Once a week, veterans and their families along with supporters attend recreational dances in Louisville hosted by a group called Dancing Well.
“Dancing Well’s mission is to uplift veterans who are suffering from PTSD or brain injury and to also include and uplift their spouses, children and other significant others in their lives who are indirectly affected every single day,” says Deborah Denefeld, Executive Director of Dancing Well.
The events feature a series of choreographed folk dances. The level of the dance is determined by the participants.
“The dance moves themselves are modified for the lowest functioning person on the floor,” says Denefield. “As the dance leader, I am watching carefully to see how everybody is doing. The goal is that at the end of every dance, every person will feel that they succeeded.”
The Dancing Well program was created for veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and other effects of combat. But it isn’t therapy. The dances are meant to be a social and recreational activity to connect veterans and their family members with a community.
Denefield explains that the program got its start at Fort Knox with a staff psychiatrist, Edwin Walker. Walker had seen research showing that learning to play guitar helped improve memory. Memory problems are a common effect in cases of PTSD and brain injuries.
“[Walker] knew about traditional dance, in particular contra dance, which is the kind of American folk dance. He thought perhaps a few evenings of contra dance would help his clients’ memories,” says Denefield. “I am a regional contra dance caller and he approached me about calling for these dances. Calling is the term for leading the dances. We give instruction as the dance is going on.”
Participants in that original program in 2011 reported improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms. Some even had reduced physical pain. Dr. Walker left Fort Knox and the program ended, until Denefield decided she wanted to revive the concept. Dancing Well in its current form began in 2014.
Roosevelt Smith III is a veteran who has been coming to Dancing Well since the program’s beginning.
“I suffer from PTSD, bipolar…I got involved with the program because I was basically going nowhere,” says Smith. “This was a chance to get out into the public and do something for a change…I believe with Dancing Well, my other treatment, and my big support system, I think all of that works together to push me up even more and anything that will help me elevate, my family is very, very grateful for.
“We’re not in this battle alone,” Smith continues. “We don’t have to be a one-man island. We can come together as one, and we can find out that just a circle to the left, circle to the right, even by ourselves, can bring us joy and a smile on our face. That’s what this is all about.”
This segment originally appeared as part of Kentucky Life episode #2406 which originally aired on November 10, 2018. Watch the full episode.