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You’re Never Too Old to Dance: Creative Aging at DC’s VA Medical Center

August 31, 2015

A fresh new season and a fresh new voice on the blog: this one comes to you from our #CHAWsome neighbors at Capitol Hill Village (CHV), an organization dedicated to sustaining and enriching the Capitol Hill community for the long term through services and opportunities to age in place.  We are especially excited to partner with CHV as we embark on a new class offering created especially for seniors in our neighborhood.  Tuesday afternoon seniors-only drawing begins Tuesday, September 8, but there’s still time to register! Take a look and then report back here for updates throughout the semester. Why take an arts class as a senior? We’ll let CHV tell you…

You’re Never Too Old to Dance: Creative Aging at DC’s VA Medical Center

A dozen of us sit together in the atrium, a skylight overhead providing a view of the mostly sunny sky. Earth Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” plays for our opening warm up. I remind the group, “You are in charge of your own body. I am here as a guide. I trust you to make the movement your own. Our bodies are different every day, so please pay attention and be patient.”

At the DC VA Medical Center, some residents come in for short-term treatments and rehabilitation. Others have lived here for years. They have served during WWII and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have cancer, TBI, and PTSD. They are stroke victims and amputees. And for an hour on Mondays and Wednesdays, they are dancers.

A unique program sponsored by the National Center for Creative Aging brings arts programming to the Community Living Center three days a week. We provide movement classes, concert-style music performances, an open studio for visual arts, field trips in partnership with the Philips Gallery.

A moment later, as we settle into a conscious breathing exercise, departing staff members shout goodbyes at the elevator bank to our right, the security guard calls out sports scores to a friend down the hall, and a nurse interrupts Mr. B for a blood sugar check. We continue breathing steadily together, opening arms wide and then closing like a deflating balloon, following the smooth rise and fall of a Philip Glass etude. Soon all the activity around us is white noise.

When we engage our imagination, when we are the most ourselves and creative, we enjoy a heightened state of health. Here in DC and across the nation, VA hospital staff members are partnering with professional artists to provide programs for patients and family members. The arts are now recognized as playing an essential role in delivering patient-centered care. In any art-making process, the creator makes numerous decisions, crafts an aesthetic, develops technical skills, and communicates with an audience. Art ignites self-agency. It brings our most essential selves to the world around us. This heightened state helps us heal faster and stay that way. A Met Life study of patients who make art during hospital stays, found that patients ask for pain medication and nursing assistance less, go home sooner, and have a lower case of recidivism.

As a movement-based art form, dance sparks our imagination and memory, agility, and resilience. A perfect complement to physical therapy and fall-prevention, it focuses attention on eyes, ears, and touch as tools to assist in movement and balance. Equally important, the act of coming together for a dance class – moving to music, talking with one another – is a huge mood boost. Dance instills confidence and breaks isolation.

As the class wraps up, I leave the music on so that people can Mr. C continues to improvise to Sam Cooke’s version of “This Little Light of Mine.” Mr. M and Ms. H head toward the dining room together. Another man stays to tell me that the experience was spiritual. He feels refreshed, inspired. He’s excited about finding a movement class when he goes home next month. The simple, joyful act of dance has set people free, reinforced friendships, and launched new learning.

Margot Greenlee is a teaching artist and program consultant for the National Center for Creative Aging.  She received a 2015 Artist Fellowship award from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Visit her website at