• Defining Moment

    A Dance to Remember

    At the junction of science and the arts, a trip back in time.

    Defining Moment Author

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    My siblings and I grew up in a world rich in make-believe.

    Both of my parents were musicians and passionate music educators. They employed special little songs to cajole us into bed or the bathtub. Their dinner song beckoned us to the kitchen table, where the entire family sang grace in multiple harmonies, seldom the same way twice.

    Our basement doubled as a playroom for us and the music room where my parents taught private lessons. Creativity was our bread, and we were well-fed. My parents passionately believed that arts education develops abilities in reading, writing, and arithmetic. And, indeed, I loved school. Throughout my youth, I struggled to choose between making a career in music and dance or in medicine. I wanted to do both.

    My guidance counselor advised, "You can do anything, but you can't do everything." I gave it a try, anyway, working overtime for 10 semesters. I graduated with a degree in biology, but I also managed to be an active member of the theater, dance, and vocal music departments throughout my undergraduate years.

    Uncertain of what, exactly, a triple-threat biologist could do with all that—and, more important, how I might get paid for my varied interests—I decided to become a physical therapist because physical therapy is all about the science of movement. But I quickly found the program to be so challenging that I felt as if someone had hit fast-forward on my Sony Walkman. So, I pushed the pause button on my arts pursuits.

    Soon after graduation, however, I resumed dance classes and booked occasional gigs as a pianist. I also began to weave music and dance into my sessions with patients at the long-term care facility at which I worked. I'd warble through a round of You Are My Sunshine, for example, with Laura, whose stroke had caused aphasia, or speechlessness. I'd attempt piano duets in the cafeteria with Cliff, whose Parkinson disease made his fingers slow and stiff. Blending physical therapy and the performing arts, and using them to complement each other, came to be my style, my professional trademark.

    In clinical practice, I've always extended traditional approaches to adult neurologic rehabilitation into the areas of music, creative movement, and dance. Over time, scientific evidence has confirmed what my patients have experienced all along: rhythmic auditory stimulation improves gait, music improves memory, and dancing can improve balance.

    When I was working at the long-term care facility, I came to know a Southern gentleman named Bob. He'd arrived there 3 years earlier, when his wife no longer could manage his confusion and his habit of wandering away from home. Like many residents of the secured memory care wing, Bob had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He'd become mostly nonverbal, but he was quick to smile when addressed.

    During our first encounters, I learned from his wife that Bob had been an art curator at a museum. She was a pretty woman—slender and well dressed. I could picture the couple, decades earlier, attending the social and cultural events that punctuated their lives back then in Tennessee. Bob's light blue eyes lit up with deep expression when I sang to him. I started out with familiar tunes—universal melodies—like Happy Birthday and The Alphabet Song. But then, having hailed from the South myself, I thought perhaps Bob and I might connect through Tuxedo Junction, which was a hit record for The Andrews Sisters in 1940. The refrain goes:

    Way down south in Birmingham

    I mean south in Alabam'

    There's a place where people go

    To dance the night away

    Each day I'd greet Bob with that song and guide him into a standing position. We'd make our way to the exercise gym, where I'd hold his hand—thin, sun-blotched, and sometimes sticky with oatmeal. I'd put Tuxedo Junction on the CD player and dance a few steps for him, delighting in the music in a way I hoped would be infectious.

    "May I have this dance?" I'd ask. Bob and I would stand and sway, left and right, forward and backward. After weeks of this, his posture had improved, and he could arise from the chair with ease. As we danced, I'd strike up conversation.

    "Hello, Bob," I'd say. "What's your name?"

    "I'm, I'm Bob," I coaxed him to haltingly reply.

    "Hi, Bob!" I'd respond with a big smile.

    "Hi, Bob," he'd echo.

    He seemed somehow to recognize me from one visit to the next, even though each exchange seemed independent from the last in his memory. We grew familiar with each other. It got to the point that all I had to do was make eye contact with him and start singing "Way down south…" and his eyes would brighten as he broke into a smile. That was our cue to travel together, through time and space, to that place where people went to dance the night away.

    Bob's wife often attended the sessions, watching and marveling at how interactive and animated he became during our time together. She told me how much the 2 of them had loved doing the fox trot at social dances. Bob's wife was always interested and gracious, but she declined my repeated invitations to dance with us. She instead sat nearby in keen observation—her feet, in low-heeled dress shoes, tapping along to the music.

    One morning, Bob and I had just completed our chorus of hellos when, suddenly, Bob curled his lips like Elvis and asked me, his blue eyes smiling mischievously, "So, do you come here often?"

    I was stunned! But, without missing a beat, I dropped my dancer's frame, looked directly into his eyes, and responded, "Every. Single. Day!"

    Bob's wife cried. It was the first time in a very long time that she'd heard her beloved form and speak a full sentence. The power of music and dance had elicited those words—summoning from his mind's recesses a phrase that likely had tripped fluently from his tongue in younger years.

    Seeing the depth of Bob's wife's emotion, I cried, too. Then—perhaps mirroring our reactions, or maybe in a flash of insight—Bob joined us. We were 3 people sobbing together in a gym. Then, just as quickly and as if on cue, we all started laughing. Was that joy? It was for Bob's wife and me. But I'm equally certain that it was a happy release for Bob, too.

    As I sat at my desk that evening, finishing my charting and coding, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for my parents, my upbringing, all the opportunities I'd had to pursue my passions, and a career in physical therapy that allowed me to blend medicine and music. I wasn't sure if that dance, and Bob's question, had mattered more to Bob, his wife, or me.

    Regardless, it's a moment I'll always remember. Like oatmeal, it will stick.


    A delightful and inspiring story! Thank you so much for sharing that.
    Posted by Brian Miller on 9/29/2016 8:57:38 PM
    Robyn, you are such an inspiration. Thanks for sharing that beautiful story. I'm literally crying. THIS is why I want to be a physical therapist.
    Posted by Kristen Townsend on 11/20/2016 6:58:31 PM

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