Thirty-one year old Emily Jenkins is a pioneer of health through dance, specifically using dance to support people living with and beyond cancer. She was four years old when she first attended a dance class, and, in some form, she has been dancing ever since. Emily grew up in a small village in south Nottingham which hosted a dance school in the local community hall, set up by a dance teacher who lived in the village. This is where she was introduced to all kinds of dance from tap to jazz, ballet to disco and took part in dance competitions. These competitions taught her about discipline and at the same time, the importance of inclusivity and encouragement. She was in her later teens when she started to learn about contemporary dance, which led her to studying performing arts at University – teaching her the importance of dance in culture, education and community. Latterly, this inspired Emily to work with people affected by cancer, and she now runs a project called Move Dance Feel which offers workshops and courses in partnership with Penny Brohn UK, Maggie’s Barts and Paul’s Cancer Support Centre. Also since March 2020, when Covid-19 forced Centres to close, she has been delivering Move Dance Feel Online – a virtual dance programme reaching participants all over the UK.
Sue: Welcome Emily. I love how you have placed dance at the heart of who you are.
Emily: I never really thought I would have a career in dance because I knew that I didn’t want to be on the West End. But I was never presented with an alternative option of what I could do if I wasn’t going to be a performer. So, I decided to travel for a while. When I came back to the UK, I realised I still loved dance and the arts in general. I really value their place in the fabric of society and how it connects people together. This was the beginning of what’s been a very long journey into building a career in dance.
Sue: How did this journey start?
Emily: I started by connecting with dance organisations, doing bits of administration and project management, shadowing producers and delivering dance in schools. I was fortunate to be living in the Midlands in those days where there is an amazing dance organisation called Deda. I managed to swing an interview and was given a maternity cover contract. They had this idea of creating mass participation intergenerational shows right across the Midlands as part of the Cultural Olympiad programme. I ended up in rehearsals, really connecting with the dance artists and artistic director who had the vision to bring everyone from twelve to eighty years old to perform together. It was completely community focused. At that point I thought, ‘Yes!’ I want to create opportunities like this too. I had read about a place called Trinity Laban, named after Rudolf Laban who was interested in breaking down barriers and challenging people’s preconceptions of what dance is and who can dance. So, I did a postgraduate degree there in community dance. I also ended up working for their Learning and Participation department shadowing and assisting in dance sessions for older adults and children, then progressed to leading sessions.
Sue: What inspired you to develop this into supporting people who have cancer??
Emily: After graduating from Laban I got a job in London with Siobhan Davies Dance working on creative projects for young people, and taking dance into schools. But I kept thinking ‘there are so many areas where dance isn’t offered.’ So, I got very curious about what it is in dance that makes people feel good. How does it contribute to positive emotions, social cohesion and a feeling of wellness? There were a number of published studies in dance around creativity in older adults and social bonding, and a lot of dance happening in schools, but it made me question, what about people with other health challenges and other body confidence issues? This questioning led me to start working in the dance and health sector with people who had had a stroke or who were living with dementia. For example I became resident artist at an Age UK day care Centre, delivering weekly dance sessions for adults who had a range of mental and physical health challenges.
Sue: I guess this was very early days for dance and health, especially using dance for people with cancer.
Emily: Yes. But I had created a project proposal within my work at Laban about dance for women with cancer, which was informed by the community I grew up in. I had some very close friends and family members who experienced cancer. My grandfather had cancer treatment for several years and every operation he had was just more dehumanising. I saw his spirit diminish, particularly before he died – he became so emaciated. Cancer has such a powerful impact on the body, not just the cancer itself but the actual treatment process. It made me wonder why people weren’t looking at the potential of dance in this context.
I also came across the work of Anna Halprin who is a pioneer in contemporary dance. She was interested in working within the community, with indigenous groups in America and in the 70s with men after they were diagnosed with AIDS. She had a personal experience of cancer and due to such a strong dance practice, which she also combined with visual arts, she documented how dancing helped her to recover. Once when the doctor told her she had gone into remission she replied that she may be cured but she wasn’t healed. She described having cancer as incredibly traumatic and life changing stating that she could only navigate her journey with cancer through her dance and arts practice. Her book, Dance as a Healing Art, is her account of dancing through cancer and what she found was needed in terms of dance content. She then set up dance workshops for people in the community who had cancer or a terminal illness. I found reading her books incredibly inspiring.
Sue: Did this help you open up to what you wanted to do?
Emily: It did, but for me there was something missing in the literature, which was to understand from participants – those who had cancer and might be new to dance – how dance could benefit them. So, I set out to deliver a pilot dance project in London. Some saw it as a risk, as there was no ‘evidence’ of artists successfully offering dance in this way in the UK. But I had a really strong instinct that it was going to be beneficial. I had also done a lot of research on the medical side and there is a huge amount of evidence to suggest that physical activity is valuable in maintaining a sense of well-being during and after cancer treatment, and helps people to respond better to treatment.
Sue: I guess physical activity gets you into your body.
Emily: Yes. It helps increase the blood flow and awakens you to your body. Physical activity helps psychologically too. If people can maintain strength and resilience in the mind, the body responds. And, at the same time, moving the body moves the mind, freeing it from burdensome thoughts. I had a very strong hypothesis that dance would achieve positive results, but still no secure evidence. Although I was having conversations with cancer support organisations and people were saying, ‘Yes, I see how this can work,’ no one was willing to invest in it without a tried and tested pilot program. So, I set it up voluntarily.
Sue: I really admire your complete faith in your vision.
Emily: Thank you! The voice in my head wasn’t going away. I knew there was a need for this from talking with people who had experienced cancer. The other thing that disturbed me at the time  was the report Throwing the Light on the Consequences of Cancer Treatment released by MacMillan. It stated that 70% of people who have had cancer (they use the phrase cancer survivors, but I’m not keen on that terminology) reported on-going negative side effects for between one and ten years after treatment.
So, you’ve been told you are in remission, but for potentially 10 years, day-in day-out, you have pain, you have weight changes and you’ve got severe fatigue which means you probably can’t go back to work or care for your family as you would like to. You’ll also possibly suffer from breathlessness, dizziness and a limited range of motion. All these are side effects of treatment, along-side feelings of body image disturbance caused by quick in and out surgery, toxic drugs and burning with radiation. Then it’s ‘Okay, bye! Come back in a year’s time for a check-up.’ How do you begin to navigate that?
Sue: I can really feel the horror of this.
Emily: Yeah. Talking to people who were going through it, it was understandable that they were quite depressed. I would asked them, ‘where’s your support?’ But there’s this big gap in cancer support services post treatment. They are trying to fill that gap now, but resources are really limited everywhere. There’s also a missing link in what this support actually looks like. This is not about having a cup of tea and ‘let’s talk about it,’ because these experiences are often very difficult to articulate. For me as a dancer, it makes sense that when you’ve had what is a dis-ease in the body, one should start to rebuild a relationship with the body and move forward from there.
Sue: Yes, I can see that.
Emily: Of course, we can try to make sense of or control our experience through the mind and through language, but we really need to trust how the body has its own intelligence.
Sue: So, the essence of your work is helping people to understand that whatever happens to their body, whatever they’ve gone through, whatever treatment they have, their body still has an intelligence of its own.
Emily: Actually, I think it’s more that whenever we are faced with illness on whatever scale, we immediately get into our head about it. The body and mind are inextricably linked, but in western medicine we compartmentalise this and become very cognitive. We don’t tend to look at the knock-on effects. For example, there’s pain in the shoulder but how does this influence our state of mind – and vice versa.
I believe dance puts you immediately into the present, which helps to calm those worrying thoughts, pause analytical behaviour and enhance the body/mind unity. Everything about dance forces that unity as opposed to driving seperation.
Sue: So, dance or movement takes you beyond the rational mind into an expression of what’s truly going on for you.
Emily: I see it as very multidimensional. Research into dance projects shows there are multiple areas of benefit. It creates a kind of holism that contributes to well-being as a multifaceted notion.
From the initial dance pilot project, which we have now built on, there were reported benefits of things like immediate positive emotions and deep connectivity between people. For instance, when we go and meet a friend, we might say hello, have a hug and a chat, but we don’t physically explore the space around each other; we don’t really communicate without relying on words. Dancing gives rise to strong feelings of intimacy and builds authentic relationships.
Sue: Did you see this happening within intimate relationships or are you talking about friends dancing and moving together?
Emily: People who come to Move Dance Feel may not have known each other before or may have known each other for only a few weeks. It is a women only project so they can’t bring their husband, but they are welcome to bring a female friend along. More often than not though, people come alone. So I introduce dance in a way that helps people to feel comfortable and safe. And social connection feeds into that. My practice is centred around connection: connection to the art form which enables a connection to the self and, most importantly, a connection to others. We may be individuals, but we are moving as a whole and as a group. This brings up feelings of belonging, of purpose and of contributing to something that’s greater than yourself.
Sue: What do you mean by greater than yourself?
Emily: You belong to something that goes beyond your own personal experience. For example, in January 2020 I delivered the first residential Move Dance Feel weekend course at Penny Brohn UK. This was one of six courses to be offered throughout the year [since the outbreak of Covid, these courses are on hold and the project has transferred on-line]. Women arrived on the Friday night and didn’t leave till the Sunday afternoon.
One participant told me at the end of the weekend how she’d witnessed quite a few people nervously arriving on Friday evening, because they weren’t sure what to expect. Many women were deeply depressed, which showed in their body language. What had made her weekend was witnessing these women joyfully expressing themselves, confidently moving around the space, smiling and giggling with each other – there’s a lot of partner work or small group work during the two days which enables people to exchange with and witness others.
Something is transferred when you see someone else fully enjoying themselves, especially when you’ve seen them struggling at other moments. It’s infectious joy. And a kinship forms. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to recognise progress in other people than in yourself. But as you’ve gone through the experience together, you want to celebrate each other’s achievements.
Sue: Yes, it’s about the magic of being in the same soup together!
Emily: There’s something about validation and acceptance from others too. It gives you a sense of self-worth. For example, if you are improvising (I use quite a mixture of creative dance tasks) and you offer a gesture or movement towards someone else and they are inspired to respond to it, you see how this person is validating what your body is offering them. Observing how much they are enjoying your gesture or movement creates feelings of self-worth and helps you to appreciate your body.
Sue: I can really see how this enhances well-being.
Emily: Yeah. However, before you can get to a place of well-being, I think you have to release yourself from the emotional turmoil, worry, fear and self-criticism that you’re going through. A lot of what I do in my practice – especially at the beginning with a new group – is to focus on release and just letting go. We carry around so much tension in the mind and the body, and until you can be comfortable in the space and just drop into your body, you’re not going to be able to access other parts of yourself. A lot of what people were saying, particularly at the end of the weekend course, was ‘I just feel so much freer!’. It’s about shaking it out and having some fun.
Sue: So, the knock-on effect of letting go is really engaging more with who you are within the context of having cancer and how you view cancer and your treatment of cancer?
Emily: I think that’s a question for participants because every individual is different. I can’t make a generalising statement about that. I think what I’ve noticed more than anything though is how dance improves feelings of confidence. When feeling confident, empowering thoughts like ‘I’m here and I’m me’ manifest. It’s about self-management and perhaps just more assurance about the decisions they are making, whether that’s related to the cancer process and their treatment or life after cancer such as who they want to be now and what they want to do.
There was a woman quite early on in the project who realised that she couldn’t put energy into others anymore. She needed to draw back and think about what she wanted to do. She realised creativity was a big part of this and she’d never given herself the time to explore it. She found the women around her in Move Dance Feel really supportive and inspiring. This support comes from the group and the conversations people have beyond being ‘cancer patients.’
A lot of support programmes focus on discussions around cancer. There are of course times when that’s perhaps necessary, but then all conversations become about the cancer. In Move Dance Feel, we’re here for the creative experience. We’re seeing you as a person (not a patient) and celebrating the movement we’re all doing together. I notice during social breaks how the conversations are different. For instance, women talk about their interests and their relationships and things like travel. They don’t always focus on the subject of cancer.
Sue: I can see that talking about it constantly reaffirms, ‘I have cancer.’ But expression, dance and movement takes you beyond that to be something more than that. And, realising that the body which is ‘ill’ is working really well in those moments.
Emily: It’s also about inviting curiosity. When you’re in the traditional western medical system – and you’re in it for a long time with a cancer diagnosis and various treatment options – you will be constantly faced with the problems and the limitations of what’s not working. Dance invites you to explore other possibilities and makes you curious about what’s next. It shows you how you can contribute as opposed highlighting the ways you ‘can’t’. It’s about encouraging people to look at new ways of being, and we start that process physically by looking at new ways of moving.
Sue: So, dance enables them to live a much fuller life within the context of what’s going on. I am interested about where you want to take your vision from here.
Emily: I want dance to be fully integrated into cancer care services. Currently it gets in under the umbrella of physical activity but things we’re talking about here go way beyond that. The feelings of social connectedness, and ways that dance offers emotional support, go way beyond what’s quantifiable; there’s a sense of moving forward, and opening up, which is quite remarkable.
Sue: How do you envision this happening?
Emily: Practically we need to make Move Dance Feel sustainable. We are always at risk of not having enough funding to continue, so it’s building enough awareness around what the benefits are – we’ve got some really amazing research findings. Even so, trying to get this information into hospitals or on the desks of health professionals is very challenging. But it’s also trying to raise awareness among the population of people who have cancer. It’s asking them if they ever thought about dance and explaining what it could do – maybe try putting some music on in the kitchen and start by bopping around when you’re cooking and notice how it makes you feel!
I belong to an organisation called IADMS, which is the International Association of Dance, Medicine and Scienceand we recently formed a committee which is trying to unite this ever growing network of dance and health practitioners and collate dance and health research. I want to bring together dance artists who are really making change in some settings where traditional medical interventions just don’t work, but where dance interventions do. I’m aware that living with a long term health condition can feel really difficult, so taking part in something that is primarily about lightness, joy and fun is such a welcome relief from the seriousness of everything. That said there is also space for sadness – we know that things can be shit and sometimes you may want to cry – and it’s a safe space as people have an unspoken understanding of what you’re going through, so you feel held by everyone else.
Sue: That’s worth more than any medicine!
Emily: Yes! Never underestimate the power of joy. And, how the feeling is intensified when it is shared.
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