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Persevering Through Adversity

Persevering Through Adversity

written by Molly Rapp, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Director of Operations 

The Big Muddy Dance Company, located in the heart of St. Louis’ Grand Center, strives to invigorate life through dance. Through the Senior Embrace program, established in 2012, we aim to do just that. The goal of this program is to bring high-quality dance performances to those that may not be able to travel to a theatre to experience this level of talent and entertainment. After what started as a few small ways to give back to the community, the company was thrilled by the positive impact the performances were having on the audiences. Erin Prange, Executive Director of The Big Muddy states, “Our Senior Embrace program has allowed us to use dance as a tool to strengthen the mind-to-body connection for people that need it most.  It is a true testament to our company’s mission, and we never cease to be amazed at the profound effect that movement and music can have on the lives of others.” This year, the 14-member company will visit 30 retirement homes in the St. Louis area with repertoire hand-selected by the artistic staff, all of which has been performed on the stage in the company’s 11-year history. The repertoire is thoughtfully picked to reflect the music, costumes, and movement styles that hope to trigger early memories for the senior generations. Following the 40-minute performance, the dancers spend time talking to the residents and getting the chance to hear about their lives and relationships with dance and music. The feedback provided by the staff members show that the interactions with the dancers leave the residents with a wonderful sense of happiness and enthusiasm. As a volunteer from Westview Assisted Living observed, “It was lovely to see the residents interact with the dancers, and what a difference that made in their demeanors.  The selection of movement and music seemed to spark their memories of old days!”  

When the program began it solely included the performances for senior living facilities, yet as time passed the company felt the need to expand their impact by adding hands-on movement workshops for early-stage dementia patients. The company discovered that creative solutions and treatments are needed to delay clinical onset and slow the progression of dementia and memory impairment to help older adults continue to lead fulfilling lives. This, in turn, helped to raise awareness for organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Organization and led the company to partnerships with local universities such as Washington University in St. Louis, University Missouri-St. Louis, and St. Louis University to collaborate on coinciding research on the effects of movement therapy. The workshops, specifically targeted for early-stage Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and their families, utilize breakout group sessions to create sequences of rhythm and repetition based upon everyday movements. Familiar movements, such as brushing your teeth or combing your hair, are initiated by the residents to begin their engagement in the activity and then put to musical counts by the dancers to share in the experience with them. These meetings cultivate and encourage continued movement exercises daily to achieve the end goal of strengthening the mind-to-body connection and improving quality of life. Following the workshop with the residents, discussions about movement and continuing to incorporate elements of the practice takes place with the caregivers to continue the effort of consistent movement activities.

The impact of COVID-19 has been a point of devastation to many as socialization decreased to prioritize the health and safety of individuals. This is and was no exception to the retirement homes, and the pandemic has undoubtedly left the residents experiencing increased anxiety and loneliness given the lack of social interaction. During the company’s 2020 season, the Senior Embrace workshop pivoted to a virtual platform, primarily utilizing Zoom, to engage with the residents. Though adjustments and learning curves were necessary, Erin Prange and the company dancers prioritized reaching out to local retirement homes to continue the previously stated efforts to keep spirits, and memories, lifted. The company sent videos of repertoire for the residents to enjoy until performances could resume in-person again at the start of the 2021-2022 season. While social distancing, masks, and outdoor performances are the new norm, the residents are once again able to share in the excitement of live performances and workshops. A staff member at Gardenview Care Center mentioned, “This was the first time some of our residents have seen anyone except for our staff in over a year!  Thank you for bringing life back to them.”  The company looks forward to ensuring lasting and meaningful experiences for audiences for years to come.