Meet the Artist | Dance Well in conversation with Rachel Waterman

This conversation with Rachel Waterman took place on the 21st Nov 2016, in occasion of the Dance Well workshop at Netherwood Dementia Day Centre, for people living with moderate/advanced stages of dementia. The workshop took place once per week for seven weeks, from the 31st Oct 2016 to the 12th Dec 2016.

All pictures from Netherwood. Credit: Giulia Ghinelli.

Rachel Waterman (R) (pictured above) is a Kathak dancer and associate artist for Akademi who led the workshop at Netherwood.

Giulia Ghinelli (G) is the current Dance Well Project Assistant and assisted Rachel during the sessions.

G: How did you first get involved with Akademi and the Dance Well Project?

R: My background is in contemporary dance and I started to learn Indian Dance quite a long time ago at University of Surrey, where I took a Kathak dance module. After that, I started to follow Gauri Sharma Tripathi, who introduced me to Akademi in 2006. During the years I did many other collaborations, learned from different teachers, and I went to study in Pakistan where I became a student of Nahid Siddiqui. I came back two years ago, and received a call from Akademi introducing the Dance Well Project and inviting me to a dementia training. Shortly after I was offered to teach the workshop at Harefield Hospital, and then it came this (ed. The workshop at Netherwood Day Centre), my first experience in dementia, after the training.

G: What were your expectations regarding this workshop? What was confirmed, and what turned out to be completely different?

R: My fears were that I would see people who were not themselves, and this sounds obvious in retrospective. I was thinking, ‘oh well I will be very sad’ and, in some ways, I am, but the truth is that I don’t know how they were five years ago, or maybe even one year ago, and so I take them just as they are. It was a great relief after the first session. I wasn’t sure If I would have been able to engage with them, and how they would respond. When I realised that no one seemed disturbed by my presence I overcame a great fear, I guess.

It is hard to always think what you should or should not do, in the moment sometimes you just follow your instinct. I was afraid people such as E. (ed. One of the participants) might be disturbed by music, people and objects moving around her, but she wasn’t. I think that It’s ok to try different ways of interacting, as long as nobody is upset.

“Creating a safe space requires time, experience, getting to know the people… you must have a big repertoire, a big box of tricks”

G: Have you experienced any frustration?

R: When something happens in the class you don’t have the time to think about it, because you are there and they are there too, and you have to do, rather than think. Last week I was a bit frustrated because I was aware there were so many people involved (ed. About 14 people joined from another day centre), and that’s why I looked at different props such as the octa band or the parachute, because I didn’t want them to feel left apart or isolated. In my class, I would want them, to have the opposite experience, one entire hour specifically for them to have fun and feel comfortable. Sometimes I feel I am asking quite a lot from myself; creating a safe space requires time, experience, getting to know the people…

G: Twenty-five people is a large group: even if you are extremely experienced, you won’t have physically the ability to take care of so many people, because you must have a different way of interacting with each one of the participants.

R: I think there are always ways to do these things, but you must have a big repertoire, a big box of tricks and experience. Now it is all about reading signals and trying, and this workshop made me think about ways to make this connection more likely.

G: It’s not easy to know what the connection will be like, especially here, you think you are creating a specific atmosphere, but will it be perceived in the way you perceive it, in the way you envisioned it?

R: You cannot control how people receive things. The place where they come from is out of your control and knowledge. But you can work on the intention, questioning what the exercise is for and whether you are achieving your intention through it.

“You cannot control how people receive things. The place where they come from is out of your control and knowledge. But you can work on the intention.

G: What do you think might be improved in terms of exercises and props, what worked well?

R: I am interested in working more with the lower body, standing, moving, although I don’t know if all of them could do this. I think they can stand, but maybe this would be even more confusing. When you stand you have more decisions to make and you can do it only for so long. Holding The Octa band, or someone’s hand, could be a safe way of standing. Locomotion is important, it shifts something inside of you.

G: Why and how do you think this workshop might be useful for people in this stage of dementia?

R: Firstly, to let out frustration, and this is also why I think they all hit the props (ed: balloons, in this case) very hard, and sometimes you are quite surprised because you didn’t expect all this energy to come out from these bodies. Even if you don’t know what it means, it is still something that is coming from the inside with great energy, and I think that is better letting out than keeping in. Being physical and engaging with your movements and your body is very important, especially when your body starts to shut down. The connection with other people is an amazing event, and I feel it works better within a small group.

“Being physical and engaging with your movements and your body is very important, especially when your body starts to shut down. The connection with other people is an amazing event.”

G: This is something that doesn’t always work. I noticed that participants want to partner with you or me, but that don’t interact much with each other.

R: Yes, I noticed it in the scarves’ exercises: everyone wanted to dance with me instead of dancing in couples, but this is ok, the relation is firstly between us and them, and then it extends to the participants. Because we are taking care, and of course we are more caring than other participants, who are usually more focussed on themselves than other people. Part of our role is to create these connections.

G: Let’s talk about building up a structure in such a group. Some participants may not remember the choreography, the exercises, but there are many ways to ‘remember’ and next time they might catch the exercise faster.

R: Yes, they become embodied, integrated in the body.

G: what have you noticed in the participants?

R: I noticed small things like a light tapping of the foot, which for some people has the significance of lifting one arm, dancing, or singing. Something did happen today. H. was more reserved than usual. She had a feather in her hand and I was playing with mine, and I was trying to play with her but she wasn’t responsive, and then slowly she started doing the same, and we started to play. It is as if the response required a longer time to arrive. Regarding L., her interactions are very short, but today they lasted a bit longer, when I connected with my hands, and we danced with a nice rhythm. Sometimes in a workshop you throw a lot in, and if you grasp even only the 30 per cent, it is still fine.

G: Does this experience make you question what your role is, in comparison to other workshops you are used to lead as a dance teacher?

R: I think that the teaching experience has strong similarities regardless of the different kind of groups. Then of course every group has specific characteristics, challenges, and problems. I don’t know if I’m doing it or not, but in my opinion to take care of this group means being careful not to confuse, and not to give too much. In dance classes you always take risks, and risks are great. In movement and dance you need to push people outside their comfort zone. I am sure this is happening in this class, some of the time. But I am trying to let them decide how far they want to go, and I try not to assume anything; for some of them it might be the first lesson every time, I cannot be one hundred per cent sure.

It’s about building connections. For us it doesn’t matter if we are spread out or not. We have a connection to other people, we know where we are. In this case, however, I don’t feel that these connections that we build all the time with others are already there. And if you are having this ‘Who am I’ relationship to yourself, acknowledging the other person becomes even a step further. To build those layers for them, to keep them holding onto something in small circles, is already giving them a part of those things that otherwise they would have to do by themselves, and that we usually give for granted. They’re not.

G: How is this workshop affecting your teaching career?

R: I am more interested in understanding where the students are coming from… For example, in Nadir’s classes it was amazing to observe people while they were learning. Especially in classical technique, where all that is asked is to arrive to the same point. People come from different backgrounds and techniques and this shows in their bodies, which are physical references of the way we are growing and we have developed, of the movements patterns we have embodied. These students were asked to arrive to the same place, because this is what the technique asks, especially in classical dance where the lines and the rhythm are dictated from the outside. However, this is not achievable in the same way for everyone, and because of this people often think they can’t do it, because they are not good, they don’t have the physical ability. I think there are always ways round if you have the understanding of where they are starting from.

“Sometimes I think that if we talked less and observed more we could find out more and know better what to say.”

When you observe you think about this a lot, while when you teach you observe less and do or talk more, but as a teacher I have always wanted to do less, to talk less, because I think you can use only so many faculties at the same time if you are working at a certain level, and sometimes I think that if we talked less and observed more we could find out more and know better what to say.

G: Akademi is a south Asian dance organisation, do you think the techniques you learnt as Kathak dancer might be of a specific interest for this kind of workshop?

R: I find something magical in making use of the props, especially the Ghungroos (ed. Indian bells). When you pick them up, without doing any deliberate movement, they make a soothing sound and have the power to recall memories and feelings. Props are very important in classical dance, must be used in a specific way, and I would like to use them more here. I know we didn’t use any bells because the sound could be disturbing for some participants, but what makes the difference is how you introduce things. I think of the participants’ nerves, which must be highly strung. For them it’s difficult to retrace where things and sounds come from, and the anxiety can become overwhelming. Bells are not just about beating. If you do it properly, and with care, the sound can be soothing. Similarly, in Indian dance, the beauty comes from the resonance, not from the strong beating. The beat must be precise, not at the beginning nor at the end, but in the middle of it. Intensity and right moment come together. It is all about finding a middle ground, the balance between right moment and intensity.

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