I’m delighted to introduce a guest post from Lauren Zehara Haas, a writer and dancer who is organizing the upcoming Global Hafla for Humanity international fundraiser and building an informational site at www.bellydanceu.net. Lauren is the author of the Belly Dance Journal and of the DVD Stage Presence. I hope you’ll enjoy and share Lauren’s reflections on teaching movement to people going through or recovering from illness.
The first time I taught a belly dance program for breast cancer survivors, I was a bit intimidated. Teaching movement practices in medical situations always feels like both a great privilege and a tremendous responsibility; I hoped I could give this group whatever they wanted from my class.
I arrived early and the director showed me to a carpeted room with chairs around the perimeter. I set up my sound system in one corner, sat on the floor, and started unpacking the veils I’d brought with me. Soon the first pair of women peeked into the room.
“Are you the bellydance teacher?” they asked with a giggle.
“I am, come on in! What are your names?” Turning a room full of uncomfortable strangers into a room full of laughing friends is what a belly dance teacher does best. The more women arrived, the more comfortable I felt.
About 10 women had trickled into the room and we were getting along beautifully when the first truly sick looking participant came in. She had a scarf tied over scalp and deep shadows under her eyes. She entered slowly, seeming very unsure of herself, which immediately alerted me that she was new here, and the others, so much more comfortable in this room, must be further along in their recovery.I got quite a shock when I realized I knew this woman.
“Liz? How ARE you? I’m so happy to see you, I’ve been so worried!” This woman had quietly disappeared from one of my yoga classes six months ago. Liz indicated her headscarf in response; no words were needed. I hugged her gently and told her I was so happy to see her and was looking forward to teaching her a little bellydance. My heart was filled with the honor of being allowed to teach these women who had all so recently danced with death. The purpose of this program was not to teach them to dance, but to help them reconnect with life.
Over the next hour, I gently guided the women in moving their hips and following Middle Eastern rhythms. We kept our arms below our hearts to accommodate their lower energy levels, and when I handed out the veils I taught low, one-armed movements so those who were recovering from mastectomy incisions could adapt to whichever side suited them. We sat down to practice finger cymbals halfway through the hour, so they could catch their breath. We laughed a lot, and they were all smiling when they left the room. No one had a bigger smile than me; mine felt like it was bubbling up from the soles of my feet.
If you’re ever asked to teach a movement class to a medical population, I urge you to say yes. You may never have a more rewarding experience. But you also need to take responsibility for managing these populations responsibly. Here’s how:
- Do your homework. Start by asking the person who is hiring you “What should I know about this group’s physical limitations to teach them safely?” but also do independent research on Google. Use search terms like “How to adapt exercise instruction for people with ______.” The yoga literature offers a lot of information on adaptations, and you can usually extrapolate this to other movement forms. Ace Fitness also offers good resources, even if you’re not an ACE certified instructor.
- Present yourself as authoritative but open. Tell the group “I’ve done some research, and I’ve brought a lot of ideas. But you are the experts on your recovery and limitations, so please stop me if there’s something I need to know.”
- Be awkward. Uncomfortable subjects will come up in medical groups. Push through them anyway. If you avoid talking about body functions and other tough topics, they will avoid it too, so be open and create a no-holds-barred environment for them. Laugh at your own awkwardness. They will love you for it.
- Warm up slowly. Give your students time to talk, to laugh. This is a social experience for them even more than it is an exercise class.
- Keep it fun. Your job is not to rehabilitate, or even to give them a great workout or teach them how to dance properly. Your job is to help them reconnect with the bodies that have betrayed them. Help them have fun in their bodies. Give them laughter, and encouragement, and lots of success experiences. Measure your success by how much joy you feel in the room.
- Encourage adaptation. It’s not enough to start the class by saying “feel free to rest at any time, or adapt the movements to suit you.” You have to prove to the group that you mean it. Humans are social animals, and they will push through pain in order to stay with the group and do what the leader asks. When you see someone sit down for a moment, or change the move to suit them, give a verbal reward like “I really like how you’re taking care of yourself right now” or “That’s a brilliant adaptation, I like that. Would anyone else like to try it that way?”
- Continuously offer adaptations. If there are three ways to do a movement, show them all, but then return to the simplest variation for the rest of the drill. Students who feel competent can do the move without a model more easily than people who are struggling. Ask questions like “Would anyone prefer to do this move sitting down?” or “Is this move causing any discomfort for you?”
- Monitor their energy level. Keeping arms below heart level and not lifting the feet very high will reduce the workload on their bodies. If the group seems tired, bring them back to a simple drill and talk with them for a while, or offer a water break.
- Ask for honest feedback. You are going to love working with these groups, and you’ll want to keep getting better at it.