With these gestures, we somehow defy death

Barbara Snook

The title of this article may conjure images of the ill and infirm physically urging the grim reaper to leave forthwith, but in fact it refers to the transcendental power of dance. “With these gestures, we somehow defy death” was a statement made by a participant in a dance project called ‘Circle of Life’, which I facilitated during my tenure as the 2008 Caroline Plummer Fellow in Community Dance at the University of Otago. For this project I invited people living with cancer to create and perform a dance. This article summarises the experience, and examines the link between health care and the somatic movement discipline of dance.

Photo: Otago Daily Times.
Photo: Otago Daily Times.

The ‘Circle of Life’ project began with an open invitation for people affected by cancer to meet weekly over a ten week period, creating original dance together. The project, which also involved collaborations with artists and University of Otago Arts Fellows, culminated in a public performance at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. The dancers included people with various types of cancer at various stages of treatment as well as others without cancer themselves but who were strongly associated with someone going through treatment. There were 17 dancers in the group, aged from their late 40s to 82. As the project progressed, the participants moved from initial nervous apprehension to a sense of confidence and pride. Despite pain and illness, the dancers were motivated to continue attending sessions. They developed a sense of pride in being part of something that was larger than themselves. The dance allowed them to embody a sense of courage, and in performing it publicly they managed to share something that genuinely moved an audience.

While cancer is a major health problem in New Zealand with approximately 19,000 new cases diagnosed annually (Ministry of Health, 2009), the proven benefits of physical activity to cancer patients are often overlooked. Research shows that barriers to engaging in physical activity include feeling too busy, having no willpower and not liking to exercise in bad weather. For some people, exercise is never an attractive option, and this is especially so when energy levels are low during illness. One of the benefits of Community Dance is that it is more than simply a physical pursuit; it also has potential to become a meaningful, creative and social outlet. The participants in ‘Circle of Life’ were connected through experiences which have been described by Diane Amans, a leader in Community Dance practice, as “achievable, yet testing, over which they had a sense of ownership, control and belonging” (6). The participants wanted to be there despite their physical fragility. “You certainly find strength you just never knew you possessed,” said one participant. She continued:

People had different energies different weeks. If I had a chemotherapy session that week, I had to drag myself there sometimes. A couple of times I nearly got there and I nearly turned for home. But I thought, I’m nearer there than here, I’ll keep going.”

Photo: Chris Sullivan
Photo: Chris Sullivan

The social function of the project provided enough motivation for this participant to keep making the effort to attend. Once there, other benefits were felt. As one researcher puts it, “Motion and emotion are inextricably linked, and together produce the conditions for vitality to thrive” (Oliver, 103).

Most of the participants were not dancers in the traditional sense, and had to overcome ideas they had brought with them about the meaning of dance. With time, everyone in the group overcame these reservations. In later reflections, many spoke of the sense of safety that was engendered by this community dance experience.

Photo: Chris Sullivan
Photo: Chris Sullivan

Each week the group was helped to develop original gestures and motifs. These expressed simple ideas related to the richness of their lives. They also developed movements based on activities and tasks to express their identities. The simplicity of the movement vocabulary ensured that each individual was able to fully participate. Dance and somatic knowledge were used as tools to allow expression of feelings, thoughts, spirituality and emotions. The gestures had a universality, which meant they did not need to be explained. These embodied symbolic gestures, repeated week after week, helped each participant to make sense of his or her personal situation.

Those dancers in the project whose bodies had been invaded by cancer experienced a heightened need to express their feelings and emotions through movement. Having cancer gave these participants a keener somatic awareness of their bodies, and they were able to harness this to help express what could not be expressed in words. As dancers, they moved from self-judgement to realising the beauty that others might see in their performance.

Photo: Chris Sullivan
Photo: Chris Sullivan

‘Circle of Life’ was performed twice, to full audiences, at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. After the final performance, a member of the audience lingered,  standing alone on the dance floor. I asked her why she was still there. “Something amazing has happened in this space,” she said, “and I want to remain in the energy for as long as I can.”

Movement is at the core of all human experience. Body and mind, emotion and intellect are inseparable. The gestures that the ‘Circle of Life’ dancers developed together were the embodied expression of their shared experiences. They moved from seeing themselves primarily as sufferers to identifying as whole persons able to communicate something of worth and integrity.

Works cited
Amans, D. An Introduction to Community Dance Practice. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Ministry of Health. Cancer: New Registrations and Deaths (rev.ed.) Wellington, New Zealand, 2009.
Oliver, S. Community-based Creative Dance for Adolescents and their Feelings of Social Wellbeing. PhD Thesis. Queen Margaret University. 2009.


Dr Barbara Snook is a Community Dance Facilitator, and lecturer in Dance at the University of Auckland.

One thought on “With these gestures, we somehow defy death”

  1. Thank you for this article, Barbara, What a powerful experience for both the participants and you – it is a shame that a project like this doesn’t continue, as it must have helped so many people through a very rough time in their life.

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