Dancing to Remember



Rhythm Break Studios in midtown Manhattan offers dance lessons as a way for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families to remember the past. Photo: Associated Press.

On a sunny September afternoon, an enthusiastic group of eleven enjoyed a private dance lesson in the sun-soaked studio of Nathan Hescock’s midtown Rhythm Break Studio. Some guests swayed on the wood floor and others perched on antique couches as Hescock welcomed them all, from the teenage girl with her father to the elderly couple holding hands. Almost everyone got up and danced the salsa, waltzed, and even did a Rockette-style kick line to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” On the surface, it seemed a pleasant way for a group of elderly New Yorkers and their families to stay fit and socialize. But there was more to this event, because over half of the people in the room had Alzheimer’s disease.

Hescock and Nancy Hendley, a care-giving trainer at the Alzheimer’s Association of New York chapter, came up with the idea of dance lessons when they met at a training event. Two years ago, Hescock brought his staff to the AANY to learn how to give dance lessons to clients with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

“Dancing is really nice,” explained Hendley, a veteran of the AANY who taught art to seniors with dementia for years before becoming a professional care-giving trainer, “because it doesn’t require the use of language. And music is retained in the brain as one of the last things to go.”

Some guests with Alzheimer’s danced the entire time, such as Joanne, a middle-aged woman clad in all pink who swayed on the floor in her bare feet, or Jerry, an elderly man who danced with each of the three female instructors while his wife smiled from the couch. Other guests danced a little, and spent the rest of the time tapping their feet to the tunes of Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé.

Jean Steinberg is a shy, elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, but when Hescock asked her to dance with him, she enthusiastically danced “La Bamba.” Her hired companion, Prasuna Wright, explained with a teary smile that Ms. Steinberg was a choreographer when she was younger. “Anything to do with music or dancing,” said Wright, ”… she just completely brightens up.”

Wright, who heard about the event through the AANY, says the experience “takes her to another world”; she enjoys it as much as Steinberg does.

“Some of the partners haven’t seen their person lively in awhile,” said Hendley, who believes the experience also benefits caregivers, as they get to join in the festivities. “It’s good for them because they get to dance and get out of the house.”

Steinberg said she could dance “anything,” and that she “enjoyed every moment” of the event.

Hescock made sure to dance with all the guests, male and female, and had everyone sing along to classics like “Moon River,” “Que Sera Sera,” and “New York, New York.” The former professional ballroom dancer has an unshakeable smile, and laugh lines that grow every time he raves about the talents of the guests. Although he looks to be middle-aged, he has long jet-black hair that Joanne tried to play with several times while dancing.

According to Hescock, this kind of activity helps people with Alzheimer’s or dementia remember something that they’ve done for most of their lives. “We’ve got people who have danced before, even on Broadway. It’s bringing out what’s already inside of them.” He cites muscle memory as a powerful component of remembering: like riding a bike, the ability to dance returns to many who learned how years ago.

The program currently meets once a month, but Hendley hopes to do it more frequently. “Ideally, it would be twice a week.” However, funding is needed to expand the program, and the AANY currently does not have the means to make it more regular. Still, Hendley hopes to throw a formal dance class for the visitors, so they can get dressed up and make a big night of it.

The dance lessons currently run once a month at Rhythm Break Studios and are free to all. To attend a class or for information, contact the Alzheimer’s Association of New York chapter at (646) 744-2900.