Dance for the brain | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Dance for the brain

/ 05:06 AM April 25, 2018

This has been a month of nontraditional graduations.

Earlier in the month I attended the graduation for a lumad (Mindanao’s indigenous peoples) school in the mountains, picked up by a habal-habal (motorcycle) and preceded by a babaylan (priestess) performing an inaugural ritual.


But I’ll save that rather complicated graduation for a simpler, but still important, graduation, where the oldest honoree was 89 years old and all the rest aged at least 60.

There were about 60 of them, and they got certificates for completing a one-year course as part of a program called “Indak” which, in Filipino, means a dance somewhat like a jig, performed with energy. It was a good choice as well for an acronym: Improving Neurocognition with Dance and Kinesthetics.


Indak is the brainchild of Dr. Jacqueline Dominguez, perhaps better known in medical circles as a neurologist and geriatrician at St. Luke’s Medical Center. Fewer people know that she is an anthropologist, who took her MA in the University of the Philippines Diliman. (Bragging rights: I was her thesis adviser.)

Jackie has been active in clinical work, and in research in geriatric medicine, especially with dementia (Alzheimer’s disease included) but she felt it was time to do something with communities so she set up Idca, or the Institute for Dementia Care Asia, to reach out to communities.

A few years ago she began a long-term study of senior citizens in Marikina, looking for clues in their social life and care that might help to delay dementia and, in those who already have dementia, to slow down the deterioration.

A spin-off was dance therapy. Jackie was intrigued by studies in other countries showing that dancing was helpful for people with dementia, as well as a number of other medical problems such as movement disorders (Parkinson’s disease being an example). The medical rationale was simple enough, something that had come out of the hundreds of studies on physical exercise contributing to wellbeing. Exercise conditions not just the muscles but our physiological processes: heart rate, respiration. The body releases endorphins, sometimes described as natural opiates that reduce or suppress pain (which is why it is only the day after strenuous exercise that we feel the muscles aching).

Memory work

More specifically for dementia, dancing exercises the brain because you have to memorize the steps. Indak was born with the slogan “Dance for the brain.” For one year, the senior citizens who signed up would attend one-hour sessions twice a week. They mastered a total of eight dances involving more than a hundred steps.

This pilot project was launched in three communities: Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish (Claret), Marikina Height’s La Verna Aged Care Village and, my favorite, Barangay UP Campus in Diliman. The first two communities are more middle-class while UP Campus is low-income (I didn’t see any of our retired faculty).


I want you now to start imagining the music, and the steps, of the four dances the Indak graduates rendered for this wonderful commencement exercise: “Stand by Me,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “La Vie en Rose” and “September.” The first three were presented by individual communities, and the last one had all the graduates dancing together.

These were not easy dances, especially “La Vie en Rose,” which used a tango beat, once described to me by a friend as “hot and passionate, but precise.” The most basic tango requires a sequence of eight steps. Watching the senior citizen graduates doing the tango, I made a mental note: Next time we will invite octogenarian Dr. Mary Racelis, who lectures with UP’s anthropology department and still does a mean tango.

Jackie was understandably proud of her graduates, and their teachers Jaypee Decena and Maryanne Jenelle Yabut-Montalvo, both products of UP’s College of Human Kinetics and living up to UP’s slogan of serving people.

While dance therapy has been the focus of so much research in other countries, we know it takes so much more significance for Latin cultures like our own, where it seems people are born to dance. Young kids pick up steps so naturally, and intensify their dancing in adolescence and young adulthood, generally slowing down with age, but that might change as more senior
citizens take up dancing.

I should have known better about all these colegiala (convent school) reunions and dancing instructors, which some people would frown on but which I did suspect was one reason why they dance through their 25th, 50th, 60th, 70th, even 75th anniversary.

But there’s more yet to uncover for dance therapy in the
Philippine context. Last week I had ethnomusicologist Christine Muyco guest lecturing in one of my research methods classes. Researching music among the Panay Bukidnon, she realized
both music and dance are difficult to separate from other aspects of daily life. An elderly woman, for example, would start a dance and then stop halfway through and say she would not continue because there was no sibod, a term that could apply to a conversation, or to any other event, when something is missing and the sequences lack flow.

Maybe the closest term to sibod in Filipino would be “dating”: there is no falling together to achieve “arrival.”

Dancing for life

Jackie told me she was thinking of what new dance therapy module could be developed for the senior citizens and that got me thinking, too, with Christine’s research findings in mind as well as other aspects of dance.

I played back videos of the Indak graduates to my 8-year-old daughter who found it absolutely delightful. With the exception of “La Vie en Rose,” she identified the tunes right away, even the vocalists and that got me wondering if new Indak modules, besides more structured sessions with fixed dance steps, could also include free-for-all pieces, with senior citizens asked to name the tune, or, better, do a sing-along dance.

I’m not a fan of karaoke but maybe it can be put to good use together with dance therapy. There’s good research coming out of several countries where people with dementia sometimes break through their mental “fog” of aphasia (difficulties with speech) and apraxia (inability to identify objects).

One scholarly article from Sweden had a heartwarming account where the researcher/instructor was dancing with an elderly woman with advanced dementia who suddenly pointed to the window, then used her finger to draw a circle. The instructor realized she had identified the sun.

I could visualize how the dancing had invigorated not just the mind of the elderly woman but her emotions. In the Philippine context, there’s certainly more to explore in how we sing and dance: More than music, more than body movements, there’s the camaraderie of life together. Indak is dancing for the brain, for the heart, and for life in every sense of mabuhay.

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TAGS: graduations, Indak, Jacqueline, Lumad, Michael L. Tan, Pinoy Kasi
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