teachers immediately put us at ease: "Wear whatever you like. Most of the older learners don't even take their coats off, let alone wear ballet shoes! And many of them sit clutching their handbags all through class."
Helen Linkenbagh guided us through some chair-based warm-up movements, encouraging us to sit up tall and breathe deeply. We walked (while still sitting) getting progressively faster to raise heart rate, with Linkenbagh suggesting we imagine running to catch a bus. We waved to the bus driver and stretched upwards to feel the warmth of the sunlight. The story is in exactly the same style as the tales I tell my youngest students to stimulate creativity and engagement. Apparently, the positive effect is identical for older learners, with stories related to real life giving each movement an impetus, meaning and sense of fun.
A standing warm-up Linkenbagh uses revolved around the idea of kneading and preparing bread dough, with patting and massaging movements made all over the body. Linkenbagh used this every week in her classes as it was loved by participants and over time they made improvements in how far they were able to reach.
Sarah Platt guided teachers through ways to include technique in classes. She focussed on increasing the mobility of participants' lower limbs to reduce falls, as well as including counting, rhythms and movements which cross the body to stimulate brain function. Her seated tap class included toe and heel taps, toe-heel 'see-saw' walks and clapping. In ballet, Platt referred to the arm positions as like holding bubbles, encouraging participants to walk with their bubbles and then adding in a hand-held ribbon.
For creative sessions, Hannah Bailes showed teachers a routine to 'Big Spender' with gold sparkly hats. Choices were given to participants as to how to walk into the space at the beginning of the music, as well as segments in which they could improvise or mirror a partner. For her, encouraging pair work was a good way to minimise the loneliness older people often experience. Linkenbagh also demonstrated a full-length partner routine, with cha cha cha steps, holding a partner's hand and circling, and transfers of weight from one foot to another. She also sometimes used a poem to inspire the older learners.
Ideal class numbers for these types of sessions are 16 or less and a long 20-25 minute warm-up is needed. This should be followed by creative exercises and a dance routine. The key to success is in arriving early and getting to know participants outside of the class structure. Praise is also important, with the only useful correction being to encourage 'railway' track feet (ie. feet in parallel) for stability.
For music, it is a good idea to ask participants what they would like. Different groups on the Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing project had different tastes - from Bob Marley to relaxing, ambient music and Shirley Bassey.
Even if the participants hardly move, whether because they are unwilling or unable, the classes are still of huge benefit as they absorb the energy, joy and inspiration from just watching. For one participant, who suffers from chronic fatigue, the sessions were "very energising" and had a "potent effect". She also highlighted how they encouraged her to be mindful and 'in the moment'.
The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) has published a report with the results of their findings from the Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing project. The report also includes quotes from participants and sample lesson plans for teachers. For further details, contact the project manager, Dr. Victoria Watts, at firstname.lastname@example.org.