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Dance and music to connect with dementia

On this occasion we bring you an interview with Iker Arrue, a wonderful person we have been lucky enough to meet through the Dementia in Cultural Mediation (DCUM) project. Dancer, choreographer and co-director of the dance company AI DŌ Project, his contribution to the dance scene in the Basque Country has earned him the 2022 dance prize. He has been able to combine his artistic activity with a personal concern for improving the lives of people with dementia, returning them to a space, such as art and culture, from which they seem to have been expelled simply because of their condition. She has created a social project with the evocative name of "Invisible Beauty". We won't reveal any more and let our protagonist describe this magical connection between dance and music and the emotions of people with dementia.

Q - Well Iker, where did your interest in working with people with dementia through dance come from?

Iker - I have been a professional dancer for 20 years and having had a father with Alzheimer's I thought that I could contribute or share small exercises that I had tried to do with my father during the 15 years that his illness lasted. On the one hand for physical stimulation; everyday movements or gestures that my father found increasingly difficult to reproduce, such as turning to sit on a chair, releasing an object, looking away, letting himself get dressed... On the other hand, the satisfaction and emotional stimulation of watching a live dance and music performance and the influence it has on our wellbeing and the way we communicate with our environment.

Q - How did this experience begin?

Iker - In addition to what I experienced with my father, or rather... motivated by what I experienced with my father, in 2013, when he joined the annual programme of psychostimulation-cognitive workshops offered by the AFAGI association, we proposed from the dance company to carry out a small test and offer the users of the association an approach to the creative process of the Ai Do Project dance that we were doing at the time. The idea was to share how from some photos we could reproduce movements and integrate them into the choreography, with the aim of then inviting them to reproduce those movements themselves.

The response was really surprising. The photographs we used were war photographs; photojournalism.  Our starting point in the creation was to try to find something positive in those photographs that a priori generated only rejection. It was very interesting to observe that the participants did not remain with the pain reflected in the images, but connected directly with the experience and the satisfaction of reproducing the gestures that were not easy for them to imitate, but which with patience they managed to reproduce successfully. 

Q - Can you describe how you work with them and what methodology you use?

Iker - We hold a series of meetings throughout the year in which, through music and dance, we try to stimulate the physical, musical and, as I said, above all the emotional capacities of the participants.

We adapt dance or music pieces to their abilities and perform them live for them in an auditorium or hall that we have previously prepared for the occasion. The starting point of the project is to offer them a theatrical experience that is as real as possible (scenery, lighting, costumes...). We then combine small exercises in rhythm and movement that we intersperse between the pieces shown.

This is a project that we run in collaboration with AFAGI and the meetings are carried out with the users of the association. Most of the time without family members, only those affected, because strengthening their sense of autonomy is one of the objectives of this work. However, it is important to hold some meetings that also include family members because, as we have seen, this also generates a very particular benefit.

The format of the project can and should be adapted to the needs of each partner and each participant, of course. AFAGI users come on a voluntary basis, which already defines to a large extent the profile of the people we work with. What we have observed is that whatever the group you work with, the closer it is to reproducing a theatrical experience, the greater the impact the intervention has on the participants.

Our methodology is mainly based on the fact that we are a small dance company that collaborates with an association and our reality is that we work on a project basis. It is a project that has already been integrated into larger structures than ours, such as the National Company of Costa Rica, but this also means adapting the methodology and content to a new environment.

Imagen de un taller del proyecto Invisible Beauty celebrado en nuestra casa de Petra Lekuona

Q - What is your goal with Invisible Beauty?

Iker - The project aims not only to meet the needs of people with dementia but also the needs of each of the collaborating organisations.

During the last editions we have collaborated with music and dance students from the MUSIKENE and "María de Ávila" centres in Madrid, respectively. In 2023 we will also collaborate with the music and dance school of Renteria. The idea of integrating students to work alongside professionals in the sector is to strengthen inter-generational relations and at the same time show artists a different alternative to traditional work. Experience has shown us that many of them have found a way to explore and develop, which is already a success.

We offer performers the possibility to present their own creations or even to create a piece specifically for the meeting. In this way, we ensure that their creative needs are also covered.

The material designed for each meeting is also shared with the collaborating centres so that social workers and psychologists can easily integrate it into their own workshops.

We are interested in incorporating as many disciplines as possible into the meetings because although the focus is clearly artistic, the more diverse the information shared, the greater the likelihood that all participants will find something to identify with (musical, social, professional references...).

But the overall objective is undoubtedly emotional stimulation. However, always with the highest possible artistic-professional level of demand. Accepting that because they have dementia you can present mediocre work is a mistake. If there is one thing they understand, it is sensitivity.

Q - How do you communicate with people, what strategies do you use?

Iker - We try to be as close as possible, at all times, but with a touch of mischief. We avoid protecting them too much and we push them to the limit of their capabilities. We're a bit of a hooligan, always ready to laugh and share emotions, which is what it's all about.

As a strategy, we aim to connect with them on an emotional level. Normally, we do previews of the association before the official meeting, which not only serve as a first approach, but also allow us to ask them about their musical and cultural references. As far as possible, we integrate this information into the design of the sessions in order to maximise the emotional impact of the meeting.

Q - Finally, Iker, how do you think what you do with these people benefits us?

Iker - How does it benefit the rest of us to have a good level of wellbeing? With or without dementia, people's needs remain the same.



Dancer, choreographer, co-director of the dance company AI DŌ PROJECT

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