By Erica Hornthal, LCPC, BC-DMT

As a dance/movement therapist specializing in cognitive and movement disorders, I see movement as a key that unlocks cognitive potential.

Movement isn’t just fun, expressive, and joyful. It is necessary in order to reach these individuals on a deeper level; yes these individuals have deeper levels. Just because someone cannot talk, doesn’t mean they do not have anything to say. In fact, when a person lacks the ability to verbally communicate it is even more important to find ways to express what and how they feel. So how does this work and why do we need to know about it?

When an individual loses higher cognitive functioning, it is imperative that we connect to the earliest most primitive parts of the brain in order to support and validate that person’s existence. Before children’s brains are fully developed, they rely on visual and non-verbal cues to receive and convey information. They crave touch and connection to feel safe and secure. We encourage our children to play, move, create, and imagine in order to integrate information and support healthy brain development. Before higher cognitive functioning is available, we rely on our senses and body language to communicate. The same is true for an individual whose brain is regressing. It is vital to use movement in order to communicate, engage, and socialize because that is the part of the brain that is still accessible.

Here is an example:

Mrs. Smith, a 90-year-old woman in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, attended the weekly dance therapy group in her nursing home. She was non-verbal and confined to a wheelchair. She rarely made eye contact and her concaved stooped posture only confirmed her lack of engagement and sense of isolation. I approached Mrs. Smith with a gentle touch on her knee to get her attention. She recognized that someone was approaching and slightly lifted her chin attempting to make eye contact. I crouched down beside her to meet her gaze. Her face softened and her shoulders relaxed. As the group began, I encouraged everyone to move their bodies to a familiar song. I noticed Mrs. Smith tapping her fingers and so I joined her in that movement. This slowly evolved to hand gestures, toe tapping, and shoulder shrugs. Mrs. Smith did not have a large range of motion, but just by inviting in new movements she was sparking new connections and causing different parts of her brain to fire. As I made my way over to her at the end of the group, she gently whispered, “thank you for dancing with me.”

We know music is beneficial and since it is processed universally in the brain, it circumvents a lot of the faulty wiring that occurs with Alzheimer’s. If someone cannot verbally understand my instructions, the music is a way into the brain and their world. It sparks the movement through a rhythm or beat that connects to the body and gets muscles moving and bodies engaged. Through movement we can support the individual where they are in the moment; validating who they are on a body level. Movement encourages socialization, communication, and enhances quality of life. It may be fleeting, but the effects are undeniable.

For more information and visual examples of the power of dance and movement with Alzheimer’s disease head over to Chicago Dance Therapy.