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The Healing Power of Dance

The Jockey Club Dance Well Project

21 Apr 2023
The Healing Power of Dance

People with Parkinson's disease call each other "Park pals" in Hong Kong. Last year, the Academy launched a three-year programme, the Jockey Club Dance Well Project, which brings "Park pals" together to experience creative dance sessions alongside members of the general public, meeting at artistic and cultural venues around town.


Project director Lau Tin-ming, manager Wendy Yuen, and assistant manager Yolanda Chan point out that the project is a cross-disciplinary collaboration of art, social welfare and healthcare. It also gives the "Park pals" a valve for self-expression, a time when they can make the most of their movement to the beat.


"Most people see them as patients, but in our eyes, they are just dancers," the three coordinators agree. "They didn't come here for therapy. They're here for a blissful one-hour dance class. That's all."


That is the power of art. "We hope to use art to transform the community into a space of inspiration that draws the participants back into the community," they say.


The Dance Well Project originated in Italy. In 2013, the Municipality of the Bassano del Grappa teamed with its dance house Centro per la Scena Contemporanea to launch the project, which the dance artists take people with Parkinson's disease out of a medical setting and into artistic spaces to explore body movements, all the while inspiring creativity and a sense of aesthetics. Through this, they hope to redefine body-image perceptions.


Professor Anna C.Y. Chan, Dean of the School of Dance, was deeply moved by the project. Two years ago, she invited experienced arts practitioner Lau Tin-ming to plan the project with the aim of introducing it to the Academy. A man of many hats, Tin-ming has served as art administrator for a local dance company, and in the last decade has also been involved in arts education. He has served in the past as principal of the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity and is still also a renowned yoga teacher and folk-dance instructor.


"In the past, most graduates of the School of Dance went on to work as performing artists or dance teachers," Tin-ming explains. "But in fact the community has many potential roles that dance artists can fill. The project also allows us to explore a new approach to teaching. Dance majors now have an alternative to deploy their talents, besides choreography and creation. We will tap into the international experience to give student opportunities to practise, and broaden their vision."


Promote Community Development Through Art

The Jockey Club Dance Well Project launched in April 2022. The first phase was Train-the-Trainers. And there was plenty of demand.

"To our surprise, we received 200 applications just shy of a week after open recruitment," manager Wendy Yuen recalls. "It was clear that local artists are eager to know more about this form of artistic practice." 
The 35 instructors hail from different eras and backgrounds including ballet, Chinese dance, modern dance, street dance and other forms of dance. Others come from drama and cultural sector. Over 60% are Academy graduates. Wendy, herself also an alumna of the School of Theatre and Entertainment Arts, observes that the Academy has evolved from its traditional emphasis on technique training to a diversity of areas.


"Can artists do more than pursue the purely artistic?" she asks, rhetorically. "Can they promote community development and improve quality of life through the art? This is the kind of role these teaching artists are playing."


The teaching artists were given 60 hours of training. Due to the pandemic, classes could only take place online. Beginning with theory, they examined the effects of rhythmic movement on Parkinson's. The trainees expressed their views and posed questions. But when they came face-to-face with "Park pals" in the first practicum class, their impressions changed.


Kingsan Lo and Frankie Ho are two of the teaching artists, both alumni of the School of Dance. Kingsan feels lucky to be part of Dance Well and says it has allowed him to see the importance of using imagery to benefit community health, while the process has encouraged him to learn more about Parkinson's scientific aspects. 
"The dance classes transform artists' wild imagination into different kinds of sensory stimuli – physical, but also emotional and spiritual – for the participants," he says.

Frankie points out that unlike traditional teaching, which places teachers in the role of the initiator, this project enables her to reestablish balance in teaching and ponder how to inspire participants' thinking through dance and respond creatively to their specific physical traits and needs.


After the participants shared their views during the first class, Frankie says she developed two core tenets. First, "We are all equal before illness and pain," she notes. And second, "Dance Well is what I've always wanted to do, to share the joy of dance with other people, and that joy should also be equal."


Witnessing Miracles


Yolanda Chan, who takes care of frontline work in the project, is another School of Dance alumna. After graduating from the Academy, she became involved in arts education. "This project is more grounded compared to some other community cultural activities," she notes. "It deals with a wider section of society. And for me, it has been nothing short of eye-opening."


Yolanda admits that she didn't know dance could have such an immediate positive impact on Parkinson's until she witnessed a "miracle" to her eyes. "I saw a participant with mobility issues come to the Academy," she recalls. "She walked with a cane and took over 10 minutes just to cross the road. But miraculously, after moving in time with music for 15 minutes, her movements became much smoother. I didn't realise this artistic practice can be so powerful."


Dance Well has also shown Yolanda how dance can touch the heart. "One of the older gentlemen had a bit of a temper," she notes. "Every time he came to class with his wife, they would argue over different things. But their moods would calm down after class began. Dance can really soothe the emotions, change one's internal climate. This has completely redefined how I see dance."


Reaching the Isolated Ones


More than 200 people have participated in the dance classes since they began in October 2022. The results are promising, but the project has bigger aims. Citing informal figures, Wendy estimates that Hong Kong currently has about 12,000 people with Parkinson's disease, about 2,000 of them are members of the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation and the Hong Kong Parkinson's Disease Association. In other words, there are about 10,000 people suffering through the disease who are "alone" in the community. "They are the isolated ones," Wendy says. "They can make new friends at the dance classes, build their social networks, and not have to be isolated by illness."


Some participants say that the classes free them from their medical identities and the judging eyes of others. Above all, they enjoy not having to be constantly cared for. Dance breaks the shackles of language, using the body to communicate, and even the physically challenged can do so from chairs. Dance Well lets participants find resonance and power through art.


Tin-ming, who already had experience caring for the gravely ill, knows a thing or two about the physical and mental states of patients. At this stage, the project hasn't generated much in the way of hard data. But the positive effects in the psychological state of participants are obvious.


"We can see joy in the participants," Tin-ming points out. "One of the contributing factors to Parkinson's is a lack of dopamine, the 'happy hormone', in the brain. Creating more happy hormones for them in life will bring positive psychological changes even if it cannot change their physical condition." The School of Dance has teamed up with experts in dance, education, scientific research, and healthcare to form an advisory committee to analyse the outcomes of the project.


The magic of Dance Well not only touches the lives of the teaching artists and participants, it also affects the art galleries and museums involved, the art groups hiring out their venues, and their neighbours.


"We had class in Tai Kwun once," Tin-ming remembers. "The colleagues on duty at the venue were watching the class, and then suddenly they started joining in. Recently, when we had class at the School of Everyday Life in Tuen Mun, the old lady next door asked if she could join us. Everyone can get involved at any time. This is the beauty of community art."


(The article was published in the Apr 2023 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)


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