Thursday, February 25, 2010

Brain Dance: Dance and Healing for Learning Disabilities

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.Image via Wikipedia
I am getting interested in dance as a means of integrating some therapy that involves rhythm (rhythm is a big deficit of mine), body movement and music.

I think there is something fundamental in addressing  timing issues that could really help me.   On objective tests, my processing speed is lower than normal and I do terribly at the Interactive Metrononome (a computerized therapy that synchronizes " a range of hand and foot exercises to a precise computer-generated reference tone heard through headphones. The patient attempts to match the rhythmic beat with repetitive motor actions".).

Why should I care about timing?  I think having a slower internal clock than the average person affects me social situations, in my hand-eye coordination, and in overall body coordination.

Socially, this means I can have problems entering in a group.  Sometimes when people are talking in a cocktail party, it can be hard for me to break in.  Talk in a group can be like a ball being batted around quickly.  You want to get in there and tap the ball without upsetting the group rhythm and flow.  But your clock is slower than most people and by the time you are ready to tee up your point in the conversation, the group has moved on and you are out in left field swinging at something that has left the ball park.  Add problems with hearing comprehension in noisy situations and it is not easy.  So people can think you are a little odd or out to lunch, at best.  And, at worst, a bit obnoxious, because you are on a subject that they have already dealt with and they are tired of it and have already moved on.

Hand-eye coordination means that you need to be able to see things and react to them quickly.   When I play video games,  I can't psync what I see on the screen to the quick physical response of pressing the key.  Playing any kind of sports that involves a ball is hard.  First of all, I have fundamental problems seeing the ball especially in  keeping my eye on the ball.  Keeping your eye on the ball is one of the first things that a coach tells his players.  So when you dance, grabbing your partner's hand as you move towards him can be a little hard.  Never mind the do-si-do in square dance.

Overall body coordination is a problem as well.  Obviously, for dance you want to be able to move different parts of your body in time to a musical beat.  It's a bit overwelming.  I went to Zumba the other day and it wasn't good.  I was pretty spastic.  When other people were going right, I was on left.  When other people's hands were in the air, mine were by my side. When the arms were supposed to be synced with the legs, mine were operating independently.  It doesn't help to be older.  A 50 year old body just isn't as fluid as the twenty year old.

This reminds of taking dance classes.  Like most kids, I had dance classes at about ages five to seven.  My first memory of  dance was  being a "Bowlegged Chicken and a KnockNeed Hen" in a ballet routine... somehow, that routine seemed to set the stage for my life in dance.  Let me think... the lyrics went something like this:

"I am a bowlegged chicken and a knockneed hen,
Never been so happy since I don't know when,
I walk with a wiggle and a giggle and a squack
Doin' the Tennesse Wigwalk.
Put your toes together, your knees apart
Bend your back, get ready to start
Flap your elbows, just for luck
Then you wiggle and you waddle like a baby duck

 That just about sums my dancing abilities right up! 
I do remember the line of children going one way and I was going another.  When it came time to perform, I loved my orange and yellow feathered costume but I was totally nervous on stage.    I have very vague memories of being quite out of phase with the group and very glad when the performance was over.  But you know, a proud parent's eyes do not see.   My mom thought I was just wonderful.  Aren't there laws against this sort of thing?  When will Child Protective Services step in and save the innocent souls?  Oh mother, tell your children, not to do what I have done! 

For a more successful rendition of Doin' the Tennessee Wigwalk, see Lena Zavaroni:

Tap dance wasn't too much better.  I think my toes weren't stomping to the beat like they should although it was a lot of fun to make clicking sounds.

Well, we moved down to Western Maryland in the foothills of Appalachia and square dancing was part of the curriculum.   So I learned to heel and toe and slide, slide, slide.  Circle left and circle right, allemande left and allemenade right (remember, I have real problems knowing my left from my right.  never mind doing it quickly as the caller is barking out the reel). 

I chose a clip of the Virginia Reel done by children so my gentle reader can see how confusing the whole affair can start to get when everyone isn't in sync.   Square dancing is kinda square, you know, like not hip.  Square dancing is also kinda not square when the square breaks down and everyone looks around frantically trying to figure out how to catch up.   Square dancing really depends on everyone moving in sync.  What happens is that someone or some couple falls out of line and  that has a cascading effect on everyone else and then, the whole square is three calls behind the caller, ie the square is on allemande left and the caller is well past that and onto another call like "Escort your lady home". There's a spazzed out pause and a rattled grab at hands, your partner's or your corners' or someone's to try and do the move that the caller has just called out.

Fast forward to high school.  From low culture to high culture.   I went to prep school and I could opt out of regular sports periodically which I did.  I managed to get into  ceramics classes and community service just to avoid moving my body around.   One semester,  I thought ballet would be a good alternative. (I know, didn't I learn anything from my adventures with the Bowlegged Chicken and the Virginia Reel?)   Big mistake for little Miss Motor Apraxia (fancy word for problems with coordination and knowing where your body is).   My ballet teacher (I forget her name) and I were not meant for each other.  She was a former dancer for the Royal Spanish ballet and taught in a very old school style full of discipline and rigor.  I'm Miss Spastic.  She knew what she wanted to do with a human body and my body knew what it didn't want to do.  She was very critical and wanted perfection.  I was very tolerant with myself and just wanted an easy way out of phys-ed.  She noted every imperfection.   I wanted to start crying in the middle of class.    She was trying to groom us and my dancing ability was a snarled rat's nest highly resistant to any comb of instruction.  I don't think her efforts were a bad thing in and of itself.  Ballet especially can give a wonderful sense of posture and bearing, even for those who do not go on to dance professionally.  I just wished dance and phys-ed teachers were trained to spot motor apraxia and understand that there are those of us who will, at best, take a very long time to perform to expectations.

Organized Dance is problematic for the spastic.  In my case, my body doesn't click along to the beat or even to other body parts.  Additionally, for me, I am trying to deal with other moving bodies in space.  So it is very hard to track these bodies with lousy peripheral vision and orient myself to the position that I am supposed to be in.  Oh yeah, and don't forget rhythm... that I am supposed to do this rhythmically on beat in a short period of time.  I think I will stick to more individual routines for a while and just make a good effort to ensure that there is plenty of space between me and other people so I don't crash into them.   Which reminds me of the times that I bumped into others as I lost my place in a dance routine.  Well... you know, the Royal Spanish Ballet has not been begging me for an audition!  I did ballet for one semester and then dropped it. 

In college, disco was big... I enjoyed it although I sure wasn't the disco queen and I was more like "Staying Alive, just Staying Alive"...
You're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Feel the city breakin'
And ev'rybody shakin'
And we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha,
Stayin' alive.
Stayin' alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha

-- BeeGee's  Stayin Alive"

Ah ha, ha, ha, indeed!   So I get pushed, pulled and twirled by a partner... so along with the problems of knowing where I am, rocking to the beat, I am in close quarters with a human male.  So there is making eye contact, moving to his beat (which may or may not have anything to do with the pulse of the music) but you better have some relationship to your partner otherwise your toes get stepped on.  A little negative reinforcement somehow gets you in some phase harmonic with your partner.  I won't even get into the etiquette of disentangling yourself from someone who is holding you too close.  Knock down a few cocktails... the benefit is that even though you gambol and gyre herky-jerky, you don't care and you start to imagine a disco inferno.

But when consciousness returns, the next day, when you crack your eyes and think, "My God, What Did I Do Last Night", you cast a more sober eye on the goings on of the night before  and realize that instead of Tina Turner in Disco Inferno, you were really more like the dance routine in the Finale of “Little Miss Sunshine”.
I see a lot of motor apraxia and a bunch of other social problems related to disability here.  Well, at least, the family doesn’t seem to have rhythm problems... just problems knowing what’s appropriate.  You know, when people who have problems being cool -- you know the type,  they try sooo hard but it just ain’t there.  They want very much to be in touch with their body, to be an object of desire as defined in American culture, to express themselves, to have their own style and be “cool”... but.... they are soooo off.  You know, stiltedness, rigidity, lack of coordination.  They don't understand "objectives" -- the clothes, the bling, the purse, the hat, the running shoes and accessories of belonging to the pack.  Lack of prosody, ie patterns of stress and intonation used in normal conversation... like having a very flat sound.  Like Dorkiness... meaning they drop things, attempt the cool moves that were in maybe 20 years ago.  Super Freak! And they don't have the awareness of what's gone wrong.  Never mind the ability to regulate themselves back into the Bell Curve of Normality.

But then again, what's normal?  You can't say that the kiddie beauty pageant around them was too normal, either.  I mean what's normal about hypersexualizing elementary school girls?  But, that's the society around those events... and that's what defines what's cool if you want to fit into that pack.  So who's the Super Freak? But I'll leave the debate on individual vs society for another day.

On the one hand, as a movie, this is very funny.  But in real life, it isn’t.  This type of behavior tees people up for ridicule and social exclusion.  I doubt that the majority of the  uncool realize that their may be a neurological disfunction at the root of their problems.  I mean, once there's a  raising of consciousness, if you can't get your body to do what you are asking it too, maybe something is wrong.

Yet, dance, itself can be a way out.  People are looking at the power of dance as therapy.  For example,
 BrainDance is a series of exercises based on eight neuro-developmental movement patterns that healthy human beings naturally move through in the first year of life. Research has shown that these patterns are crucial to the wiring of our central nervous system. As babies, we did these movements on the floor. However, cycling through these patterns at any age, daily or weekly while sitting or standing, has been found to be beneficial in reorganizing our central nervous system. Over time, these patterns may help us fill in any missing gaps in our neurological development due to birth trauma, illness, environment, head injury or not enough “tummy time” as a baby.
It is a centering body/brain exercise for brain reorganization, oxygenation, and recuperation. 

As per the Brain Dance Website, Brain Dance uses the following techniques:
  1. Breath: take four to five deep breaths through the nose and out the mouth filling the belly, diaphragm, and lungs.
  2. Tactile: With your hands, squeeze strongly each arm, each leg and the torso, back, and head (whole body). Then tap lightly whole body, then slap sharply whole body and then brush smoothly whole body. Explore a variety of other tactile movements such as scratching, rubbing, soft pinching, tapping, etc.
  3. Core-Distal: Move from the center out, through and beyond the fingers, toes, head, and tail. Then curl back to torso while engaging core muscles. Movement that grows and shrinks, stretches and curls into big "X"s and little "o"s is great!
  4. Head-Tail: Move the head and tail (lowest part of spine or coccyx) in different directions and pathways. Play with movement that brings head and tail/pelvis together curving forward and backward and side-to-side. Keeping the knees bent helps to release the pelvis. Wiggle the spine like a snake.
  5. Upper-Lower: Ground the lower half of body by pressing legs into floor with a slight knee bend. Swing arms in different directions and stretch and dance upper body (arms, head, spine) in different ways. Ground upper half by reaching arms out into space with energy as though you were hugging the earth. Dance with lower half - try marching in place, simple knee bends, jumps, leg brushes, and other actions.
  6. Body-Side: Make a big X with your body. Dance with the left side of your body while keeping the right side stabile (still). Then keep the left stabile and dance with the right side. With knees and elbows slightly bent like a "W" bring the left half of the body over to meet the right half and vice versa (like a book opening and closing). Follow your thumb with your eyes as it moves right to left and left to right. Do the lizard crawl with arms and legs open to the sides - reach left arm and knee up then right arm and knee up like a lizard crawling up a wall. Move your eyes right to left and left to right (looking at the thumb near your mouth helps) to develop horizontal eye tracking.
  7. Cross-Lateral: Do a parallel standing crawl with knees and hands in front of you. Let your eyes travel up and down looking at one thumb as it reaches high and low for vertical eye tracking. Do a cross-lateral boogie dance finding as many ways of moving cross-laterally as possible such as touching right knee to left elbow, left hand to right foot, right hand to left knee, left hand to right hip, skipping, walking, crawling, etc.
  8. Vestibular: This pattern may be done at the beginning of the BrainDance. Choose a movement that takes you off balance and makes you dizzy. Vary the movements you do each week. Swing upper body forward and backward and side-to-side. Make sure head is "upside down." Tip, sway, roll, and rock in different directions (any movement that makes you dizzy). Spin 15 seconds one direction, breathe and rest 15 seconds, then spin 15 seconds the other direction. Take three to four deep breaths to center yourself after spinning!

Movements that cross the midline of the body (ie touching your left foot with your right hand) unify the cognitive and motor regions of the brain: the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and corpus callosum while stimulating the productions of neurotrophins (brain chemicals) that increase the number of synaptic connections (ie the connections between nerves. Eye tracking exercises and developing peripheral vision helps improve reading skills by exercises the eye muscles that may have atrophied from looking at a screen at a constant distance for many hours at a time. People who are aerobically fit also have the fastest reaction times, memory span and problem solving abilities. The vestibular and cerebellum systems (inner ear and motor activity) interact with the RAS system (reticular activation system critical to our attentional system. Located at the top of the brain stem), and keep our balance, turn thinking into action, and coordinate moves.  The interesting thing about brain dance is the use of dance to add the dimension of musical thinking, rhythm phrase and melody to exercises commonly done in occupational therapy to enhance both physical and mental functions of the body.
On another note,  I think that therapy sometimes is a way to get back to what at one point came quite naturally.  I think, maybe, the cavemen were right...  the shaman began drumming, chanting and swaying their bodies to `enter the consciousness' or `become the spirit' of the sun, moon, and various animal and plant life.  All of this depends on tuning your body to natural rhythms to connect to the larger living rhythms of the world within and without you. Maybe, us moderns have something to learn from the ancients.

Hi-ah Park, professor at Trinity College, is a Korean mudang (shaman) who specializes in the art of ecstatic ritual dance. Here she is "killing" the ego of a German man and hereby ending his suffering = giving him Enlightenment.  In this case, dance suspends time...