Veterans’ Dance for Those with PTSD or Brain Injury Works Wonders
March 4, 2014 | By Matt Frassica of the Courier-Journal
When Roosevelt Smith III twirled, do-si-doed and promenaded across the dance floor at AMVETS Post 9 in Schnitzelburg, it was not such an unusual sight in a building that houses regular community dance nights.
But for Smith, 48, the evening was significant. Smith takes part in a twice-weekly dance group for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“You go through so much during the week, but then you come here and it’s great company,” Smith said. “You get a chance to talk and laugh with other veterans. That's important.”
Smiling beneath his Gulf War Veteran hat, Smith took evident pleasure in the dance. But according to Smith’s wife, Jennell, he has struggled to enjoy himself since leaving the military in the early 2000s.
“It’s like he’s a part of something. He belongs,” Jennell Smith said. “I haven’t seen him smile this much in probably a few years.”
The dance series, called Dancing Well: The Soldier Project, has been meeting at the AmVets post twice a week since the beginning of February. Although its last two meetings are this week, organizer Deborah Denenfeld encourages new participants to come try it out.
So far, the response from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, Denenfeld said. She said she heard from one veteran who used to think regularly about suicide, but now looks forward to coming out to dance.
“To me, this is worth everything,” Denenfeld said. “I know for sure that this one person has gotten a lot of benefit from it.”
Denenfeld started calling dances for veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury at the VA Healthcare Center in Fort Knox when a staff psychiatrist, Edwin Walker, came up with the idea.
The Department of Defense considers traumatic brain injury one of the “signature injuries” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, due to the high number of soldiers returning from the battlefield having sustained head injuries from improvised explosive devices. It can affect things like memory and emotions, and increase the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
The notion of using music to augment therapy came from one of Walker’s patients. “A patient had told me he came back from Afghanistan and he couldn’t remember anything,” he said. “When he learned to play guitar, he got his memory back.”
Walker, a fan of a highly organized dance form called contra dance, thought the combination of hearing music and learning the steps might help other vets. He connected with Denenfeld, who has years of experience as a dance caller, and asked her to come to Fort Knox.
A dozen veterans and their spouses or partners participated in the 10-session program at Fort Knox. Walker was impressed with the results.
“They came to notice that their pain was less, their anxiety was less, and their memory improved a little bit,” he said.
One family brought its teenage daughter to the sessions. “The daughter looked me in the eye and thanked me for giving her her daddy back,” Walker said.
After the series, Walker moved to North Carolina, and Fort Knox didn’t continue the program. But the experience inspired Denenfeld to begin her own program for veterans.
“Deborah has kept on like a bulldog on a bone on this thing and done a marvelous job,” Walker said.
For the past two years, she has been raising money to put together Dancing Well: The Soldier Project. Denenfeld plans to hold at least one more series of 10 dance nights in Louisville before taking the project to other cities. Eventually, she hopes to develop a curriculum and train other dance leaders to bring the program to a national audience.
Before the current series began, she interviewed potential participants to make sure they were a good fit for the program. Some, she said, had more acute issues than dancing could help with.
“It doesn’t take the place of therapy,” Denenfeld said. “It’s recreational and social activity that can have some really positive outcomes.”
One of the veterans in the group, Mark Yenowine, 56, said it helps to get vets into a social situation with new people. “I think it gets them out of the house,” he said. “It gives them something to look forward to.”
Denenfeld recruited volunteers from the local contra and square dance community to provide dance partners for the veterans. One volunteer, Mara Thomas, 25, also helped connect Denenfeld with significant funding to get the project off the ground.
“Even in the brief time I’ve known these people, they seem to be so much more comfortable in their skin,” Thomas said. “That’s something I’ve learned from contra dancing, and it’s nice to see that reflected in other people’s faces.”
Reporter Matt Frassica can be reached at (502) 582-4502 or on Twitter @mattfrassica.
IF YOU GO
What: Dancing Well: The Soldier Project
When: Tonight and Thursday, 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Where: AMVETS Post 9, 1567 S. Shelby St.
More info or to donate: Visit dancingwell.org or call (502) 889-6584