Dance for Health Explores Intersection of Science and Art

Multidisciplinary course among many offered during Jan Plan that examine new areas of study and redefine the liberal arts 

Every week during Jan Plan, the 11 students in visiting instructor Jessie Laurita-Spanglet’s Dance for Health course gathered in the Harold Alfond Athletic and Recreation Center to practice the art of movement. Together they explored methods of dance that were developed for people living with Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases; combining art and science to discover first hand the way dance and movement affect health and well-being. The multidisciplinary course is among many offered during Jan Plan that focus on new areas of study and redefine the liberal arts.  

Students examined questions such as “How can movement shift our experience of illness or pain?” and “Is it possible to quantify the effects that dance can have on a person’s health and well-being?” The course explored how dance can be a tool for transformation and a vehicle for finding joy and creativity in the lives of those living with illness. 

“This material is best understood through listening to lectures and presentations, through reading the evidence behind dance for health, and also through experiencing it physically through movement. It was really important for me that the class be taught that way,” Laurita-Spanglet said. 

The course, which had a waiting list even in its first year of being offered, focused on three different methods that bring dance into the sphere of health and well-being. The primary focus was on the IMPROVment® method, which uses verbal prompts to elicit unique improvisational movements. It is currently being tested in a National Institutes of Health-funded randomized clinical trial. Students also had the opportunity to learn about Dance for PD and Dance Movement Therapy—two additional methods that have contributed to this body of work—and imagine how their interests might align with this growing field of study. As a final project, students designed their own program, either a scientific study or community project, that brings dance into a health care environment.

Bringing Unique Experience to Mayflower Hill

For the past three years, Laurita-Spanglet’s work has intersected closely with IMPROVment®—a group of dancers and researchers exploring a method of teaching improvisational movement that was developed by Wake Forest University professor Christina Soriano. Laurita-Spanglet’s work with IMPROVment® has focused on teacher education, and on supporting the iMOVE study, which is exploring the effects of improvisational movement and social engagement on people living with mild cognitive impairment.

The positive effects of dance and movement, especially for older adults with neurodegenerative diseases, fall into three primary categories, according to Laurita-Spanglet: physical, improving balance, gait, endurance, motor impairment, and functional mobility; psychological, such as quality of life aspects including depression, ability to sleep, one’s relationship with their partner, and loneliness; and neurological, improving neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and regrow. 

Building a Multidisciplinary Approach for Community Benefit

As the dance for health field continues to emerge, Laurita-Spanglet wants students in the course to not only create these projects, but go out and use them in the community as a way of furthering this work.

“I hope this will inspire students to think about interdisciplinarity. This class is bringing together the arts and sciences, and this field is such a good example of how that can work,” Laurita-Spanglet said. “I think generally that’s where higher ed and our world is going anyway. I see that reflected in students at Colby. They all have multiple interests and I hope that this course might help them imagine how those interests intersect.” The students in the course came from a variety of backgrounds, with majors including dance, biology, environmental science, sociology, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and astrophysics. 

Isabella Valdes ’22, a theater and dance and astrophysics double major, didn’t know much about dance for health before taking the course, despite being a dancer for as long as she can remember. 

“This has been a huge learning experience for me and transformative in the way I view dance,” Valdes said. “I had viewed dance as performative art and am now seeing it from this other perspective. I now have a greater appreciation for dance as an art form and something that can actually improve someone’s life—their physical and mental well-being.” For her final project, Valdes studied how dance can be used as a supplemental treatment for those living with Bipolar II disorder, looking for ways these people can deal with tension and aggression in a healthy way through movement. 

Emma Balkin ’21, a psychology major with a concentration in neuroscience who had no dance background prior to taking the course, is an EMT on campus and is interested in the intersection of arts and health. This past summer she was an intern at a mental health center and was involved with bringing art activities to the patients, and now wants to create a community-based program around dance that could be introduced to group homes.

“A lot of people tend to think in a very narrow way, and I think having a liberal arts education is very important to opening that mindset. I know throughout this course, dance for health has also addressed things like antiracism and systemic injustices. I take these things with me in my work as an EMT and would definitely like to take this work into the community in the future,” Balkin said.