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Dancing for positive shared experience
Date posted: 18 July 2018
Community dance artist Rachael James loves the feeling of freedom that dancing brings and the belief that with the right environment, permission and influences, we can all dance. This is what led her to complete her dance for Parkinson’s training…
Rachael James
I have led dance for Parkinson’s sessions for Fresh Arts at Southmead Hospital, in Bristol, for just over 12 months. I was lucky enough to begin leading sessions soon after I’d completed the weekend of dance for Parkinson’s training presented in Bristol by People Dancing and English National Ballet.

Six weeks prior to the training, I had volunteered as an assistant to Lerato Dunn at Southmead hospital. This was valuable experience because, while I was studying for the online part of the course, I was getting real experience of what a dance class for people living with Parkinson’s actually looked like. I learned what the challenges were, how the person is affected by Parkinson’s and how we could use dance to benefit participants both physically and psychologically. This gave me time to reflect on how I might adapt my practice to a class of dancers living with Parkinson’s.

I was fortunate to have two volunteer assistants, Sophie Turner, whom I met at the Bristol training and Rachael Walsh who works with me at community arts organisation The Original Spinners and who has since completed her training too. They continue to work with me to deliver the Dance for Parkinson’s sessions in paid roles. Last September, Lerato returned from maternity leave to co-lead the sessions at Southmead Hospital.

When I began leading the sessions I was nervous, taking extra-special care with the participants. I was intimidated by Parkinson’s and became preoccupied with keeping people safe. Over time, I have grown in understanding and experience, learning to strike the right balance between challenging the participants and ensuring their safety, comfort and confidence.

I love this work and feel grateful for the generous and patient assistance that participants have given in helping me to understand the challenges they live with and growing my confidence as an artist delivering this work. In turn, it has been very rewarding to watch the participants themselves develop in confidence and ability, growing as dancers.  

Last month, The Original Spinners were successful in securing funding from Bristol Ageing Better, Bristol City Council and Dance for Parkinson’s UK Network to enable us to set-up and deliver a second Dance for Parkinson’s class, in South Bristol. The numbers for this class are beginning to grow.

I look forward to Friday mornings and Wednesday afternoons and the time we spend together stretching every part of our bodies, from the tiny muscles of the face to the longest, widest stretches that our limbs will allow. We move, sing, smile and laugh together, pull faces at each other, send smiles around the room, challenge our capabilities, delight in each other’s abilities and the possibilities that the creative partnership in dance has given us.  

Participants are supportive of each other and one of the favourite dances we do is a flocked improvisation. These performances have moved people to tears and inspired rounds of applause at public sharings. The group performances are led, like a flock of birds, by one dancer. When many bodies move together as one, watching and listening in stillness and connection, it is mesmerising to watch. I want to make my dancers feel beautiful, to give them permission to shine, to feel good, to be bold, to take risks and to create and offer opportunities to share their abilities outside the studio.

There is joy in dance and joy in feasting our eyes on the body at dance, whether it’s in the smallest movement or the greatest leap. The highest value of dance lies in its adaptability – even the most compromised of bodies naturally responds to music. Dance overcomes isolation, brings people together, helps individuals and groups find meaning again and celebrates community through positive shared experience.  

Rachael James
Community dance artist
Founder and artistic director of The Original Spinners CIC