James Madison University

Dance Theater Works with CHBS Students

By: Daniel Vieth
Posted: May 27, 2015

New perspectives can breathe new life into any industry, even in the most unexpected of places. One example of this is an emerging movement that looks at the healthcare field from the point of view of performing arts. At the forefront of this trend is the Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater (SPDT), an internationally recognized performance company that regularly engages with a diverse array of audiences. Celebrating the company’s 35th anniversary, JMU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) and College of Health and Behavioral Studies (CHBS) hosted SPDT for a weeklong residency and performance opportunity from April 6-11. Along with giving performances, SPDT hosted lectures and workshops for students, faculty, local healthcare workers, and their patients. Through these health-care focused events, CHBS students were able to see a new side of healthcare. 

PHOTO:Meaning in Movement workshop

SPDT reaches out to health professionals and students with its multiple Arts & Healthcare programs. “A lot of people have this old school idea that there is a divide between the arts and health care, and our culture has tended to separate these things,” explained dance professor Kate Trammell. “I think there is now a newly recognized reality that they actually can be integrated.” Promoting this, SPDT hosts workshops like Caring for the Caregiver™, which strives to provide caregivers with a creative outlet for their stress and to demonstrate the power of touch to help them better connect with patients. Meaning in Movement, another SPDT workshop, gives stroke survivors and their caregivers an opportunity to share stories and use movement to express feelings. “Healthcare workers can easily get burned out as they continually focus on their patients,” said health sciences professor Dr. Paula Maxwell. “These workshops provide them with avenues for caring for themselves as caregivers through dance and artistic activities.”

Two CHBS students who had the opportunity to experience these events include junior nursing major Talia Startsman and first year Masters of Occupational Therapy graduate student Kelly Frye, who both attended the Meaning in Movement workshop. This two-day workshop asked stroke survivors, their caregivers and participants to share their stories and express themselves through movement. “The workshop was beautiful,” Startsman stated. “Everyone has a story and it's meaningful to release it by translating feelings and memories into movement.” Frye’s favorite part of the workshop was getting to know the other people in a unique way. “These are people who walked through the door as strangers, but by the time we all left we had reached a level of connection you couldn’t get through speaking,” Frye continued. “I loved hearing how therapeutic the movement workshop was for every person in the room and how by following simple dance movements and creating dances together, we created memories for a lifetime.”

Workshops like these demonstrate how performing arts can be relevant to healthcare workers by helping them connect with others. “In healthcare, it’s easy to focus on the medical issues at play, but it’s important to address the entire human being,” Startsman continued. “You have to remember the whole person.” Connecting arts and healthcare also benefits patients by encouraging them to move and communicate with their health providers in new and unique ways. “Movement is our first form of communication, and using it as a therapeutic means of communication may give clients the freedom and independence they have so desperately been missing,” explained Frye. “They are able to reach a level of emotionality that verbal language cannot achieve.”

Startsman and Frye both state that the lessons they learned from these workshops will impact their future careers in the medical field. “When I work with stroke patients as I nurse, I will definitely remember the value of guiding my patients to create meaning from their experiences.” said Startsman. “I’ll encourage my patients to engage in movement therapy.” Frye plans to become an occupational therapist and is currently focusing her research on infant mental health. “I will see many clients who have not developed verbal skills.  In my research, I plan to use movement awareness to increase the connection and understanding among caregivers and their infants,” said Frye.

Though some may not immediately see how the healthcare field could be impacted by the performing arts, companies like the Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater demonstrate how the two can promote communication and meaning between healthcare professionals and their patients. By hosting the dance company, CVPA and CHBS also showed their emphasis on collaboration, giving students an entirely new experience that will impact their professional careers. “I think that this is in many ways a new model for health addressing and engaging the whole person,” added Trammell. “Many people don’t think of themselves as artist or dancers, but all people are creative, and if they can tap into that then there is an amazing energy that enriches their lives.”