A dance program is offering Kentucky veterans with mental health issues a way to ease back into civilian life.
The state’s Department of Veterans Affairs estimates thousands of Kentucky veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury. The program being offered in Louisville is called Dancing Well: The Solider Project.
Men, women and children are swirling in this demonstration of Dancing Well. It’s part of a Veterans Administration Health Expo in Louisville.
Deborah Denenfeld is calling out the steps. She’s a dance educator who created Dancing Well four years ago.
"The psychiatrist who worked at Fort Knox contacted me thinking that perhaps I would come and call a couple of evenings of contra dancing for the soldiers," said Denenfeld. "He thought that perhaps the movements and the music would help improve their memories.
Contra is similar to square dancing, but it’s done in two long lines. Denenfeld decided to adapt very basic community dances to meet the physical and emotional needs of soldiers with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI.
"People have issues with balance and vertigo, and that affects what I teach," she said. "So if there's a swing, I will show them how to do a very simple, two hands, walk around, slow swing."
Denenfeld got advice from dance therapists. She got good feedback from the Fort Knox sessions, and then had a 10-week session in Louisville a couple of years ago. So far, about 20 veterans have taken part in Dancing Well.
Martin Traxler is director of the Robley Rex VA Health Care System in Louisville. He observed the demonstration of Dancing Well at the health expo.
“Anyone who is challenged from PTSD or TBI, the most important thing is for them to get out and do things," said Traxler. "So the movement, live music, all those things are important to help the veterans feel like they’re part of something and that they’re doing something to move their life forward and enjoy life.”
Moving forward can be tough for veterans like 56-year-old Ted Spencer. He went into the Army in 1976 when he was 17 and served for three years. At his home in Louisville, Spencer says he was sexually assaulted a month after he arrived for basic training at Fort Knox. A second trauma came shortly after that.
"I've seen a guy right in front of me, about three-feet away, get run over by a 113 personnel carrier. It's a tank armored vehicle, approximately 11 to 13 tons," said Spencer. He tried to save his platoon mate, but it was too late.
He didn’t talk about those traumas for more than 30 years. Finally, in therapy, he was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and chronic anxiety. He realized he was isolated, so he tried Dancing Well. He says it had a good effect on him.
"Even as far as with my therapists, I started opening up a little bit more with them and started working on those individual stressors," said Spencer.
Another veteran with PTSD who found Dancing Well helped him is 50-year-old Roosevelt Smith. He was in the Army for 15 years and in Desert Storm from 1990 to 1991.
At his home in Louisville, Smith said he witnessed explosions and saw some in his battalion die in combat. Even today, he says an unexpected, loud noise can cause him to dive to the ground and try to protect himself, or others who are nearby.
"I don’t want to run and hide from everything. There are times I’m really afraid to go out into public,” he said
Smith said he was trained to numb many of his feelings to survive in combat, and it’s hard to get those feelings back.
“One of the things I would love to accomplish is to get out there and live," said Smith. "It’s really no life having to have yourself always away from people."
Smith loves music, so he tried Dancing Well.
"I don’t care what kind of day you had, because of all the joy that’s in there, it’s contagious," he said.
Dancing Well just made him feel good.
"It was medicine for me, so I had to keep up with my medicine, so I had to keep going," he said.
Smith says he’s planning to go to the next session beginning Jan. 12, so he can get some more of that musical medicine at Dancing Well.
For WKU Public Radio, I’m Rhonda Miller.