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The Art of Choosing Music

What makes a body dance depends. We’ve all learned that much.


I was in a Gap store, shopping for something. Not browsing, shopping, which I consider a kind of work needing all my attention. At one point I heard a group of girls giggling. Nothing unusual in that, but when I glanced in their direction I realized they were giggling at me… because I was was dancing. The store sound system was playing music that my body found irresistible, while I was thinking about something else!


Still unsure what the lesson is. But if I can make a sub-conscious playlist, I’m interested.


Prepping a weekly list takes a week- for me. I prefer the organic of letting a song come to mind, or come to a store near me. In my case I’m choosing music for a captive audience. If hell is other people’s music <updating Jean-Paul Sartre> then it carries great responsibility.


My class is for people diagnosed with Alzheimers (AD). Sentience is best revealed with humor, so I’ll use a funny song like Baby Sings the Blues (Steven Walters), or the George Burns joke about bending over “You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoes and wonder what else you can do while you’re down there” Those who laugh are still with me on the normal plain. The others, frankly, get most of my attention.


I have long believed the music codes us, and that if I can crack the code then “teaching” becomes enabling, empowering; then I might honestly add the word Conscious to Dance. I don’t know about the psyche, but the wordless forms I discover in dance are reverie. Now that I would help others through my practice I see so much more that wants attention and study.


At most basic, a dance class has 2 options: sound and silence. Sometimes I think all this attention to music is just so we can get a more perfect silence. One day I’ll get that big sound just right, until then I load a laptop with music like any dj and rock my room as best I can.


My AD class has people in all colors at all stages of the disease, from seemingly intact to taciturn, White, Black, Latin, Asian. All came from long and I presume rich lives within the Bay Area’s progressive culture. Homes and careers, children and grandchildren, the abilities, loves and hopes of a diverse life all are being taken from them day by day. Their children can no longer care for them as they return to dependence. In the insidious decay of Alzheimers pathology they are slowly losing their ego. Advanced stages strip people of their names, their history, and any idea why they’re locked, with strangers, in a room they can’t leave. Many were enrolled at ASEB (Alzheimers Services of the East Bay) within days of being picked up by the city police, wandering down University Avenue, stopping only to ask where they were.


To work best with those suffering from AD, I need to suspend my uncertainty about who is still there, inside the withering minds. It’s a credo of AD research that the body’s strongest response is to earliest memories. And music is core. No one knows what they may yet have to offer… but we have a clue in music: the songs that first opened our hearts never leave us.


ASEB is a day-care center charged with serving meals and keeping 150 AD patients off the streets of Berkeley. Recreational activities are by volunteers, such as myself, who entertain or distract them with music, crafts, puppies, anything to fill the void of a long day. Some walk into my room, others ask to be taken. They call it Jamie’s Dance Party… and i’ve tried my best to think what Casey Kasum would do.


More than anything I want to know what moves them.


What do children do when they can’t go out (on a rainy day)? Something that wants their imagination of course. So I began to explore their world, their preferences, their sensibilities. What were the soundtracks to these lives? I can’t assume my background is theirs. My “students” are not returning to a study of dance and music appreciation in their golden years… so much I offer is new to them. Many of the women lived an entire life without dancing with a white man. And here I am… like a cruise ship social director, trying to “entertain” for today.


There is almost no end to the pop music that may have been playing when they went to their first dance, or was on the radio when they stole a first kiss. Of course they collected favorite music like we all did, but none is mentioned on their doctor’s diagnostic report.


I keep my questions close. Can they keep a beat? Do they remember fav artists? Who are these people sitting in my circle? The first song I played was Don't Leave Me This Way by Thelma Houston. It was my answer to the question What record is the hardest to sit still for?


Life is but a dream/ Sh-boom, sh-boom


I watched them closely as I sampled hits from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s… and Michael Jackson.


Those who can will get up and dance to songs by favorite artists: Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight, Sister Sledge, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. I grouped music, not unlike the chart-makers do, by soul, pop, reggae, blues, gospel, country.


Then further select into categories (or themes) which help me to know the room. Love songs by Sade, Sinatra, Sting, Stevie Wonder. Happy music: Trini Lopez, Sly Stone, David Byrne and Jimmy Durante (Make Someone Happy). Torch songs by Vaughan, London, Monroe, Garland. Anthems by Elvis, Tony Bennett, Shirley Bassey. Sweaty songs by Donna Summers, MC Hammer, Tina Turner.


Some songs come with choreography: The Time Warp, We’re Off to See the Wizard, I Wanna Be Loved By You. Others are best done in a circle or conga line. Choreography means moving the same way at the same time. It clicks our wolf-pack, bringing unspoken cohesion -and power- to a group.


We have a staff member who knows ASL and, as time allows, will teach a song in Sign. Dancing with the hands doesn’t need to be exact, and it allows sitting participation. Favs include Temptations’ My Girl, You Give Good Love by Whitney Houston, Three Little Birds by Bob Marley & The Wailers. Any song in the sing-along collections is worth signing.


Gospel, for me, is anything that brings spiritual attention. For every song in the classic canon- Wade In The Water, I Wanna Be Ready, Rocka My Soul, there are 3 that build on it- such as Oh Happy Day from Sister Act, Elvis Presley’s You’ll Never Walk Alone, Bridge Over Troubled Waters by S&G. For many in my classes a connection to God is their primary passion, and these songs are Praises to the Almighty. There are no distractions when I play the gospels.


Revival seeks religious fervor (and new converts). It may be the only music that is judged by the reactions of a congregation. If they ain’t movin’ the souls ain’t saved. Down To The River To Pray -best known from Oh Brother- is a song of baptism.. and it seems to confer blessing. I’ve never had a group not hungry for this.


Reggae isn’t a big catalog but it is distinctive. One of my regulars lived in Jamaica and loves the form. Yes, of course I do requests. Could You Be Loved, No Woman No Cry, Exodus. Marley could rock the faithful. “The devil nah get mi soul ina him hand.”


Children’s music - I watched The Little Mermaid with a 9 year old girl… who had seen it 12 times before! She knew every word and was not the least bit tired of it. Boredom comes from pining a preferred place. Children -and Alzheimer patients- thrive in the present. Songs that everyone loves can be played more than once. Whatever brings that much joy is worth repeating. Children crave repetition, however unlikely it seems to adults.


Country music is about anthems & homilies. Crazy by Patsy Cline, Do Not Forsake Me, A Fool Such As I, Tex Ritter’s Red River Valley. These are not happy songs but they truly move us. The audience usually knows all the words and jumps right in. For many men country music is the only place (including church) passion can be shown. Chris Stapleton is a current recording artist who sings longing like Chekhov, check out Whiskey and You, Traveller (2015).


Love Songs - Remember when we first started dancing as young teens? There were only 2 kinds of songs: fast & slow. Fast was from wild childhood; slow was touch, and from a future we could only imagine. Nobody was held -like that- until slow dancing gave permission. Oh, the excitement of someone dear being that close for three minutes! We had no words so the songs spoke for our dizzy feelings.


Everyone who comes into my class has known this puppy love, an impulsive joy that was centered in and hosted by music.


Everything is call and response. The music we play is a call, the body responds as it may. Whatever discovers passion is a love song. In You Take My Breath Away Eva Cassidy sings the devotion that has fed all healthy beings at one time or another. No matter they’ve never before heard the artist, some people cry, some tap their hearts, everyone gets still in the presence of such beauty. Use love responsibly.


Poetry - I read Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise in 3 parts with songs between. Reading it to Alzheimer patients I could feel the defiance in the poem, and so did they. It’s a call to arms and a call to life. Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, is a wonderful, rhyming children’s lullaby, more suitable for napping than marching. Some poetry is so well done we just listen: The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes, Calling Trains (Utah Phillips). Words always matter.


Nature - I play bird calls every week [Echoes Of Nature]. At first these were spacers while looking for a piece of music, but i’ve come to love what bird sounds do for the room. People whose expressions I can interpret -about a third of my group- show surprise at first, expecting music. But invariably they grow still, listening with all senses out, the way people do when in nature (and not afraid). The novelty begets fresh attention. Birds may be the first music ever heard by humans and response in my class is always original, and grounding.


Surprise stimulates the brain. I have a cowbell recording Chorus of Cow Bells (Pro Sound Effects Library) which I play all the time. It’s silly, but silly is good. In a half-minute of clanging cows, everyone finds the rhythm, then the patience, as if waiting for them to cross the road in front of our car.


Pomp and Circumstance (Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops) is a victory march. This was the moment, at everyone’s graduation, when our parents stood and applauded us. In my class, we made a procession, marching & preening about the room for 4 minutes and 18 seconds. Their joyful celebration -or re-creation- was priceless.


I think of my audience as enhanced. They have more and more attention to less and less of life as they have known it. AD patients are the fastest growing diagnosed population in the world. It is estimated that nearly 500,000 new cases of Alzheimer's disease will be diagnosed this year in the United States. Every 3 seconds, someone in the world develops dementia. They are quickly becoming a nation within each nation.


I suspect music -all the rich sounds of life- can see them through their ordeal in ways no pharmaceuticals can match.


Teaching is a privilege and I’m aware of my responsibility as host. My task is more docent than deejay. What can I do for their senescence that is unique, even useful? I have no answer. All I can hope for them is for a calm space, a moment of not trying to be other than they are. I believe receptors, however impaired, will always know the peace of a full moment - when the whirl of past and future merge into a single refrain of a single song, and nothing is needed. The room stops. This peace, this beauty, is possible in every class


How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things. - Elaine Scarry


James Cavenaugh

jcavenaugh@mac.com


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