Oshawa filmmaker and National Ballet School partner to create short film ‘Dancer Not Dementia’


Published February 2, 2023 at 3:05 pm

An Oshawa filmmaker and the National Ballet School of Canada have teamed up to create a short film that challenges the stigmas surrounding dementia through the “universal language” of dance.

“Dance is a way of expressing yourself or telling something about yourself,” explained Ashleigh Powell, the head of community dance programs at the National Ballet of Canada, in the opening scene of the 20-minute film called Dancer Not Dementia.

“And that’s true of a young ballet dancer … or if you’re just trying to reach from your chair to connect as humans with someone in your story telling. It’s all the same.”

Powell is a regular instructor in a community program run by the famed ballet school where dancers teach the art of dance to people with dementia living in long-term care homes.

“Dance is a fundamental gift,” Powell said. “And it’s only a gift you can treasure when it’s a gift you give as well.”

National Ballet School Artistic Director and CEO Mavis Staines began offering dance classes for older adults with “physical or cognitive challenges” to give the residents back the belief they can still contribute something to society, and because of a memory of when she was a little girl and was given the opportunity to take dance classes in a local community centre for free.

“We have a responsibility, with all of our privileges, to give back to the community,” she said. “If the National Ballet School is not going to do this, who is going to do this?

Oshawa filmmaker Anthony Grani

Anthoni Grani, a filmmaker and editor who had worked on several dementia-related projects in the past (and had worked with Dr. Pia Kontos of the University of Toronto’s KITE Research Institute, who appears in the film), was approached by the school to pitch for the job.

Grani spent nearly a year in total working on the film, with shooting taking place over seven days at Toronto long-term care facilities Alexis Lodge and Cedarhurst Dementia Care Home, and at the ballet school.

His experience making the film helped him understand how important dance and music is to those living with dementia.

“Music and dance keys into something deeper for many folks living with dementia. It’s not uncommon for music and dance to energize and open people up to feeling more connected with themselves and those around them. I’ve seen many people who are at the stage of their dementia journey where they are mostly non-verbal, sing along word perfect with a song from their younger days that just clicks with them,” he said.  “I’ll leave the science behind it all to the experts, but I can say that music and dance reach folks living with dementia differently, and often on a deeper level, than a lot of other things can.”

All of the residents interviewed in the film were simply called ‘dancers’ and Rachel Barr, the director for research and health for the ballet school, said that was not an accident. “It was very intentional when we said dancer, not dementia, to kind of turn that onto its head.”

Dance is a way for the residents to get back some control over their body, noted Powell, who called music and dance “fundamentally more powerful” than people realize. “Movement is the first human language. And when we’re talking about older adults in care, it takes a little spark, but the act of having ‘agency’ and choice over your body is such a powerful and important opportunity to say ‘how do you choose to move? What do you want to tell me?'”

That control of their own story is something many of the residents at Alexis and Cedarhurst have lost, said Kontos. “People living with dementia are highly stigmatized in society.”

With limited opportunities to have meaningful relationships, those stigmas create social exclusions and “deprives them of their dignity,” she added. “But even when speech is broken or incoherent they can still express themselves through dance. Dance can be a really important means of communication.”

“There is significant harm in assuming the person has nothing to offer. Challenging those stigmas is a key public health priority.”

Cherise Solomon, a dancer normally specializing in hip hop and jazz funk, said working with long-term care residents through the ballet school has been both eye-opening and a labour of love. “Having dementia does not mean your life is over,” she said. “It just means you’re starting a new chapter in your life story. Just make it the best story ever.”

For the dancers, the classes are a way to tap into memories from their youth when dancing and music – and the busy social life that goes with those passions – played important roles in their lives.

For Karin, it’s also about rekindling memories of past relationships, much to the amusement of the interviewer. “Any music, any music. But you have to find the right man to do it with.”

The power of dance and where it comes from is what appealed to Sydney, who said the classes have helped give him a better understanding of what he was experiencing. “Dancing is moves, but it’s moves coming from deep inside you.”

Alvon recognized the limitations of some of his fellow dancers – “Most of these people are slightly elderly,” he deadpanned, “so you have to move it around to suit. But they get people involved.”

William Egi, the President of Alexis Lodge, said the beauty of the classes is that they gave a highly marginalized section of the population a voice, no matter who they are or what their perceived sense of awareness was. “Art is the great unifier, across gender, race, class, etc.  It brings people together and hopefully dance can do that for this segment of the population that sometimes doesn’t have a voice.”

And contrary to much of public opinion, people living with dementia can still be creative and playful and most importantly, express happiness, said Gloria Lattanzo, the CEO at Cedarhurst.

“People living with dementia, like all of us, have great capacity to experience and create joy.”

Those stigmas around dementia were not lost on Grani, who bought into some of them himself. “It’s a belief you’re not able to experience emotions and meaningfully connect with other people. Thankfully, once I actually spent some time with people living with dementia, it took me all of five minutes to realise that none of that was true,” he said. “It’s a message we hear over and over in the film – people with dementia are capable of doing and feeling almost everything that someone without dementia is capable of. Sometimes it takes a more circuitous route to get there, and maybe they need a bit more help, but they are just as fully and completely human as anyone else.”

“When folks are dancing, they are dancers,” he added. “They are not defined by medical status, age, skill, or anything else. They are all dancing and they are all equal. And I’ve been fortunate enough to witness time and time again the energy in the room, the feeling of connection, contentment, and joy when everyone is dancing together. I was excited to go film every morning because I knew I’d be spending my day watching people smile and laugh and sing and dance. Dream job.”

The National Ballet School launched the Dancer Not Dementia campaign during Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in 2022 to address stigma and raise awareness about the power of dance for people living with dementia.

Staines said it’s about empowering a culture of dance in daily life for people living with dementia and their communities, and supporting that culture to highlight the ability of people living with dementia to fully participate in, contribute to and gain benefit from artistic activities.

“Through this project and short film, we hope to celebrate and showcase the vibrancy and creativity of dancers living with dementia, and help more people discover their inner dancer and experience the meaningful physical, emotional, and social impact of dance for themselves.”

Dancer Not Dementia premiered on Canada’s National Ballet School’s YouTube channel on January 19 and is now freely available to watch online. The film was made possible through a financial contribution from the Public Health Agency of Canada, part of Ottawa’s first-ever national dementia strategy.

“I hope viewers see that the stigma surrounding dementia is wrong,” Grani said. “I hope they see the capacity for joy and creativity and connection that folks living with dementia have. And maybe carry with them a bit of the love and hope that everyone in the film so ably conveys.”

For dancer Aine, whose smile never left her face during the classes, the impact from the program is simple: “It makes me feel wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.”



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