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As much as I love to dance, there are in fact days (usually when I forget to drink my afternoon coffee) that I’m just not quite sure my limbs, torso, muscle, and bones are going to sync with my brain and produce some kind of coordinated movement. When I head off to a 5Rhythms or YogaDance class with a dull brain, I fear that even the most rockin’ tunes won’t get the engine going and I’ll end up wasting 2 hours sputtering in the driveway.

Most of the time, however, my inner Henry emerges.

Who is Henry, you ask?

Henry is that glorious moment when inertia suddenly switches to reaction. Henry is eyes lighting up. Henry is fingers snapping. Henry is the reminder that you can feel.

Henry also happens to be the poster child man for the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, whose goal is to bring the therapeutic benefits of personalized music to long-term care (LTC) settings nationally and globally. You may remember Henry from his spin around the social media circuit earlier this year, his wide-eyed and animated face plastered all over Facebook and Reddit video posts: “Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era”:

What I recently found out was that Henry is just one of hundreds of older adults profoundly touched by the gift of music, and one of several featured in the up-and-coming documentary Alive Inside: The Story of Music & Memory. I had the privilege of attending an advanced screening of this documentary at my alma mater, coordinated by the Dean (who also happens to be a fellow blogger!) of my old stomping grounds, the College of Communication & Creative Arts. Both the executive director of Music & Memory, Dan Cohen, and the film’s producer/director, Michael Rossato-Bennett, were present to discuss their project.

Cohen, armed with volumes of evidence-based research on the connections between music, mind, and memory (including testimony from the renowned Oliver Sacks), is on a mission: to help all LTC residents and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease/related dementias reconnect with their joys, dreams, and passions of yesteryear using digital music players as the key to unlocking these deeply rooted memories.

The idea is simple and straightforward: Talk with LTC residents and their family members about what kind of music the residents enjoyed growing up; compile these songs in a personalized iPod playlist; place a pair of headphones on the resident’s ears; press Play.

Of course, the individuals featured in the documentary were ones with the most transformational reactions: Henry, described by his caregiver as “inert and unresponsive” suddenly began signing Cab Calloway, talking about his childhood, and waxing about love and God; Denise, who had been using a walker every day for the past two years, stood up, pushed it aside, and began dancing with the researcher; and Joe, a former performer, started singing like a Broadway star, his clearly trained voice stunning the other residents and staff. He cried afterward, stating that he was so happy to find that connection again.

Cohen pointed out that not everyone has the same reaction—for some residents, the response isn’t instantaneous; for others, it takes several attempts to narrow down just the right music that will spark something in their brains. Sometimes there is no change at all. Nevertheless, he said, there’s never been an adverse reaction to listening to some music. The video clip of Henry, in fact, was filmed 4 years ago. Today, Cohen said, Henry still has his music protocol. He’s declining physically yet remaining stable cognitively. Had it not been for the music, both domains instead of one would have most likely been on a downward slope.

This effect of music on the mind is nothing new, nor is the notion of bringing it into the lives of nursing home residents. The genius of Cohen’s vision, however, is (a) personalization and (b) high-quality stereophonic audio. With today’s technology, volunteers can easily create customized playlists for residents, adding and eliminating songs with the click of a mouse. This is one key difference in Cohen’s program versus, say, playing a record of Count Basie in the nursing home living room. Not everyone is going to appreciate Count Basie, and his music may not fire the neurons of someone who prefers bluegrass or the Beach Boys. The Music & Memory program also strives to personalize not just the music but a resident’s schedule as well. Maybe Jane likes to wake up to Broadway showtunes but functions better at bedtime with a soothing melody. With this program, residents’ music is tailored to their personal preferences, mood, and time of day.

In addition, the use of crystal-clear digital sound and the iPod headphones are crucial in a nursing home, where auditory distractions are commonplace. This way, residents get a “direct infusion of music,” said Cohen. Also, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, one’s ability to filter out background noise diminishes, he pointed out. A stereo sitting on a nightstand may be useless for someone who is going to be distracted by a ticking clock or voices in the hallway.

While this is all very inspiring work, one of the challenges Cohen faces is convincing nursing home CEOs and potential donors that it is worth the money. It can be disheartening when facilities and insurance companies will pay millions of dollars for a treasure chest of antidepressant/antipsychotic drugs but can’t find value in spending $40 per person for a program that will rejuvenate hearts and souls, something no drug on the market can do. It is the lazy/ignorant route to point at patients slumped in the corner and claim that they are withdrawn and unresponsive, so if drugs can’t help them, how can an hour of Elvis?

As editor of two gerontological nursing publications for the past 5 years, I guess you could say I have a soft spot in my heart for the older adult population, and yes, that is partially why I attended the screening; however, I was more interested in witnessing just how magical music can be. Nearly everyone featured in the documentary had some kind of physical response to the music—tapping their feet, swaying, gesturing their arms like a conductor—a testament to how deeply music is stored and can be felt in our bodies. One woman—bedridden and catatonic—began rocking back and forth when the headphones were placed on her ears.

It’s reactions like this that make me even more appreciative of not only Cohen’s work but that of movement-based therapeutic modalities such as Let Your Yoga Dance (which has a separate teacher training for those who wish to work with special populations, including older adults), the 5Rhythms Reach Out for elders, and Wu Tao Dance for the dementia population. When the older adults in Cohen’s Music & Memory program start ditching their walkers and wheelchairs, these groups will be prepared to add safe movement to that oh-so-magic music.

Have you found your inner Henry yet? Put on some music and see if it does to you what it does to Henry:

“It gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here.”

I have been moved by dance before. I recall seeing Alvin Ailey’s Revelations and getting goosebumps, my heart feeling light and stirred, the gracefulness and power in the dancers’ bodies so striking that I fell into the dance with them.

However, the dance piece I saw this weekend moved me, not just visually but viscerally. It was a 25-minute long painting come to life, every step stroking my soul to the point where what I was seeing on stage translated to a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

The piece, Out of the Mist, Above the Real (a video excerpt is available here), was part of the penultimate performance of the Philadelphia-based Jeanne Ruddy Dance company, founded in 1999 and discontinuing this year. The work was first performed in 2004 but was obviously so well received that it was selected to be a part of the final season.

In short, the piece is a moving representation of artist Thomas Cole’s series of paintings, The Voyage of Life, which depict the four stages of life: childhood, youth, middle age, and old age. The score commissioned for the work was a combination of choral and Irish chamber orchestra music, both joyous and haunting.

The dance begins so colorful, a chorus of dancers guiding a beautiful blond 3-year-old as she leaps, runs, and skips across the stage. The scene is absolute innocence, this fair-cheeked cherub audibly laughing and giggling as she is guided from dancer to dancer. The ensemble is her support system, and they carefully watch over her, lifting her when she needs to be lifted, directing her where she needs to go. The little girl is dependent on these dancers but follows the voice of her heart. A woman dressed all in white—the girl’s guardian angel—stays close by the child’s side, a heavenly maternal figure keeping a constant, loving watch over the child.

In the second stage of the piece, the child has now developed into a 10-year-old girl. She has still retained much innocence, but her movement is now more refined; she is trying to find her place in the world and uses her support system for guidance. She dances with the ensemble, copies their moves, but is now able find her own dance as well. It is her time to seek out autonomy, testing the waters between being led and being a leader. The woman in white remains present.

There is a marked shift in energy between youth and middle age. Company namesake Jeanne Ruddy performs the role of Middle Age, and she is absolutely striking. There is no doubt the woman has become independent; she is a leader, and she is captivating. She commands the stage like a balletic bull fighter, a motherly matador with a subtle sense of sorrow imbued in her movement. Much of her dance is performed as a solo, but the colorful ensemble still emerges to dance by her side, and the guardian angel is never too far away.

Jeanne Ruddy photographed by Bob Emmott

When the woman of Old Age takes the stage, there is a profound difference between Middle Age’s dance of independence and Old Age’s soliloquy of alone-ness. With her long gray hair and thinning arms, the woman dances in front of a black backdrop, nothing but stars to guide her movement, the lack of others—the support system—so loud in the silence. Her dance is so much more subtle than the earlier movements of youth and middle age but is so emotionally heavy and laden with wisdom. When the chorus finally enters the stage, their brightly colored clothes are now draped in black. Instead of nurturing the dancer, their role is now to guide her into the end of existence. The woman in white—the guardian angel—offers her loving presence one last time, a reminder that during a time of great loss—family, friends, independence, home—the spirit is always there.

Photo by Joe Labolito / Philly.com

***

Why was I so moved?

A longing for that youthful innocence that never dictates movement, being able to prance freely in the park or wildly on the beach and being encouraged rather than scorned.

A recognition that the journey between age 10 and middle age is a long one, and at times I am still so very much a little girl trying to find her place in the big world.

A reinforcement that one day my dance will rise to its pinnacle, knowing it has only reached that magnitude through lessons learned, lives lost, and experiences treasured.

A reminder that we are infinite but not immortal, and although the spirit carries us throughout life, the dance will eventually slow into silence and stillness.

The dance reminded me of a 5Rhythms class I attended a while back, during which two new students showed up, two high school girls who looked about 15. Before class started, they stood in the center of the studio and practiced their kicks and extensions and straddle jumps and pirouettes in front of the mirror. I was nervous, because clearly these girls had no idea what this class was about. They were concerned with their form, and even when class commenced and we were all slinking over the entire studio floor, eyes closed, back, forth, up, down, right, left, the girls remained fixed in the “front,” eyes on the mirror, moving only the way they were taught in class and making sure it looked correct in the reflection. I think they got a little freaked out during Chaos, when myself and the other students have a tendency to go kind of trancey and spin around like whirling dervishes. They sat out for a while, then joined back in, only to stand in the back and do a silly line dance.

My first instinct was to be really annoyed with these girls: They clearly didn’t get it. They were too young to understand. I had a bit of this holier-than-thou attitude, like I was Queen of 5Rhythms, and they should be abolished from my kingdom.

But after I had more time to reflect, I realized that, 15 years ago, I was them. I came from a dance studio background, where jumps and turns and splits and extensions were only as good as they appeared in the mirror. When I first got to college and had time alone in the dance studio, I didn’t close my eyes and lose myself in the music: I stood in front of the mirror and watched myself jete across the room, making sure my back leg was in line with the front. That my penchee arabesques sunk low enough, that my back was straight and leg was aiming toward the ceiling.

And still, I realize I’m not even halfway there in discovering my true dance. Certainly, what I feel now feels authentic, the same way whatever those girls were doing during class felt authentic to them. However, what do I look like to the 60-year-old 5Rhythms instructor? Is it possible that to him, I am just as naive as those 15-year-old girls are to me?

Life experiences, challenges, wisdom are the foundation of any form of artistic self-expression, and it would be silly for me to expect those 15-year-olds to have some profound sense of self that is comfortable expressing itself through dance. Heck, even though I was one hell of a contemplative teenager, I didn’t express my emotions through frenetic ecstatic dance at the time. And what will my dance be 20 years from now? 40?

As I wrote earlier in this post, “It’s a bit cruel that by the time we reach an age of such wisdom and experience—a time when our dancing would reflect decades of memories—our bodies are breaking down. If only an 80-year-old could dance in an 18-year-old’s body!”

One of the beautiful things about practicing 5Rhythms is that I get to witness so many stages of life, as expressed through dance. On the floor are fresh-faced 20-somethings with clear skin and luscious locks, 70-somethings for whom each wrinkle and gray hair represents a story.

Individually, each of us is the main character in Out of the Mist, Above the Real, whether we are young, middle-aged, or old.

Collectively, we are the ensemble, the support system that encourages the dance and watches each other’s back.

The energy generated during this time together is the nurturing Spirit, and that is what remains in our flesh and bones even after class is dismissed.

OK, for everyone out there not currently on spring break, my lord, was this week s-l-o-w or what?! Maybe it’s just because I have a super-fun weekend mapped out (drumming! dancing!) and am anticipating the excitement, but every day this week has felt like a ho-hum Tuesday.

But finally! Here we go. It’s Friday, it’s the 13th, and I have a hodge-podge list of five things that have peppered my (interminable!) week with some color and life.

(1) As if a nod to my I Am Woman post from a few weeks ago, my Old Lady Friend™ Carrol sent me the link to this video, 500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art.

It’s a hypnotic 3-minute compilation of female art subjects through the centuries, edited artfully itself so that each image morphs into the next. To me, it’s visual art presented in a dance-like manner. It’s also just fun to see the painting styles and female figures transition as the years go by.

(2) Next isn’t a video but a blog that I am excited to add to my Google Reader: Dancemeditation.

The blog is maintained by Dunya Dianne McPherson, whose book, Skin of Glass: Finding Spirit in the Flesh, is currently on my nightstand. It’s been on my Amazon wishlist ever since I purchased Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers (which has essentially become my bible) and it popped up on my “You Might Like…” list.

Dunya is a former professional ballerina who turned to Sufism and now teaches her brainchild Dancemeditation™, “a unique, integrated movement meditation system for self-discovery, healing, and evolution.”

The way she writes about the human body is utterly fascinating and captivating, and it is hard not to roll my spine and rock my pelvis along to her words. They are the words of someone so at home with her body, so familiar with every tendon, vein, and cell within; some chapters have such a deep and sensual feel that they read more like erotic literature, a kind of “kinesthetic pornography,” perhaps.

This post on simple side-to-side rolling will get you moving.

(3) Switching gears, we now move to Main Street, U.S.A. for some Disney dancing!

Posted on Disney Parks’ official blog, this video features Barbara, a Walt Disney World cast member who has taken her role as Main Street hostess to a new level by just doin’ her thang during the daily parades. If I knew there was an opportunity out there for me to both (a) work in Disney World, and (b) dance my heart out every afternoon, then Barbara would be out of a job. … OK, so I’m a bit jealous, but I love Barbara for bringing dance and Disney together in the upbeat way she does. :-)

(4) The last two items go hand in hand. First is the 2011 Emmy-winning choreography “This Bitter Earth” from Mia Michaels, which appeared on Season 7 of So You Think You Can Dance.

I’m going through a bit of a SYTYCD drought here (still more than a month to go before Season 9 starts!), so I’ve been filling the holes by watching clips of past seasons on YouTube. This particular dance about aging is just so powerful, poignant, and kind of sad. It’s a hit-you-in-the-gut piece, no doubt why it was nominated for and won the Emmy. The three variations of a simple rocking motion at 1:14 are just beautiful.

(5) Staying on that theme of aging is the video that’s been going viral all over Facebook, “Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era.”

As a dancer, music has such a profound role in my life, and it is so comforting to know that the brain has the ability to store the passionate, joy-filled memories associated with a particular tune. This man, described as “inert and unresponsive,” comes ALIVE when exposed to music from his younger years. His reactions at 4:00 and 5:15 are a bit Awakenings…but so hopeful and smile-inducing. And I love that there’s a whole movement behind this kind of therapy: http://www.musicandmemory.org!

Now this has me wondering…what music from “my era” would make me come alive 50+ years from now? Hmm…

Comment with an online video/website/photo that’s been stirring your soul lately!

To live without pain or dance without soul?

One component of my job is to keep abreast about all the latest goings-on in the field of psychological/psychiatric research (a) so we can include news briefs of the most interesting developments in our publication and (b) so I don’t sound like an idiot when I’m talking to our contributors. Most press releases that come my way seem to be generated by Captain Obvious (“Women Who Experience Gender-Based Violence Have Higher Incidence of Anxiety”), but every now and then along comes something eyebrow-raising, like this: “Drug May Help Overwrite Bad Memories.”

Photo credit: © Mark Carrel / Fotolia

According to a Canadian study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, recalling painful memories while taking the drug metyrapone can reduce the brain’s ability to re-record the negative emotions associated with them (Explanation: manipulating cortisol close to the time of forming new memories can decrease the negative emotions that may be associated with them). The press release goes on to explain the study procedure:

The study included 33 men who learned a story composed of neutral and negative events. After 3 days they were divided into three groups: Participants in the first group received a single dose of metyrapone, the second received a double dose, and the third were given placebo. They were then asked to remember the story. Their memory performance was evaluated again 4 days later, once the drug had cleared out. The researchers found that the men in the group who received two doses of metyrapone were impaired when recalling the negative events of the story, while they showed no impairment recalling the neutral parts of the story.

For those not quite ready for a quick prescription of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, good news: Metyrapone is no longer commercially produced.

But what if it were? What if that magic pill did exist, and all of the pain and angst of your past could be deleted? Would you take it?

The press release above is actually a few months old, but I started thinking about it again last night as I was watching So You Think You Can Dance, as contestants Melanie and Sasha were talking about where they find the emotion that drives their intensely powerful movement. Sasha, after performing in a duet about manipulation and abuse, alluded to “having been hurt” in the past. Melanie, in tears, talked about her deceased father, physically in tears as she began one of the most achingly eloquent solos of the competition.

If these girls were to have taken that magic drug, would such beautiful art even exist?

So often in yoga or Eastern religion discourse, we are taught that the past is the past. Acknowledge it and move on. Yet, isn’t it in those times of deep contemplation and reminiscence that the most powerful works of art emerge? My god, if everyone who suffered a broken heart erased that memory from their brains, the world would be devoid of some of the best ballads, poetry, paintings, orchestrations, and ballets.

There are periods of my life I’d like to forget. I’ll be going about with my day fine and dandy when BOOM! Well, hello bad memory! I didn’t see you coming, and to tell you truth, you have made me quite angry/sad/confused.

It’s not pleasant getting socked off-guard by icky thoughts of the past, yet at the same time it is that unease that has given depth to my dance and writing. I was a talented writer in my youth, but only to an extent. I was young; my words lacked experience. How can one write poetry about the injustices of life when you are only 14 and have lived a comfortable existence? All I cared about then was the skeleton, the technique: that lines rhymed and the meter stuck. It is the same with dance; I was a dedicated dance student through grade school but little emotion came through in my high hitch kicks and straddle jumps. I was good at dancing–I remembered routines and could execute them gracefully–but the flesh of my bare-bones dancing took years to develop.

No amount of master classes or instruction videos could give me the depth that real life–love, loss, betrayal, redemption–brought forth to my movement. Every misstep I took or misfortune that was thrust upon me made me weak in that moment but stronger for the future. Events that brought me to my knees and hurt so badly that I didn’t even care about dancing anymore–surprise!–today have only made my dancing richer and more three-dimensional. And without a doubt, my dancing 10, 20, 30 years from now won’t be the same as it is today. It’s a bit cruel that by the time we reach an age of such wisdom and experience–a time when our dancing would reflect decades of memories–our bodies are breaking down. If only an 80-year-old could dance in an 18-year-old’s body!

(Returning to the memory-erasing drug, though, I should note that the investigators conducted the study mostly with people with posttraumatic stress disorder in mind; we’re talking soldiers, victims of horrific crimes, etc, not people trying to recover from a bad break-up. Although painful memories may add depth to artistic endeavors, I am not advocating that veterans who have witnessed their friends perish in a land mine hang onto those memories in the name of art.)

As Thais recently noted in her blog, traumas need to be released:

If we do not consciously work through our traumas and release the caught up energy in our bodies, that force is going to come out one way or another. Some it’s by a physical illness, others it’s by addictions or eating disorders. Just look at the world around you, nothing good comes out of compression. Finding that release valve is what keeps us sane. Some may find release through dance, sports, yoga, therapy, etc. It’s important to find the right activity for you and your body.

So, now, comes the million-dollar question: Do you take the magic pill…or do you dance?

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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