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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.”

During the 10-week tai chi series I participated in earlier this year, there were times in between practicing the previous week’s moves and learning the next one that I would ever-so-briefly slip into ballerina mode and turn the form into a dance, secretly wishing the instructor would dim the lights a bit, turn up the volume on the pan flute music, and not care that I was giving these martial arts moves a bit of rhythm and sensuality.

Tai chi is a practice of stillness, and yet the movements moved me: The extreme attention to detail, the microscopic focus, and the repetitive nature of the practice brought my mind to such a stillpoint that it became keenly aware of all the chi (energy) moving within. At times it was difficult to contain this flow of energy. It simply wanted to dance!

That’s why when I heard about a relatively new “dance meditation system” called Wu Tao—a blend of Chinese medicine, dance, and music—I agreed to go to the introductory workshop before I even really investigated what the practice was all about. A brief video on YouTube showed a medley of free-form movement and tai chi-like choreography, and that’s all I needed.

I felt very fortunate to be a part of the class, as it was one of the first offerings of Wu Tao in the United States; the practice originated in Australia, the brainchild of former ballerina Michelle Locke, who, after a back injury, went on to study Chinese medicine and healing. Wu Tao is the marriage of her two strongest passions, complemented by a third element: music to accompany the movement, composed by her husband.

Michelle described Wu Tao as a way to restore inner peace, balance, and energy (qi) in the body, and clearly the practice has had an effect on her: She came into the studio late after being gridlocked in horrendous turnpike traffic, yet somehow remained remarkably cool, calm, and collected. I couldn’t believe how such a soft and soothing voice could emerge from someone stuck behind a steering wheel for 2+ hours.

Michelle, me, and a move from the “Wood” element dance.

What makes Wu Tao stand out from other dance meditation practices is its connection to the visceral body, specifically the body’s meridian channels, pathways that run through our bodies bringing energy—qi—to our internal organs. (These meridians are the basis of acupuncture; you know, how a needle in your back can heal pain in your toe.) Each set of movements stimulates specific meridians, but in a subtle way, so you’re never really consciously thinking “large intestine, large intestine, large intestine.” You move, you breathe, and the energy transforms naturally.

Wu Tao’s movements are based on the five elements: Air, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth; what a magic number in dance, as it reminded me so much of the energy behind 5Rhythms. The major difference, though, is that in Wu Tao each element has choreography—a “routine” so to speak—to learn, practice, and then execute with the music. It really was like a dance version of tai chi (or qi gong)—specific moves designed to keep the life force flowing, all while adding the element of music and personality.

Because it was our first time experiencing Wu Tao, we spent a lot of time learning the moves and practicing them, but experienced practitioners can complete a series in about 30 minutes, much like going through a tai chi form or surya namaskars. During the workshop, we learned and practiced the elements of:

Air: Several upward sweeping arm movements to stimulate the lungs and large intestine, all with a theme of letting go, casting away grief, shedding fear.
Water: Performed on the floor, mostly side-to-side rocking, rolling, and forward bends, all meant to stimulate the bladder and kidneys, as well as to honor our energy, rest, and allow the natural current of the water to carry us.
Wood: A dynamic set of movements to stimulate the liver and gall bladder, starting from grounding the body like tree roots to growing tall, a feeling of moving forward, direction, and purpose.

We didn’t have time to learn the final elements of Fire and Earth, but I imagine them to be very much like the rhythms of Lyrical and Stillness, respectively: Fire, a chance to come home to the heart; and Earth, a moment of being still, receptive, and finding grace.

We ended class with a guided “river” meditation, Michelle playing soothing music in the background as she encouraged us to imagine ourselves floating down a river. I have to say, this was the most vivid portion of class for me, probably because of all the work going on inside of my body after such a powerful practice. I envisioned myself dressed all in white, a kind of water-based angel flowing effortlessly down a river that twisted through snow-capped mountains and luscious green landscapes. I saw this from both a bird’s-eye view and a first-person perspective, changing focus with each bend of the waterway. It was absolutely stunning, like I was watching a painting unfold in my mind and body.

I realized after I sat up that the essence of Wu Tao emerges after the practice. Although I enjoyed doing the moves in the moment, I didn’t actually feel their full effect until I had given the newly transformed energy time to circuit through my body during the relaxation/meditation portion. It’s very much like how I feel during tai chi: sometimes not fully appreciating what I’m doing until it’s done, and then WHOOSH. A sudden feeling of inner peace.

The practice is accessible for all skill levels; moves can be modified, and Michelle even offers special classes for adults with dementia and a chair-based class for those with physical limitations. Wu Tao for Two is a specialized practice designed for couples as a way of deepening connection and spirit:

In fact, Michelle and her husband will be offering a Wu Tao for Two class this weekend at Jaya Healing Arts in Lambertville, New Jersey. It’s a sweet spot above an antiques store in a super-cutesy central Jersey town, right across the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania. (The coffee shop a few doors down offers almondmilk for your lattes…HUGE selling point, in my book!) She’s also teaching regular Wu Tao classes Monday and Wednesday July 23 and 25 at Lucky Lotus Yoga Studio in Brooklyn before heading back to Australia.

Would I do Wu Tao again? Absolutely. It requires the attention of tai chi/qi gong but with the added element of freedom to flow and infuse your own individuality, a perfect blend of healing and moving arts. And anything that can allow me to sink into such a blissful state of relaxation afterward is definitely worth pursuing.

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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