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Nicci Gerrard: On my father’s dementia and the joy of dancing

He was old and bashed about by time and sickness, words were failing him, yet his body remembered how to move to music. 

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced “The Continental”, but so did my parents. Every time I hear the song I’m back there: in the kitchen of the house where I spent my childhood, eating supper with my siblings – spaghetti or cauliflower cheese. The music is crackling on the gramophone and my father is whisking my mother round the room while the four of us groan in furious embarrassment and try not to look at his hand in the small of her back and their bodies close together.

My father was a reticent, sometimes shy man, but he loved to dance. When the music started, it was as if he could forget any problems or troubles, forget himself. He danced the waltz, the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha, the quickstep – no freeform dancing for him; there were rules and moves learned long ago that allowed him a structured freedom. He was agile, graceful and blithe. His feet, in their soft leather dancing shoes that he kept polished and at the ready, knew what to do. It was like the music was in him and he was in the music.

When he danced, there was a way in which he became strange to me. He was no longer the man who went to work every morning in a suit, spent the weekends toiling in the garden in ripped trousers, helped me with my maths homework and did the washing-up, but someone accomplished and beautiful. I could imagine him before I knew him, before my mother knew him: young, carefree, just setting out. I vaguely apprehended that he wasn’t just my father. I saw him dance with his female friends, attentive and deft. He danced with my sister at her wedding, with me at mine. He always looked happy when he danced.

When he got dementia and started not to know or remember things, he still knew and remembered how to dance. His body knew. On his golden wedding anniversary, when the illness was just taking hold of him, he danced with old friends and with his young granddaughters. Several years later, at a party in a barn in Sweden, where my husband Sean and two of his cousins were celebrating their 50th birthdays, he joyfully took to the floor, seizing surprised Swedish women and steering them round the room; leading my mother in the tango, upright and serious. He was still living well with the illness then: he had half a year ahead of him before it became a wrecking ball.

The last time I saw my father dance, which I think was the last time he danced, was at his 60th wedding anniversary. A few months later, he would go into hospital to be treated for leg ulcers and come out after five weeks so damaged by the experience that his old life and its many pleasures would be finished with, and he would spend the next nine months slowly dying. We didn’t know that, of course, although we did understand he was precarious and time precious.

We arranged a thé dansant in their garden and the whole family came: children, grandchildren, partners. We made a ridiculous, dinky English tea – miniature scones and cucumber sandwiches and éclairs – and we played the music they had always loved. And there was my mother in a fine red dress, and there was my father in a dark suit and a pale turquoise shirt with cufflinks. And they danced. They were old and he was bashed about by time and sickness, words were failing him, yet his body remembered how to move to music. His feet in their dancing shoes remembered.

Soon enough he could no longer walk, let alone dance. His memory and his physical capacity were quite gone, even the muscle memory that allows some people with advanced dementia to play the piano or sing. His death, when it came, was a kindness. After he died, a friend and I launched a campaign (John’s Campaign, named for my father) that fights for more enlightened, compassionate care for people who have dementia when they are in hospital or other institutions. Because of this, I have spent a great deal of time with people who are forgetful, confused, often feeling unsafe in a world they no longer recognise. Time and again I have seen the miraculous power of everyday creativity to keep them connected to the world.

In halls and in care homes up and down the country, I’ve sung and played music with people living with dementia; I’ve been to art classes; I’ve danced. Once I danced with a tiny woman who before she took to the floor was silent and withdrawn and seemed anxious. But words are not the only way to communicate. When the music started, she changed. She must have danced all her life, because she was so extraordinarily nimble and at home in her body as she twisted and twirled. She taught me steps and showed me how to move: dancing had opened up a democratic space between us in which she was no longer diminished, but assured and authoritative. I was learning from her.

I have learnt from people who have this desolating illness that connection is vital. There needs to be a way for the inner self to connect to the outer world. Creativity can provide that link between self and other: it should be available on prescription. Many of those who seem quite lost can still be reached. Men and women who can no longer speak will lift up their heads and sing; with no memory of yesterday or their own name, they can sit at a piano and their fingers ripple over the keys; they put paint on canvas to say “I am still here”; and sometimes they dance.

In health and in sickness, we should all dance. My father danced the waltz, the tango, the foxtrot and quickstep. He danced “The Continental”.

“What Dementia Teaches Us About Love” is published by Allen Lane. Nicci Gerrard also writes with Sean French as Nicci French

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers