Dancing to the Beat of Fond Memories

By Kristian Partington

 It’s Monday morning at the Village of Taunton Mills, still early in the day for some residents. For a regular group from the retirement neighbourhoods, however, it’s time for dancing. Led by instructor Nicole Cote, this group spends an hour every week practicing line dancing moves and on this Monday, to the untrained dancer’s eye, there’s a surprising amount of energy in the room.  

Nicole Cote with her arm around Shirley as they finish a dance
Dance instructor Nicole Cote finishes a dance with Shirley, a Taunton 
Mills resident for whom dancing brings back fond memories.

Shirley is there as well, as she has been regularly for the past few weeks. She lives in a different part of the village, you see, in a neighbourhood designed for those living with dementia and memory loss. Not long ago during a care conference with Shirley’s daughter, neighbourhood coordinator Erica Arbour learned that Shirley enjoys swimming and dancing, but excursions to the pool proved a little much for her. There’s the bus and the traffic to consider, along with all the people at the pool, which can be difficult for people to absorb sometimes, taking away from the enjoyment of the actual activity. Familiar music and the opportunity to dance in a quiet setting with a small group of people, however, well that proved to be more suited to Shirley’s comfort zone.

On this day at the beginning of class, Shirley seems a little confused, but as the music flows to her she begins to focus on the instructor’s feet and the rhythmic beat of the waltz coming through the speaker at the front of the room. A fellow resident holds her hand as she begins to come in time with the steps. Before long, any signs of slight confusion are replaced with a gentle smile and Shirley’s eyes are sparkling. By the end of the hour, she’s beaming at the front of the room, following along in perfect time with no support. The others are beaming as well, for laughter and enthusiasm has enlivened the room this hour.

After everyone leaves, Shirley sits with me and answers a few questions. She loves dancing, she says through a slight Caribbean accent, “because you know where you want to go and you just go there.”

Shirley grew up in Barbados, it turns out, and music and dance was a part of life there. “All the family was always up and down dancing,” she says with a slight smile. “Now they’re getting a little bit older, and I’m pretending I’m not getting any older,” she adds, the smile on her face growing brighter. She mentions dancing on Bay Street in Bridgetown, reflecting back to her younger days in Barbados. She mentions her brother and how they used to sneak around to go dancing along the strip at the edge of the sea, and then she mentions her grandmother there, telling her and her brother to get out of the garden. She sits in quiet reflection before a question brings her back to this Monday morning in Whitby, Ontario. Does she like dancing with this group, she’s asked?  

“Of course,” she says. “It makes me feel so good.”

And then, with a slight handshake and a smile, she says goodbye before walking hand in hand with a team member back to her neighbourhood. Next week may present the same glint of confusion at the beginning of class once more, but music is in Shirley’s blood, it seems, and in no time she’ll be dancing again.