Scrabble and stabbed haggis at Silk Court retirement home – a blog by Alice Mackenzie

Midway through the project, CDS Member Alice MacKenzie writes about her Moving Memories project, dance in care homes supported through CDS’s current Arts Council England funded Next Stages programme.

I first visited Silk Court Care Home in the summer of 2012 for Moving Memories, a project with Chisenhale Dance Space. Over the course of ten Wednesday mornings I met with residents in the TV lounge to dance, sing and talk, eventually making a book from the residents words and images. The time around the sessions became more and more important, and I would stay after the sessions had officially “finished” for increasingly long periods of time. The time around the sessions were the moments when people most wanted to talk or sing, when I had the most possibility to stop and spend time one-to-one. This project really stayed with me. It left me thinking a lot about about touch. About care. About holding memory of another, for another. About trust. About presence. About sediments of time and place in bodies.

This time I wanted to have more time to be there throughout the day, to think about ideas of home, and the ecology of a care home. Silk Court is a collective living situation where 51 people share meals, space, time and care alongside a group of people who work there, and with visits from other professionals, relatives, friends, artists, priests, and school children. I hoped to find how a dance artist may be able to join this ecology and the possibilities for a rich and fruitful relationship between dance artist and care home.

I met with Silvia, the new activities co-ordinator, and joined some of the residents for a Christmas lunch in the Star of Bethnal Green. The owners had closed the entire place up for them and the staff both cooked and served us a full Christmas lunch before sitting down with us to eat.  Someone played the guitar. A barmen did card tricks. I moved around the table talking meeting people and talking to staff and residents. I made a plan to come back in January for a week to offer morning movement sessions and less structured afternoons alongside. Being-around-ness.

Silvia was open and generous and warm. She was my first connection to staff and residents and we worked closely together. A week is an interesting amount of time. It felt important to be reliably returning day after day, and so become familiar, even to those whose dementia made holding onto details and short term-memory hard. I had time. Time to stop and talk or change plan. Time to invite relatives or others in to sessions, and time to play scrabble.

Some things I had time to notice:

  • That a relative visiting (and especially joining a session) lights up a room in such a particular way.
  • The ways in which residents supported each other and took care of each other emotionally. And also of course how they could irritate each other. The intensity of collective living.
  • That live music draws people to a room and made its borders more porous. The music opened up other ways of moving and engaging and allowed for another kind of focus.
  • That the viola is pitched more comfortably than a violin for one woman’s hearing aid.
  • That recording people’s voices and songs and then being able to play them instantly back out into the room also does something interesting to attention and maybe value. I don’t quite know enough about what it does, but I would like to try more. 
  • That there is a lot of power in many of the residents hands. We leaned into each others palms and the sharing of weight felt huge and vibrant.
  • That a disco ball always changes a space.
  • That I am embarrassed to ask staff members to spend time giving any written feedback and need a better method. I relied instead on speaking to people. And spending far too long in the evenings writing up thoughts and things remembered.
  • That Wednesday mornings – or any middle day of a project  – are so often sticky somehow and a bit hard. But also that the stickiness makes me have to think and reflect in ways that are important and often lead to things shifting.

Wednesday afternoon into Thursday feel like a tipping point. A Scottish member of staff approached me to lead some dancing at a Burns Tea he was spontaneously organising in the first floor tea room. He read Burns Ode to a Haggis and stabbed a tray of muffins in place of a haggis. He then led me and a group of staff members in a chaotically brilliant Dashing White Sergeant.  Several men and a few women who had never been to the morning movement sessions danced with me and members of staff that afternoon. We laughed a lot. 

As the week went on people begun to stand up to dance more and more in the sessions. With me, with each others in small groups or pairs. I became a more confident in negotiating the balance between clarity and responsiveness to movement that was being shared and offered in the room. Unexpectedly for me we made a short dance that we could dance together.

Friday was a day for endings and the movement session itself felt interestingly calm and clear, if a little more reserved than the previous couple of days. It was only after the session was officially over that people begun to take the dancing they were doing up and out of their chairs, clapping and improvising along with the musician. It took a while before it felt like we could really call it an end.