Photo credit: Adam Jones

Dancing Well: The Soldier Project was born when staff psychiatrist Edwin O. Walker invited Deborah Denenfeld – a seasoned dancer, dance instructor, and dance caller – to the VA Healthcare Center at Fort Knox, Kentucky. 

Walker had seen first-hand the devastating effects of PTSD and brain injury – both on his patients and on the families, friends, and loved ones who welcomed them home. He saw how the combination of pain, impaired memory, and anxiety around others could cripple veterans in the rest of their lives and take a heavy toll on couples and families.

Walker found himself searching for new ways to help these soldiers and families heal. When he noticed that one of his patients got his memory back after learning to play the guitar, Walker suspected it might be due to the combination of music and repetitive movement.

Walker knew that when he danced to music his own aches and pains disappeared. He started to wonder – could dance help soldiers and their families, too? Would his patients be willing to try it? And if so, would they like it?

I am really short sighted to think that mere words will convey how much this has helped the different soldiers that I have seen later in my office.
— Edwin O. Walker, MD, MSPH

To test his idea, Walker brought Denenfeld to Fort Knox. Where Walker had envisioned holding a few dances for soldiers, Denenfeld worked closely with him to develop a targeted program carefully tailored to the needs of soldiers, veterans, and families affected by PTSD and brain injury.

Not only did the soldiers and families love the dancing, they reported outcomes that were truly amazing. At the end of the series, every soldier who participated reported reduced anxiety, better physical health, and an improved outlook on the future. Ninety percent also said that their memory and mood had improved. Half even reported a decrease in their physical pain.

Walker and Denenfeld also noticed a profound impact on couples and families. Veterans and family members alike reported that their relationships with family and others had improved. They were also grateful for the opportunity to get to know and interact with others who understood the unique challenges of living with PTSD and brain injury.

The dancing helped their pain, it helped their memory, and it helped with their anxiety. For some, it provided an outlet for the whole family. It gave them something fun to do together, and they all seemed to blossom.
— Edwin O. Walker, MD, MSPH

From this initial series, it became clear that such a program would not only help restore the well-being of afflicted soldiers, but also serve as a way to strengthen families under stress and integrate veterans back into their community.

Witnessing the remarkable transformation of the soldiers and families, Denenfeld started Dancing Well: The Soldier Project to bring the same benefits to as many others as possible, first locally in Louisville and then elsewhere – with the ultimate goal of a national dance program for afflicted veterans and their families.