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WCSU professor’s research shows hope for veterans to heal through community dance program

image of Dancing Well program
Dancing Well program (Photo credit: John Nation)

DANBURY, CONN. — In what might seem like an unlikely partnership, Western Connecticut State University Professor of Psychology Dr. Robin Gustafson and Louisville, Kentucky, dance instructor Deborah Denenfeld have partnered to conduct research on how community dance programs can aid veterans with PTSD and Brain Injury. Gustafson and Denenfeld met through their joint interest in contra dancing several summers ago.

Gustafson used her expertise in research methods, as well as her background in the ecological and embodied cognitive science, to conduct research on the effects of a community dance program called Dancing Well: The Soldier Project. Prior research had shown that community dance can have a significant impact on brain areas involved in stress and PTSD.

During Gustafson and Denenfeld’s research, three (now former) WCSU students, Carlos Jiminez, Marlon Tristao (also a veteran) and Tyla Johnson, worked with Gustafson on designing the assessment, writing, data coding, data entry and data analysis. The team completed its final draft of the paper during the summer of 2018 and it is currently under review for publication. Co-author Dr. Cynthia Corbitt from the University of Louisville also helped Denenfeld with on-site work.

Before and after each 10-week community dance program, 17 veterans and accompanying family members were measured on connectedness, experience avoidance, hope and optimism. The Dancing Well program consisted of weekly 90-minute community dances with live music and calling by Denenfeld, a nationally recognized dance caller. Gustafson found significant improvements in all three wellness measures, which was a surprising outcome given the small sample size. More surprisingly, the improvements were significant for all participants, regardless of PTSD status, showing that even the family members were healing. Gustafson and her co-authors believe that these results show that this program, and programs like it, can help treat some of the most important non-medical symptoms of PTSD in veterans and some of the often-overlooked problems experienced by their families.

The nonprofit, Dancing Well, started when staff psychiatrist Edwin O. Walker invited Denenfeld, a seasoned dancer, dance instructor and dance caller, to the VA Healthcare Center at Fort Knox, Kentucky. They worked together to develop and implement a dance series specifically attuned to the needs of soldiers with PTSD and/or BI.

Walker had seen firsthand the devastating effects of PTSD and BI, 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.

“I would be 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,” Walker said.

Not only did the soldiers and families love the dancing, they reported measurable outcomes. 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 also reported a decrease in physical pain. They also reported feeling less isolated and that their relationships with family, friends and others had improved. These benefits were consistent in surveys given immediately following the series and three months later.

“I formed the organization because I had experienced the healing power of community dance myself,” now-Executive Director Denenfeld said. “Many people have told me about how going to a dance lifts their mood, helps them feel connected with others, and provides a social community they come to value.”

Based on steady attendance and a tremendous response from participants, Dancing Well now holds several dance series of 10 sessions each per year in Louisville.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD afflicts one in five Iraqi war veterans, 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, as many as 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and nearly one-third of Vietnam veterans. Since 2000, there has been a steep rise in the number of veterans on disability for PTSD. Today, one in three veterans treated by the VA suffers from PTSD.

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