The Golden Age of Dance

Jeannde Ford.

Louisville Ballet Works To Include All Ages In Their Programming

By Lisa Hornung

Photos by Sam English

The Louisville Ballet is doing more than just presenting beautiful dance performances. The organization has created a new outreach program that works with senior centers to bring dance, creativity and movement to older participants.

According to movement instructor and dancer Jeannde Ford, the program brings movement classes to nursing home residents, who work with instructors to choreograph their own dance stories. Ford, who is 67, said she loves working on movement and choreography, and is passionate about the project, which doesn’t have an official name yet.

“Movement is valuable, we know that,” Ford said. “We need to stay connected to our physical bodies; it’s how we heal, how we keep going. But we need that other piece that’s learned when we were children – when the body was also developing. Imagination was also developing at the same time. If we can connect into that, it’s a remarkable place.”

The Ballet has done outreach with all ages in schools and with classes for adults, but the senior population was one that hadn’t been reached as well in the past, according to Outreach Manager Stacey Blakeman. The Ballet is working with Atria Senior Living on this multi-generational project, which will roll out at an Atria property in Louisville, then will hopefully expand to Atria locations across the country.

Blakeman is eager to collaborate with Ford on the project. “I’m excited to be working with her,” she said. “She’s just incredible, and I’m excited to see where this is going to go.”

The Louisville Ballet’s program will be open to all seniors in the nursing homes where they work. The class isn’t just for those with dementia. “You know, older people usually think they can’t dance anymore, and we want to show them that there is a way for them to engage with dance and movement.”

The physical benefits of dance are obvious, said Blakeman, but the hope is to tap into the cognitive and social benefits of dance as well.

The project is part of the Louisville Ballet’s overall mission of inclusivity, Blakeman added. “That’s my goal as an outreach manager,” she said. “I’m not in audience development. That’s a wonderful byproduct of it, but I’m an advocate of dance education for everybody because of the pure benefits that it has for everybody. As the state ballet of Kentucky, that’s sort of our job to be a leader in dance education for the state; not just getting people to the theater, but helping bring dance to the masses.”

The program will be a collaborative process between the seniors and the teaching artists, including Ford and musicians for about 10 weeks. Through the stories the seniors tell, either from their memories or their imaginations, they will create choreography that will become a performance, which will include the seniors and likely other dancers. They’ll perform their dances on-site and possibly off-site.

Ford has studied the work of Anne Basting, a professor of theater at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts. Basting specializes in gerontology, aging, memory and dementia, and the use of theater in eldercare. The Louisville Ballet has sent Ford to see Basting speak and to learn from her experiences in working with the elderly.

Basting’s original project, “TimeSlips,” was an improvisational storytelling method in which older adults with cognitive impairment created stories and poems based on cues. She used a collection of poems from one nursing home in Wisconsin to create a stage piece with the residents. She took that program and refined it into a formal therapy protocol with the belief that new stories can be a replacement for lost memories. Since then, she’s created several other programs based on her experiences working with the elderly. In 2016, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the MacArthur “Genius” Grant.

In recent years, scientists have begun studying the effects of dance on the brain and whether it can help ward off dementia. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 looked at the effects of 11 different types of physical activities, such as cycling and golf, but found that only dance lowered the patients’ risk of dementia. Another study in 2012 at Minot State University in North Dakota found that Zumba dance fitness classes improved mood, visual recognition and decision-making. Many studies have shown that dance can increase serotonin, the hormone in the brain that causes feelings of happiness, and can help develop new neural connections that benefit long-term memory and spatial recognition.

Ford said that she saw glimpses of the connection between dance and those with dementia in her own father, Dick Ford – a professional modern dancer.

“When I went to visit him the last time,” Ford said, “I went in, and he had no idea who I was, but I’m sitting here and I’m watching him and his movement and his gestures, and the way he looked into my eyes, it was him. It was him that I remembered. It was him the dancer. There’s something that’s unique that’s deeply connected within all of us. And that’s what this project represents.”

Ford grew up in a uniquely creative atmosphere, with her father as a modern dancer and her mother, Marguerite Whitney, a classical ballerina with the San Francisco Opera Ballet and soloist with Pacific Dance Theater and the Russian Opera Ballet Association. She followed in her parents’ footsteps when she attended the North Carolina School of the Arts (now UNC School of the Arts) and worked as a professional performer in dance and other fine arts.

As she settled down to raise a family, she always stayed connected to dance in some way or another by teaching or performing.

She’s extremely excited to begin this program with seniors. “There is something really interesting that dancers share, particularly with the aging population, and that is because our careers are typically not that long,” she said. “We have gone through sort of a death in a way. We’ve lost something. And I’m not that far off from them (in age) so I’m living it.” VT