Changing the Future of All Minds

Get Creative: Pair Your Physical Movement With Music


“I move, therefore I am.” — Haruki Murakami 

During my mother’s journey through dementia, my dad was determined to keep her moving—walking, swimming, and gardening. He was determined to move her through her confusion. My father intuitively understood the importance of exercise. Significant global research shows that exercise can slow both the onset and the advancement of dementia. That means taking a walk, stretching, deep breathing, laughing, and dancing are good for both the care partner and the person living with dementia.

Jeff Burns, MD, Co-Director of The University of Kansas’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center, is one of the researchers studying the impact of exercise on the brain, with a goal of learning how to prevent, delay, or slow the advance of dementia.

“We view exercise as medicine,” he says.  “Our observational studies show that people who exercise perform better on cognitive tests, have healthier brains on their brain scans, and show a lower long-term risk of developing dementia.”

Dr. Burns’ research looked at different doses of exercise and noted cognitive benefits for those exercising only 75 minutes a week. The group that worked out for 225 minutes every week enjoyed even greater cognitive levels.

“A little movement brings benefits, but more is better,” he says.

Something magical can happen when that movement is paired with music.


Partner Dancing For a Purpose

“Dancing is the poetry of the foot.” —John Dryden

Latin music sizzles throughout the room and Nathan Hescock holds out his hand to his dance student, Bea. She accepts the invitation by putting her hand in his. He helps her out of her chair and supports her as they move their shoulders to the rhythm. Her eyes shine and she sings an operatic tune in a quivering soprano. For those moments, Bea is not just another 92-year-old with dementia. She’s a beautiful woman in the arms of a handsome man, moving zestily to her favorite music.

Bea and others like her were the inspiration for the New York City-based non-profit Rhythm Break Cares (RBC) founded by ballroom instructor Nathan Hescock. Originally, he’d agreed to lead a six-week dance/movement class for those living with dementia, at the request of the United Way. The experience was so gratifying that he kept going.

“People may lose words and the ability to recognize others, but they still have vitality, creativity, and the ability to dance,” Nathan says.


Dancing Without the Stars

Although the RBC team has ballroom dancing experience, you don’t need dancing skills to easily incorporate these movements at home.

Often, dance partners are initially slumped into a chair, head bent, eyes slammed shut, mouths closed. But once the dancing begins, the lethargy evaporates.

“Through eye contact, rhythm, and touch, there’s a joy and sense of connectedness that transcends the ability to finish a sentence,” Nathan says.

Many clients who don’t like to exercise, light up when dancing.

“We dance with people in wheelchairs as well,” Stine says. “We hold their hands and lead and most of them can move shoulders and upper bodies and wiggle their chests.”

For those with extremely limited mobility, the instructors hold their hands and move in place while maintaining eye contact.

Familiar tunes with a steady tempo and repetitive choruses work well. Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra often get people moving. A few great dance numbers include You Make Me Feel So Young, I’ve Got you Under my Skin, All Shook Up, and New York, New York.


Lead by Following

A good leader is a good follower, Nathan believes. The leader creates a safe space so dancers can express themselves physically. As a leader, you’re not instructing; you’re following your partner’s energy.

“Flexibility is key,” Stine, says. “Don’t plan the session too well.”

Nathan and the RBC instructors know how much pleasure partner dancing brings.

“It’s beautiful to see people come to life,” Stine says.


Creative Sparks:

  • Assess the partner’s ability to move. Will they dance standing up or move rhythmically in a chair? Will you hold them or only hold their hands?
  • Play a favorite song with a steady beat and an easy-to-sing chorus.
  • Look into your partner’s eyes and hold out your hand, as an invitation to dance.
  • While assuming the leader’s position, allow your partner to guide you, following her lead as he responds to the music.
  • Enjoy the experience and afterwards thank your partner for the dance.


Deborah Shouse is a writer, speaker, editor, former family caregiver, and dementia advocate. Deborah’s latest book, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together, features dozens of experts in the field of creativity and dementia. These innovators share ideas that engage the creative spirit so you can continue to experience meaningful moments of connecting. Her earlier book, Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey, invites readers to embrace the gifts and blessings in the experience. To learn more, about Deborah and her work, visit

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