Valerie’s Dance: How dance can turn your life around

“What do people resort to sometimes? They eat, or they smoke – I mean I used to smoke…dance is a bit more positive rather than just eating. So yeah, I’m quite pleased I came.” — Valerie is a member of the @peckhamlevels craft collaboration with @upcycle_you. Here she tells Hebe Foster how dance helped to turn her life around.

In 1985, Valerie, a nurse from Louth, Lincolnshire, is forced to move to London to search for agency work. A year later, she is admitted to hospital and officially diagnosed as bipolar, a condition she knows she has been suffering from for twenty years. She then remains under the care of her local community mental health team for another twenty-two years.

“I did go try to get help from the GP [earlier], but actually I don’t think they were all that well-versed in the psychiatric problems – this was ’79”, she explains, chatting to me after a craft workshop at her local Age UK centre. “I had problems…which occurred afterwards, different things, and I just became so unwell in the end that I couldn’t actually work.” Discharged in 2016, she began to struggle again early last year. “I was going through a really bad, difficult patch. I mean I don’t sort of have little blips, I go up and down like that. Earlier this year I started to become really…unwell again.”

Val now makes regular visits to her GP and attends classes at the Yalding Healthy Living Centre in Southwark. This hard-won balance belies the previous forty years of different medication, time in and out of work, a series of three-month psychiatric assessments and a stint with the Maudsley Hospital assessment team. Advised to attend classes at the centre as part of her 2018 care, she is now starting to feel even more benefits.

“I’m not really sure what started it [the 2018 bad patch]. Rex was diagnosed with prostate cancer last November. He hasn’t got any family, he’s only got me, so I was trying to support him. A lot of it was around bereavement, and getting away from isolation in my flat. I started coming in here, and I think one of the first few days I came in here I spotted there was a Zumba class – and it is a mood booster! And it actually started to make me feel a lot better.”

The Yalding Healthy Living Centre has been running a variety of dance classes for years. “It’s good exercise,” says Katrina Jinadu, centre manager and former support worker. “Keeps them from becoming too sedentary.”

Dance is, of course, a popular alternative way for older people to continue to exercise, and with 18.2% of the UK population aged 65 years or over in mid-2017, and that figure predicted to grow to 20.7% by 2027, such services are increasingly important. Studies concur that dance has wide-ranging positive effects, including improved lower body muscle strength, cardio-respiratory endurance, and body agility, as well as being popular among the older population (Hopkins, 1990).

Betty, a volunteer at the Redbridge Jewish Community Care Centre for the last twenty years and keen participant in weekly line dancing classes, reveals her true feelings: “exercise classes are fine but they’re a bit boring. I like to…feel it!”, she says, jigging her shoulders as if dancing to music. “My doctor told me it’s the best exercise you can do!”

Not to mention the mental agility: “actually…it improves concentration and balance when you’re doing something like that,” says Val. “[Concentration] can sometimes be a bit poor with mental health problems.”

Research in this field carefully distinguishes between “dance interventions”, the Zumba or other basic classes that are open to everyone, and other forms of therapy which use dance moves.

For the older population, falls prevention is a particular focus. Age UK have recently received funding for a “Sloppy Slippers” campaign, working with discharge and falls teams to offer a slipper exchange for those wearing slippers that are too big for them. And dance can be helpful here too.

Tim Joss is Chief Executive and Founder of Aesop, an arts enterprise with a social purpose. He created Dance to Health, a pioneering community dance programme for older people, which combines evidence-based falls prevention principles with the creativity, expression and energy of dance. He is delighted about the programme’s results, which demonstrate that the unique combination of six months of intensive Improvement classes, followed by a 12-month “Maintenance to Sustainable” support network, could save the NHS millions of pounds a year.

Val, meanwhile, swears by dance movement therapy, a specialised tool used by trained therapists and health professionals to combat mental health issues through the use of expressive movement and dance. She attended several dance movement therapy classes during her treatment.

“It’s just another means to get people to talk,” she explains. “Some people will be, you know, in a light-hearted frame of mind…there’ll be others who won’t want to lift their heads and they don’t want to say anything. But it’s actually – I noticed it did help people to get out of themselves and relax. People who have probably never spoken about their problems or what happened to them, they started to open up, other people would chime in. Because they were busy sort of moving, even if it was just going from one foot to another, it really helped.”

Yalding used to run classes like this. But as Val herself points out, “the sad thing is, with the cutbacks and the funding difficulties over the years, these more specialised therapies in a lot of places are not available anymore.” Katrina, too, is convinced of its effectiveness, but her hands are tied: “if I could find a good teacher for a good price, I’d have it back in a flash.”

Now, Val is a new member of the UpCycle You programme at the Yalding Centre, a weekly creative older women’s group conceived jointly with Peckham Levels artists. The group aims to upskill the members to create their own handmade goods: Val is learning to knit with a thick, multi-coloured wool, as well as using it as a cool-down time after her Zumba class. Comparing it to dance therapy, she says “it’s quite relaxing. You see it happening here where people will sit and chat and joke with each other, so…it’s not just sitting there and doing something practical, it gets people out of their shells!”