Finding peace through performance
Since childhood, Michelle Gould has had a passion for dance.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,” said the third-year Wilfrid Laurier University student. “It’s the most fun way to stay fit. It’s an awesome energizing feeling learning someone else’s choreography.”
Gould is one of the many Laurier students who uses forms of art such as dancing, drawing or playing music to escape from the stress that comes with being a university student.
But Gould doesn’t just dance for herself. Every week, Gould uses her love of dance to inspire a group of young people who had not previously been given the opportunity.
As the co-founder and co-instructor of Feel the Beat, a dance class hosted by Laurier Athletics for young adults with developmental disabilities, Gould teaches self-expression through hip hop and jazz moves to a group of enthusiastic young people.
She spoke of the obvious physical benefits of the class, which currently runs with nine students and nine volunteers, but also felt that the participants experienced significant social benefits.
“From the start of the semester to the end of the semester one of the biggest changes we notice is the communication skills,” she said. “Some of them are very shy at the start. But by the end they feel confident to express themselves. For example, they’re able to say, ‘oh, I can’t do this move, it hurts my knees.’”
Gould remarked that the students of Feel the Beat have shown improvements in communication both in and outside of class. “Their parents come up to us and tell us how much they appreciate these things too.”
Another common practice in the class is to allow the students to move beyond the structured environment of traditional dance classes and improvise. “They love showing off their best moves,” Gould said. “It gives them a lot of confidence and allows them to express themselves.”
Associate professor of music therapy at WLU Dr. Carolyn Arnason, who works with students and clients in clinical improvisation, provided perspective on why improvisation is a healthy form of therapy.
“Improvisation gives a container, it gives a freedom for expression,” explained Dr. Arnason. “That container can be big or small. It’s like, ‘this is my voice, informed by everything I know and who I am.’ And isn’t that interesting?”
Third-year business student Ian Watson, a dancer and musician, has a multitude of reasons why the performing arts have benefited him as a person — though he didn’t always have access to it.
“At my school, I’m not sure if it was just that particular district, but we didn’t have any focus on dance in our curriculum and the music program wasn’t very well-funded either,” Watson explained. “It might also have been the case that they didn’t take it as a serious discipline. Personally, I think it’s as vital as something like math.”
Coming from a low-income area, Watson never had the opportunity for studio lessons and instead learned his craft on the streets of his neighbourhood.
Recalling his early memories of dance, Watson explained, “My first recollection of dancing was being six years old and coming home from school. We’d have the cardboard out down on the ground and everyone would be breakdancing. It was so fascinating to me, so I decided to pick it up myself.”
“We didn’t have things like cable TV or computers. Dancing was what we did.”
As a teenager, a ski accident as well as another incident resulting in multiple stab wounds threatened to put one of Watson’s knees out of commission.
However, determined to pursue his passion, he used dance as a form of physical therapy.
“It’s just like biking or jogging — stimulating and slowly exercising your muscles to promote recovery,” he explained. “Obviously you can’t go at it too hard or you’ll make it worse. But it’s a great form of therapy.”
But it’s developing new skills as an adult that Watson said has been truly beneficial both physically and mentally.
“It wasn’t until I started at Laurier that I began taking classes in hip hop, as well as contemporary and lyrical,” he said. “When you’re learning something new and learning to move in a totally foreign way, you’re exercising your brain in ways that you don’t normally. It’s like learning a new math formula.”
Watson also continues to use art as a form of release and therapy in his adult life. Like Arnason, he sees the benefits of improvisation as a container for emotions.
Specializing in krump, an aggressive style of street-based hip hop that utilizes exaggerated movements of body parts, Watson uses dance as an outlet for emotional expression.
“As a krumper, you have to put in all your emotions into it,” he explained. “It’s all about raw energy and real feelings … so when I’m feeling stressed or depressed, the best thing I can do is just krump. Everyone needs something in their life that allows them to express themselves.”
For one former Laurier student who asked to remain anonymous, art was about far more than challenging herself to learn a new thing; it helped her along the path to emotional stability.
“I was molested for many years as a child,” the alumnus explained. “I have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and severe depression for many years.”
Her severe anxiety lead to an inability to feel comfortable around most men, and also lead to self-harming behaviour. However, several years ago she began to pursue music through several means. “[I started taking] piano lessons, singing lessons and I joined a competitive travelling choir.”
Her love of music has allowed her a healthy outlet for emotions. “I find myself able to use musical composition and singing as a means of redirecting my stress,” she said. “I put all my pent up emotions into a healthier means of expression.”
The biggest benefit from music has been her ability to once again develop a healthy relationship with a male. “My vocal coach is a man — the only man I’ve ever trusted,” she said. “I associate my vocal coach with extremely positive emotions and he has instilled in me a great sense of self-confidence, something that not even the females in my life were able to do.”
Dr. Arnason, who specializes in the guided imagery of music, told The Cord that being immersed in music often leads to significant breakthroughs.
“There are often parts of oneself that have been put away because of our family dynamics or the people we grew up with or maybe trauma that people have experienced,” Dr. Arnason explained. “They’ve gone away many times for good reason – to stay protected.”
“Breakthroughs are like parts of yourself being uncovered or revealed,” said Dr. Arnason. She emphasized that one does not need to be a trained artist to experience these breakthroughs. “There’s benefits for everyone, and those benefits are available for everyone.”
The former Laurier student affirmed this. “Music definitely does have healing powers,” she said. “Without it, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”