Trish Winter: A Somatic Ethnography of Grand Gestures Elders Dance Group

‘Close your eyes and watch your breath’

says Paula, and there’s a little giggle in the room.  We obediently close our eyes, and I watch my breath enter in a cold rush, prickling the edges of my nostrils.  It triggers a kind of release in my throat, before being sucked into lungs which I imagine as monstrous tree branches, waving and pulsing in the dark cavity of my chest.  This watching takes in a universe of sensation – the temperature and movement of air into my body, the muscular stirrings, tensions and releases involved in both breathing and sitting still, the temperature of the room registering both on my skin and from inside my body as the occasional shiver.  Here I am in a chilly church hall in North East England doing fieldwork for my somatic ethnography of Grand Gestures elders dance group.

This project asks about the place of bodily sensation in cultural value through a case study of older people dancing. In particular the study focuses on the somatic senses, the cluster of senses that relate to touch.  This includes the external sense of touch on the skin, as well internally felt senses such as kinaesthesia (the sense of movement), proprioception (the sense of position in space), balance, and something that we might call physical empathy – that sense of physical connectedness that can be felt as we dance together.  A key part of the experience of dancing, these senses are not much written about in the body of academic and arts professional publications that examine the impact of dance on health and well being among older people.  But, for example, how does the development of a heightened sensory awareness feed into an understanding of one’s self and identity? Or what is the place of touch and physical empathy in the building of a community through dance?

I’ve approached the ethnography as a collaboration with the dancers of Grand Gestures and their lead artist, Paula Turner.  This group of men and women, aged from 54 to 90, meet once a week as part of a project, Creativity Matters, run by the charity Equal Arts. Through interviews, participant observation and a range of creative exercises, we are exploring together the value that these older dancers attribute to their dance activity, and the place of somatic sensation in that.  We’re also addressing some thorny questions about how sensory experience, subjective, sometimes fleeting and tricky to describe, might be articulated in words and in other ways.  The dancers are energetic and engaged participants in the research, and we’re generating a vast amount of research material such as reflective writing, drawing and painting, pottery, film, and sensory diaries, as well as interviews and fieldwork notes.

As we enter the final two months of the project, ideas and themes are starting to emerge from this potentially overwhelming volume of ethnographic material, and it is both exciting and daunting to be starting to tease out some responses to my initial research questions.  I’ll be taking these back to the group for their feedback and I look forward to seeing my project’s results take shape as a contribution to the Cultural Value Project.

Trish Winter, University of Sunderland, is the Principal Investigator of the project, A Somatic Ethnography of Grand Gestures Elders Dance Group.  It runs from 31st December 2013 to 31st May 2014.  Equal Arts is the project partner. You can read more about Grand Gestures, Creativity Matters, and Equal Arts on the group’s blog:


Hannah Zeilig: The arts in dementia care – A Critical Review of cultural and arts practices in dementia care in the UK

Mark Making: Exploring the value of the arts for people living with a dementia


‘Dementia’ is a condition or syndrome that is elusive and defies any facile definition; it has become a fear-laden term that encapsulates society’s worst terrors. Despite the general lack of consensus about what dementia ‘is’ in neurological terms, there is agreement that dementia is a long-term medical disability. To this end, there are regular reports in the media and elsewhere concerning the prevalence of the condition both in the UK and globally. The recent G8 summit highlighted the importance of countries working together to find a cure for the condition.

However, at the present time finding a cure or even effective drug treatments is proving elusive. In the absence of appropriate pharmacological interventions the social conditions in which those with a dementia live also need urgent attention. Pioneering work by researchers and practitioners has contributed to the understanding that although Alzheimer’s and other dementias may be incurable at present, they are conditions that can be treated and that treatment always includes more than drugs.

This is the socio-political context that has led to a burgeoning of arts and cultural initiatives for people living with a dementia. These initiatives are diverse and include (to name a few) music and drama groups, creative writing programmes, dance groups, painting classes and visits to art galleries. There are also a number of organisations that have emerged in the past decade that have a specific focus on using the arts with this population. These organisations and initiatives reflect a prevalent assumption that the arts and culture play an intrinsically positive role in the health and wellbeing of people living with a dementia.

However, there has been very little critical evaluation or review of these initiatives and interventions. Indeed, the evidence base relating to the real and measurable benefits from cultural activities for people with a dementia remains disjointed. Similarly, there has been little work exploring the views of people living with a dementia concerning their perceptions of the value of arts and culturally based activities.

Mark Making aims to extend and strengthen the knowledge base concerning the efficacy of arts-based approaches for people living with a dementia. The question guiding the project is:

            ‘What is the value of arts and culture for people living with a dementia?’

This question is being explored using a range of methods, including a comprehensive literature review.

In addition, the project team has spent time with the artists and participants of three arts based projects:

  •          Visual to Vocal at Dulwich Picture Gallery
  •          Music for Thought run by Westminster Arts
  •          Verd-de-gris in Hebden Bridge.

These projects all used a multiplicity of arts activities including visual art, art making, music making and poetry.  The two London based projects were led by professional artists (from the Royal Academy of Music and English Touring Opera) and took place in an art gallery and Wigmore concert hall. Verd-de-gris in Hebden Bridge is a smaller scale project that takes place in a town hall. The projects are representative of the varied range and scope of participative arts initiatives for those with a dementia; some of which take place in rural locations on minimal budgets and others (the majority) that are located in London or other major urban centres. In addition, although the London projects were better resourced, securing funds for future projects was an abiding preoccupation for all the groups.

A duet in Dulwich Picture Gallery (part of the Visual to Vocal song cycle)

A duet in Dulwich Picture Gallery (part of the Visual to Vocal song cycle)

Despite differences in funding and resources all of the groups were characterised by the energy and enthusiasm of the leading artists and their active engagement with participants.  As one participant exclaimed during a group ‘Enjoy the day’; she certainly was.  The importance of collaborating with participants living with a dementia to ascertain their views and opinions is a preoccupation for the Mark Making project team. However, pragmatic difficulties have been encountered. These are related to the teams’ problems with developing trusting relationships with individuals in very short spaces of time.  Despite these issues, several in-depth interviews have been carried out and a number of questionnaires have been completed.

Mark Making has used novel methods. A graphic artist helped create a comic explaining the aims of the project to participants living with a dementia. This was extremely well received in one project (where copies were all taken by participants and artists) but the investigators were asked not to distribute it in two projects due to sensitivities about using the term ‘dementia’.  The taboo and stigma associated with the word dementia (even within arts projects designed specifically for those living with a dementia) has piqued the curiosity of the project team.  Above all, it was unclear who felt uncomfortable with the word (carers? project leaders? artists?); as in conversation with the investigators several participants referred loudly and openly to their diagnosis.

Mark Making is ongoing – the final report will be complete by June. It is therefore not yet clear what the recommendations will be. However, the team expects to contribute to the wider cultural value project in several ways:

  •         By capturing and questioning tacit assumptions about the inherent value of arts and culture for people living with a dementia.
  •          By advancing the ways in which we think about and discuss the value of the arts and culture in the UK both generally and specifically in relation to their role for people living with a dementia.
  •          The literature review and study of the projects is beginning to synthesise the disjointed evidence base regarding the use of arts and culture for those living with a dementia.

Please read more about our work here: