Los Angeles veterans find therapy in dancing

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Dance therapist Sarah Wilbur, center, leads the group in a round of dancing.

Since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, hundreds of thousands of members of the U.S. military have sustained traumatic injuries to their brains and bodies.

They come back with the goal of getting back to a normal life, physically and mentally.

Now a look at one type of treatment that servicemen and women are receiving here in Los Angeles.

Some might say it’s unconventional. Others feel like it’s an innovative approach to help wounded warriors trying to get back into the rhythm of civilian life.

In a conference room at the VA West LA Medical Center, about two dozen veterans sat on chairs in a big circle. One person at a time came up with a dance move – say, waving both arms in the air, or pretending to swing a baseball bat – and everyone else copied the move. This was the culmination of an eight-week long dance therapy course.

Vietnam veteran Avery Delton said he loves all kinds of dancing – salsa, tango, rumba, salsa – and that dancing helps people like him get the confidence to get outside the walls of the VA.

“Independence. Empowerment. To let ’em know that they don’t have to stay home on Fridays and Saturday nights. That they can go dancing like the rest of ’em,” he said.

Delton said he’s dealing with a host of medical issues, including bone cancer, two rods and a plate in his neck, and problems with his back and legs. He said he’s also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.

“I suffer from PTSD,” Delton said. “I don’t worry about it. I’m safe when I come out here. I can be myself.” “Does dancing help you feel less stressed out, too?” “Yeah man. Sure do. Should’ve seen me Saturday night up at Universal Citywalk. Oh yeah, don’t let this cane fool you. I have 20 minutes before my back hurt. Oh, I have a good time.”

“There’s so many young people that are our age and younger returning from service,” said dance artist Sarah Wilbur, who helped lead the class. “The idea of who a veteran is, is becoming more complex as we move forward. So it’s great to know something about the culture of the VA and the culture of military service through dancing.”

Wilbur has been teaching severely mentally ill veterans and training clinicians all over the greater Los Angeles VA healthcare system for the past four years. She works with choreographer Christine Suarez, who also shares a personal connection to veterans.

“My grandfather was a WWII veteran, and the way his eyes lit up when I told him that I was working at the VA, and the pride that he had was incredible,” Suarez said.

The idea to bring dance therapy to the center came after Dr. Robert Rubin, a staff psychiatrist at the West LA VA, went to a Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC in 2008. He watched a demonstration of dance for Parkinson’s disease, performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group. He talked to the people in charge of the program and asked if they’d ever thought to work with veterans, and they said they hadn’t. “So, long story short, here we are now, six years later, with Dance for Veterans,” Rubin said.

There’s a strong connection between Parkinson’s and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Dr. Donna Ames, a psychiatrist and the program leader of the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center at the West LA VA.

“I also have a background as a psychopharmacologist and researcher, and somebody who’s been profoundly aware of some of the negative side effects of medications,” Ames said. “And they literally, some of the medications, can slow our veterans down and cause what’s called drug-induced Parkinson’s type syndrome. And the theory is that if you get somebody moving, it fights this dopamine depletion problem that you have with Parkinson’s.”

The dance program also helps veterans with their socializing skills, said Dr. Rubin. He said many veterans had time with touching others.

“Veterans didn’t want to touch other people and they didn’t want to be touched,” he said. “But eventually they kind of got accustomed to it, and so this kind of physical socialization, creativity, where every veteran is asked to contribute something to the dance, to create something from themselves for the dance, these have really been good social enablers, in our experience, for the veterans.”

Drs. Rubin and Ames have submitted a report to a medical journal about their early experiences in developing the program, with veterans and staff sharing their impressions. They’re also looking to duplicate the program at VA centers across the country.

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The dance therapy program is supported by an $8,000 grant from the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs.

“Dance is important for everyone because it brings a certain joy,” said Joe Smoke, the grant program director. “In this case they’re using dance as a sort of art therapy. So it’s dance about increasing people’s body movement, about bringing them out of themselves emotionally. All are things which could happen to you if you were at a concert, seeing dance, but our grants in this category, for artists in residence, are really to activate the public, and to do something with them that’s participatory.”

After an hour of dancing, Army veteran David Snyder looked like he was just getting warmed up. After he was diagnosed with severe PTSD, Synder said he tried a host of different drug treatments, including self-medicating, and that led to a felony assault charge. Instead of jail, he was court-ordered to the Recovery Center at the West LA VA, and said programs like mindfulness meditation and dance are helping him stay focused.

“It provides an outlet, energy, it’s good for you, it raises your spirits,” Snyder said “It gives you goals to try to achieve and, it’s great.”

The VA has been experimenting with alternative therapies – like yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, even art appreciation – to address PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse and depression. And dance is becoming another tool for helping those veterans.