My troupes and I regularly perform in nursing and convalescent homes. A few people in my audiences are pretty aware just recovering from a serious injury. Others need a bit more assistance and most others are either heavily drugged with prescription medications or have Alzheimer, dementia, mental or other degenerative illnesses.
Over the years I’ve picked up some helpful tips to share with other dancers who want to perform in these venues.
1. First, bring your own boom box and back-up batteries. Their equipment is usually old and/or won't play your CD's. You might also have to ask the staff to re-arrange the way patients have been rolled in or seated so you can perform without half of them behind you.
2. Come with all your make-up and jewelry on. The room you’ll have to change in range from closets, someone's office or a small bathroom. Try your costume on ahead of time. Most likely there won’t be a full-length mirror. In fact, that's becoming a luxury even at some of the biggest belly dance festivals.
3. Be prepared for strange behavior. At one place a man was roped off with yellow caution tape. Why? During the show we discovered he was masturbating. Another time we were told not to get too close to one woman. A staff member told us if she got her hands on anything “she had a grip stronger than a pit bull”. She almost got my angel wings.
4. Be aware that these homes have a particular smell to them. It’s a smell that personally makes me feel sick to my stomach. I usually don't wear perfume. I’m sensitive to different chemicals and so are many of my students. Perhaps it won’t bother you but take note.
5. Come in the door upbeat and smiling. No doom and gloom. The whole point of dancing at these places is to lift the spirits of people often neglected by family and friends. Even if it’s just for a 30 minutes show put as much joy and passion into your eyes as possible. You’ll feel great too!
6. Try to travel with a variety of dancers and genre of our dance. We do group pieces and solo. Mix it up. Brightly colored veils, swords, finger cymbals, canes, coin belts and swinging beaded dress, upbeat pop music, classical Egyptian and fusion make it fun for you and for your audience. I tell you truthfully I’ve never performed at a nursing or convalescent home where I wasn’t invited back.
7. Make audience eye contact even with folks who look dazed or sleepy. You'd be surprised at how many of our sisters and brothers in these homes can be coaxed to smile. Some are just staring ahead and looking like no body is home. Don’t ignore them either. If you feel discouraged at all the blank faces around you find the happiest faces in the room and dance your heart out for them.
8. Don't forget the workers and staff. Get them up to dance with you. Talk with them. Smile at them while you perform. They generally work for low wages with long hard hours. Show them you appreciate them as well. Its rare but sometimes-family members are with their loved ones. Make them feel included.
9. Get your audience to clap, stomp there feet and whoop it up. If they can’t you do it. At one show a woman was sitting with a yellow balloon. All she did was babble but I tell you she bounced that yellow balloon to the beat the whole time.
10. Remember to thank everyone for inviting you to dance. Don't make them feel as if you are doing them a favor. We rarely get paid for these performances but we always feel better even when the circumstances are not ideal. Case in point. We arrived at one nursing home and the recreation coordinator forgot to tell the appropriate staff person that we were coming. We waited while they set the room up, and brought the patients in. When they were ready we started to dance. We starting sliding around and noticed that there were mashed potatoes and peas on the floor. So we had to stop the show until the floor was cleaned. The moral of this story is you have to be patient and recognize you are there for the residents.
And finally, you never know what your future will bring so dance for these special audiences as if you were sitting in one of those chairs. One Christmas, we decided to visit patients confined to their rooms. Some were delighted we took the time to visit. In another room we saw two men wrapped tight under sheets staring at the ceiling in dark rooms. In another room a woman was frantically trying to talk as she grasped thin air. The room smells were a combination of sourness and strong cleaning detergents. I was in tears after I left that time but at least we were able to alert one of the staff members that one resident just wanted water. We need to visit these homes as entertainers or just concerned people to make sure no one suffers needlessly.