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    Photos by John Nation courtesy of Dancing Well: The Soldier Project

    On a small stage, a fiddler and keyboardist play a happy folk tune, one that frolics and charms, steering thoughts to the mountains of Appalachia, perhaps by way of Ireland or Scotland. Toes keep rhythm, tap-tap-tapping along. It’s the perfect music for a precise mood — jolly and mellow. In a dimly lit dance hall in Germantown, about 25 people have gathered for a dance organized by Dancing Well: The Soldier Project. Since 2014, the nonprofit has hosted several free community dances packaged into 10-week sessions, one dance per week.

    Minutes before the dancing begins on a recent Tuesday night, volunteers and veterans pin nametags onto shirts at a table adorned with small American flags standing in paper cups. Red yarn is tied on right wrists, an assist so that when dance steps are being called, there’s a visual differentiating right from left.

    Dancing Well encourages veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) to come out, socialize and participate in simple, family-style dances. “We take traditional, old-time dances and modify them for the lowest functioning person on the floor,” says Deborah Denenfeld, executive director of Dancing Well. “So every night is different.”

    Experiencing trauma of human design — war, assault, rape — poses the greatest risk for developing PTSD. Terror follows those with the mental illness, emerging in dreams and flashbacks. Emotional numbness is a common coping mechanism. Many tend to isolate themselves and aggression toward loved ones often occurs. Recent data shows that the suicide rate among male veterans using VA services is double that of the general U.S. male population. (It’s more than double for female veterans.) Often, combat-related guilt fuels thoughts of suicide, according to the National Center for PTSD. “We are not therapy. I want to be clear about that,” Denenfeld says. “But together with professionals we provide a real important service. We help people feel more comfortable around others. They feel more courageous about their therapy.”

    Brittany Priddy, a recovery coordinator at the Robley Rex VA Medical Center on Zorn Avenue, applauds the program. She says getting veterans with PTSD around other people is critical. Dancing Well provides a welcoming space, a new community beyond the military. “They’re nervous at first. Then the music starts and the dancing starts — next thing you know, you’re changing partners, engaging with people,” Priddy says. “And the walls come down.” 

    Denenfeld is a longtime dance instructor who vaguely resembles the actress Sarah Jessica Parker and carries herself with a calm, earthy lightness — a wood nymph in comfortable dance shoes. She held a brief dance series at Fort Knox in 2011, and the positive response from veterans and their families inspired Dancing Well. 

    “Who’s wants to dance?” she calls into the crowd scattered among rows of card tables. “Come on out!” It’s still a small program, with only about five to eight veterans routinely attending. “This is an early American dance,” Denenfeld explains. “It’s from a book of dances from Connecticut in 1809. So people have been doing this a long time.”

    Partners face each other in parallel lines. It’s a dance of skipping, promenades and gentle turns. Nothing too severe, as many veterans struggle with physical injury as well. Ted Spencer sits and watches, his left knee bobbing along to the claps and footsteps shuffling along the square wooden dance floor. The burly 58-year-old has undergone two back surgeries, so his dancing is limited. But he cherishes catching up with friends.

    Spencer says he discovered Dancing Well at a rough time in his life. “I was isolating, not getting out,” he says. “I had a couple suicide attempts.” Spencer completed basic training at Fort Knox in 1976 at 17 years old and served in the Army in the late 1970s. He experienced two significant traumas, neither of which he felt comfortable sharing publicly. Depression and PTSD tightened their grip in the wake of these events. With therapy and suicide-prevention groups, “I’ve come a long way,” he says. Dancing Well complements his journey. 

    Priddy says the biggest challenge for Dancing Well is getting veterans to show up. “Dance is not something that those in the military are going to gravitate to,” she says. “When you’re already struggling to get out of the home and then you’re questioning, Is this masculine? Is this OK for me?

    Dancing Well’s best ambassadors are the small group of veterans who feel so deeply connected to it. Darlene “Dar” Bessler, a 69-year-old who served in the Army in the early 1970s, mostly as a medic, recruits other veterans whenever she can. One time she approached a stranger in Target who was wearing a Vietnam War Veteran ball cap. “I invited him to come,” she says. “He hasn’t, but I so want to help it get out there.”

    When Bessler first saw a brochure about the program, she didn’t think it was a good fit. “I saw that it was for veterans with PTSD and TBI. I was thinking, I don’t have those,” she recalls. “But my counselor at the time said, ‘Yes, you do, with your history of military sexual trauma.’” Confronting the memories helps in the healing. The dancing dusts off the idea that joy still exists for the taking. “It’s very freeing,” Bessler says. “When I’m here my little kid gets to come out and play. “

    Denenfeld is sensitive to veterans’ needs. Lamps with a warm golden glow provide lighting because some participants with traumatic brain injuries suffer headaches from fluorescents. A rocking chair is off to the side of the dance floor, in case the movement and crowd overwhelms. A “safe space,” she calls it. Between dances, Denenfeld often asks, “Does everyone feel OK?” Volunteers must read informational material on PTSD and TBI before they can attend.

    Such training recently helped one veteran named Roosevelt Smith, a 52-year-old who tonight is wearing a Gulf War Veteran cap and khaki pants. Several months ago, bad feedback from speakers pierced the room. Loud noises are a trigger for Smith, who saw fellow soldiers get “blown up” at an airfield in Iraq. At the noise, he recoiled, anxious and on edge. “The volunteers were so calm,” Smith recalls. “They didn’t run up to you. They showed you love. That makes a difference.”

    Smith, a Chicago native and father of seven, says since moving to Louisville several years ago the local VA has linked him to the services he needs. “My family, they were catching hell,” he says. “I’m coping much better (now). It’s not one thing; it’s not I come here and I’m cured. It’s something that you work with.”

    Smith, whose wife and youngest children sometimes accompany him to the dances, heads out to the floor. Denenfeld cues the musicians to play “The Arkansas Traveler,” a popular old folk tune. An inner circle and outer circle face each other and Denenfeld calls the steps. “Everyone travel to your right! Go past your partner! Do-si-do!” A disco ball hangs overhead, a glistening cornea, its battalion of Tic-Tac-Toe squares pixelating the dancers below. One must be at eye level to witness sudden delightful fits, like when Smith adds a shoulder shimmy and a bubbly hop-skip. “That’s my Chi-town flavor,” he exclaims, adding a ha-HA!

    The last dance for this session is scheduled for Jan. 9. Denenfeld plans on continuing the program and is in the midst of fundraising. She’s also working with a researcher in Connecticut to try and measure the program’s outcomes. Smith, a regular for three years, says he’s always enjoyed music and dancing. But with Dancing Well, he now swears by the transformative power of a weekly hoedown. “You look like the Joker going home,” Smith says, exploding into smile, a banner of teeth. “(My family) will be like, ‘Boy, what’s wrong with you?’”

    This originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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