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Veterans learn the steps to mental wellness

The Healing Power of Dance

By Chris Cathers

Participants in Dancing Well: The Soldier Project learn several barn or community style dances during the 10-session course.

Editor’s Note: This story includes interviews with military veterans participating in a healing arts program. For their privacy, we are only using their first names.

On a Tuesday night in October, about 30 military veterans and their loved ones gathered in Louisville for one of 10 sessions of the healing arts program Dancing Well: The Soldier Project. The program, which has received partial funding from the Kentucky Arts Council through a partnership grant, is designed specifically for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and brain injury associated with their military service.

The concept is straightforward. Veterans show up to a central location in Louisville. (We are withholding the actual location by request of the Dancing Well organizers.) There is time at the beginning to socialize and enjoy free refreshments. Then live music, provided by a keyboardist and fiddler, begins and instructor Deborah Denenfeld of Louisville invites veterans and their loved ones to the dance floor where the learning begins.

Dancing Well has its roots in a class Denenfeld taught in 2010 at Fort Knox for active-duty military personnel who had returned stateside with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. When that program ended, she restarted it off base, this time focusing on military veterans of all ages. By 2014, Dancing Well had its first session in Louisville.

Denenfeld described the style of dance as barn or community dancing – old-time dances that have been performed over hundreds of years in relaxed community settings. The dances involve simple movements and are led by a dance caller so that each participant knows what to do at all times.

“People love this and they’re amazed by how powerful it is,” Denenfeld said. “They tell me – and I’ve seen it for myself – that they can walk in the door feeling anxious, depressed and angry, and within a couple of minutes, they’re feeling better, relaxed and happy. They start smiling and those smiles last the entire evening.”

Among the participants is Steve, a veteran of the United States Army and Navy. Steve served 12 years in the Navy aboard ship, including the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, and was in the Army for 17 years, including special operations in Afghanistan. He learned about Dancing Well through the mental health program at the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Center, Dupont, in Louisville. In addition to Dancing Well, Steve has participated in Shakespeare with Veterans, an initiative of Louisville-based Kentucky Shakespeare.

“Dancing Well helps me deal with PTSD symptoms,” Steve said. “Instead of becoming isolated, I’m making connections with other people. That’s what this is all about.”

Darlene served in the Army as a clerk/typist and later a medic in the early 1970s. During a VA women’s health fair, she saw a flyer about Dancing Well. She had been feeling depressed and seeing an opportunity to do group dancing made her recall a time in her life that was less burdensome.

“When I was in grade school, we’d go to gym class and do square dancing,” Darlene said. “That was a time in my life when I was happy and free.”

Darlene has completed the Dancing Well course six times, about 60 classes, and said it’s made a difference.

“I’ve loved every minute of it. It brings out the little kid in me,” she said. “It’s helped me realize I need to get out more and be more active. It’s brought me more peace of mind and self-confidence.”

“This takes your mind off issues that you deal with when you’re in the service,” Steve said. “It’s hard to blend in with a civilian population. You don’t have a mission. This puts us all on the same page. We’re all doing the same dance steps. We are so busy trying to go through the motions of being a community here that it takes your mind off what’s going on outside those doors.

For more information about the program, contact Deborah Denenfeld at 502-889-6584 or [email protected]

The Kentucky Veteran Project Exhibit

In addition to Dancing Well, another veteran-related initiative the Kentucky Arts Council is supporting is The Kentucky Veteran Project Exhibit. Administered by the arts council, the exhibit features artwork by Kentucky military veterans and their families. The exhibit will be on display in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort Nov. 5-30 before traveling around the state, making stops in several Kentucky communities. As of press time, not all venues were determined. Visit artscouncil.ky.gov for updated information