Memory in Motion uses dance as communication when words fail

For those with cognitive issues or dementia, music can be a link to their identity. Activities learned early in life—including listening to music—remain engrained in our brain. “Familiar tunes and lyrics can be recognized across all stages of Alzheimer’s Disease,” notes a Practical Neurology article. “Listening to familiar music can elicit pleasurable responses such as smiling or moving/dancing even when communication is lost.”

A group of people with Alzheimer's and an instructor stand in a circle in a large dance studio with their arms outstretched, bending their knees.

And that is the goal for Memory in Motion, a program at the Penn Memory Center which gets participants—both those with cognitive deficits (of many levels) and their caregivers—to not only listen to the musical oldies but move and groove to the tunes as well.

“It gives people a safe space to take risks, encouraging them to do something they haven’t done in a long time,” says Jason Karlawish, director of the Penn Memory Center.

Colby Damon, a former professional dancer with BalletX, leads the group. With everyone standing in a circle, Damon starts with easy warm ups—shoulder rolls, raising and lowering arms slowly. “Even if people can’t follow exactly what I’m doing, they naturally stay in the beat,” he says. He always keeps the moves simple, but tries to associate lyrics with movement. For example, when Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” comes on, he stomps on the beat into the circle and participants follow his moves. “Fly Me to the Moon” encourages everyone to “fly” around the room. 

For each Memory in Motion class, Damon is joined by another teaching artist, to encourage participants in the circle or, if need be, to modify some moves for someone who prefers to remain seated. But, while Damon initially thought he’d have to coax people to dance, “the whole room stands as soon as the music starts,” he says. “Not everyone can follow along but everyone is moving.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.