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Dancin’ to the Music: More than Just Exercise

Memory dance

“Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”

This quote by well-known British neurologist Oliver Sacks (author of Awakenings) shows the power of music. Indeed, like the aroma of cookies baking, a familiar song can bring us back to another time. For those with cognitive issues or dementia, it goes one step further: it can be a link to their identity.

Activities learned early in life — including listening to music — remain engrained in our brain. “Familiar tunes and lyrics can be recognized across all stages of Alzheimer’s Disease,” noted a Practical Neurology article. “Listening to familiar music can elicit pleasurable responses such as smiling or moving/dancing even when communication is lost.”

And that is the goal for Memory in Motion, a program at the Penn Memory Center which gets participants — both those with cognitive deficits (of many levels) and their caregivers – to not only listen to the musical oldies but move and groove to the tunes as well.

Colby Damon, a former professional dancer with BalletX, leads the group. With everyone standing in a circle, Damon starts with easy warm ups — shoulder rolls, raising and lowering arms slowly. “Even if people can’t follow exactly what I’m doing, they naturally stay in the beat,” he said. He always keeps the moves simple, but tries to associate lyrics with movement. For example, when Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” comes on, he stomps on the beat into the circle and participants follow his moves. “Fly Me to the Moon” encourages everyone to “fly” around the room. And there’s plenty of room to move. The sessions have been held in a wide open space at the BalletX studios in Philadelphia.

Damon is no stranger to these musical eras, which range from swing music of the 40s through rock ‘n roll of the ‘60s and ‘70s. “I grew up listening to the oldies and was in a doo-wop band in high school,” he said. His interest in working with aging populations, and those living with dementia in particular, stemmed from a friendship during his early days with BalletX. The wife of the couple he was temporarily housing with had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “We became close. I was there at the beginning and during the whole journey,” he said.

For each Memory in Motion class, Damon is joined by another teaching artist, to encourage participants in the circle or, if need be, to modify some moves for someone who prefers to remain seated. But, while Damon initially thought he’d have to coax people to dance, “the whole room stands as soon as the music starts,” he said. “Not everyone can follow along but everyone is moving.

“Dance gets the heart rate up and the circulation flowing but the only side effect is having fun,” he continued. “It breaks the isolation, connecting them with music and thereby emotional associations they know and love.”

And, even more important, “it gives people a safe space to take risks, encouraging them to do something they haven’t done in a long time,” said Jason Karlawish, MD, director of the Penn Memory Center.

The group enjoys following Damon’s lead, but he’s trying to find ways to make it more experiential rather than guided. For example, he does mirroring exercises. Everyone in the circle takes turns doing whatever move they want to the music, and the rest of the group — including the leader — follows.

No one judges in these classes. No matter what moves a person makes, everyone else follows happily and cheers them on. “There are moments when you see people really connect with the group for a moment in time; a recognition of what’s happening that’s clear,” Damon said. An especially poignant moment came from one gentleman with mild dementia. “We did an exercise where each individual took turns leading the circle in whatever movement they were feeling at the time. It was awesome to see him really inhabit his own movement vocabulary and clearly lead the group in a unique way. We all followed him, mirroring his movement style. It was really beautiful.”

It also enhances dignity and reduces stigma, Karlawish added. “It makes them feel like they’re the people they are.”

Songs Damon plays do indeed elicit wonderful memories. Susanne, a patient who attends these sessions with her husband, Patrick, recognized a song she danced to with her son at his wedding. “This has given her smiles,” her husband said. “‘That’s my song!’ she said.”

The best part for Ida, another participant whose physical impairments sometimes make it hard to maintain balance, is that with this class, “I’m feeling in control and not being tested.”

“So many studies show the incredible memories recalled in connection with music. They become completely different people,” Damon said. “It’s important for me to help people who are living with dementia still have a high quality of life, to find experiences that can enrich their daily lives.”

To learn about Memory in Motion or any of the other musical programs that the Penn Memory Center offers to those with cognitive issues and their caregivers, go to


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