Maria Genné, the founder and artistic director of Kairos Dance, used to have a career that focused on dancing with young people. But as she grew older, Genné began looking at how she could create dance in which everyone felt welcome, and how music and storytelling could be used to stimulate the minds and bodies of the elderly in ways modern science is only beginning to fully appreciate.
"Everybody should have the opportunity to dance," she said recently. "To me it's how we express who we are. I think dance in its early form was what communities did to be together but in recent years unfortunately I think we have limited who gets to dance. We've said you have to have a certain kind of body you have to be a certain age for sure and no older."
Now Genné, 61, runs a dance company in which members of her company tour nursing homes and other senior care facilities to share dance's physical and mental benefits.
At one workshop at Carondelet Village in St. Paul, Genné and a few of her fellow Kairos dancers lead a group of residents, predominantly women, in a song set choreographed movement. The residents, mostly in their 80s, sit in a circle, scooping their arms to the Earth, and then crossing them over their chests before reaching up and out to the sky with each verse.
One of the women, 84-year-old Pat Palmer, has limited mobility. But she used to love to play tennis, and she says her sessions with Kairos give her the same physical and emotional high.
"It seems like it awakens something in my body that makes me want to move and laugh and talk with people," she said. "Life is a gift. I love it that we can express it with our whole bodies and with our voices, and just be happy about being alive."
The Kairos workshops are free flowing and involve lots of participation. If a resident shares a memory of dancing as a teenager, Genné might pick out a polka tune and get people moving their feet to the rhythm. Often they create songs together, with everyone contributing a word or line. People are encouraged to make eye contact with one another, to smile and to simply move as they are able.
For 88-year-old Eleanor Lincoln, who uses a wheelchair to get around, sometimes that means just waving her hand in time to the music.
"You can dance in your wheelchair," she said. "I dance in my heart too. In my mind."
That morning, one of Lincoln's friends passed away. But Lincoln still came to the Kairos dance workshop. She says she is consciously fighting the isolation and depression that comes easily with living in a nursing home. "I have to work against it because I don't see the friends I used to see or do the things I used to do — but if you keep happy, and keep open, you can still live," she said.
Keeping people feeling happy and alive is precisely Maria Genné's goal.
"Everybody thinks of dance as this physical thing that you do; it's about exercise," she said. "I'm like, 'No no! It's about understanding the world with your whole body.'"
Recently neurologists have started paying closer attention to the role the arts play in both developing and sustaining healthy brain function. Kairos Dance was featured in the PBS documentary, "Arts and the Mind." Its work at Carondelet has also caught the attention of Professor Catherine Sullivan, who teaches neuroscience and gerontology at St. Catherine University. Sullivan decided to track Genné's work, and see what, if any, long term effect it had on participants.
"Even after three months we found there was improvement in balance scores following the dance. We found there was increased physical participation: People who didn't used to move, moved a lot more. They were interacting physically with each other," Sullivan said. "They had this sense of being valued and being listened to."
Sullivan says to even expect any change in nursing home residents marks a big shift in scientific thinking about old age and brain plasticity. But she observed Carondelet residents who, through music and dance, prevented further memory loss.
"So what's really exciting to us is the engagement in artistic pursuits creates this protective effect on the brain and several studies have shown it does prevent dementia, and when people already have dementia, it can slow down dementia."
Kairos Dance rehearses in the warmly lit space of the Loring Park building in Minneapolis. The company consists of dancers ranging from 14 months to 80 years old. They're often joined by a 93-year-old saxophonist. Lately, members Tamara Ober and Sally Dixon have been working on a piece they'll be performing with One Voice Mixed Chorus.
Ober is a professional dancer who also performs with Zenon Dance. Dixon is 80 years old, and suffers from a form of memory loss called progressive aphasia. Ober says they have become quite close.
"It's incredible. Because I'm so sensitive to how bodies move and function, if she does something that she might tip over, I know — I can feel it coming, and I can catch her before she feels unsafe," Ober said.
While Kairos Dance might sound a little too touchy-feely for some, an organization that only older ladies would go for, a trip to a Veterans daycare facility quickly dispels such a notion. One recent cold and blustery morning, military vets — the guys — were up and moving, holding hands, stomping feet, and singing.
Vietnam veteran Robert Stamness, 63, says he'd rather watch grass grow than play bingo, which is a common activity at the center. But the Kairos workshops are different.
"It's fun to make a fool of yourself sometimes. There's nobody here that's a dance expert. You don't have to be," he said. "You just feel good."
Another veteran, 91-year-old, Bill Hanagan agrees. "This is the only place I get up and move around. I can't step at all but I can stand there and wiggle pretty good," he said.
For Maria Genné, all of this — the singing, the storytelling, the movement — is just a small step toward what she thinks is really important: Recognizing the value of our elders, and providing them with full and rich lives until the very end.