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Dance and Health: Reflections on Empowerment and Transformation by Helga Deasy

Date posted: 27 February 2021

Image shown: Fuse Arts & Health Programme, MusicAlive. Photo credit: Clare Keogh.

Dance artist and choreographer Helga Deasy was awarded an artsandhealth.ie artist bursary in 2020 to reflect on and interrogate her model for an empowering dance practice, specifically its applicability to her experience of working as a dancer in hospitals and care homes. Helga’s philosophy and participatory approach have now been captured in the short publication ‘Dance and Health: Reflections on Empowerment and Transformation’.

Helga Deasy has led projects and workshops in a range of healthcare settings across Cork City and County including day care centres, nursing homes and hospitals. Helga trained at Trinity Laban, Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, where she completed an MA in Creative Practice with distinction (2012) and a PgDip in Community Dance (2011). She has received specialist training in facilitating creative movement work in dementia and end of life care settings with Rosetta Life.

Holding a safe space,
finding an equal meeting ground, creating together, moment by moment, connecting.

A deep breath that expands the whole body, swaying lightly,
the twinkle of an eye.

Movement performed with presence and intention, no matter how small, becomes dance. Sometimes lively and exuberant, sometimes subtle and delicate, almost invisible,
yet infinitely powerful.

This is me. This is how I move. I am not holding back. I am the movement.

Revealing ourselves in the moment, being seen.

Witnessing each other, sharing movement, sharing stillness.

Helga’s feminist enquiry leads her to question what we mean by empowerment in the context of arts participation and to distinguish between traditional concepts of empowerment, where cultural traditions often preclude certain groups, and a ‘community of difference’ which embraces the diversity of human experience: ‘power from within to express our ideas and take actions.’ [1]

Helga’s model for an empowering dance practice is rooted in a somatic approach to dance ‘which values subjective experience as a reliable source of information’. It is an alternative to dance traditions based on hierarchical structures of teacher’s cues and movement imitation and focuses instead ‘on cultivating sensory awareness through working with the breath, touch and connectivity within the body and into the ground.’ It is about connecting with the person in the here and now.

Image shown: Fuse Arts & Health Programme at Ballyphehane Day Care Centre. Photo credit: Clare Keogh.
Fuse Arts & Health Programme, MusicAlive. Photo credit: Clare Keogh.

This model has particular resonance when working with diverse groups in nursing homes, day care centres and hospitals. Set exercise or dance steps that require people to mimic the instructor can hamper participation: ‘They can bring the focus to what may no longer be possible – not being able to raise the arms as high or to lift the leg off the ground – and this can bring about a sense of loss, sadness, or frustration.’ Given the loss of autonomy that patients and clients often feel in healthcare settings, fostering empowerment attains even greater significance:

Working with a somatic approach to dance allows people to bring attention to what is well and doable. By connecting with the breath and focusing on bodily sensations, participants are encouraged to explore their own movement potential and to make their own choices. Being both present in the body and lost in the moment, can support participants in regaining joy in movement and in discovering new possibilities or movements long deemed lost.

Helga’s experiences of facilitating dance in healthcare settings using a somatic approach are illustrated in this enquiry through examples from her various projects and workshops. She also considers the challenges of this gentle, unshowy approach which requires sensitivity and empathy to connect with people who can be at their most vulnerable.

Read the reflection here:
‘Dance and Health: Reflections on Empowerment and Transformation’

The artsandhealth.ie 2020 artist bursary was awarded to artists working in arts and health contexts to reflect on their practice. The bursary is funded by the HSE and the Arts Council.

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[1] Hicks, L. E. (1990). A feminist analysis of empowerment and community in art education, Studies in Art Education, 32(1), Autumn, 36-46.

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