Following the healing steps of circle dance

Cancer patients at Suburban Hospital dance toward recovery

Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Dr. Judith Andai (center) leads Su Lee, of Silver Spring, in a circle dance that helps relieve stress for cancer patients at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. The program called ‘‘Catching Life’s Breath” uses simple, rhythmic folk dances and music to promote relaxation and meditation.

The nine women dropped their coats and bags as they entered a meeting room at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, kicked off their shoes and walked to the center of the room.

Then the women — cancer patients, cancer survivors and their family members — shed one last thing: all thoughts of the life-threatening disease.

Holding hands, they faced each other in a circle and for the next hour or so, danced to the rhythmic drums and flutes of traditional folk songs.

‘‘The story of this song is of renewal, resilience, hope and healing — a dance we need to do,” said Dr. Judith Andai, the psychotherapist and dance instructor leading the ‘‘Sacred Circle Dance” class.

During six sessions since September, the women gathered to learn a unique form of therapeutic dance that Andai describes as ‘‘moving meditation.”

‘‘For an hour and a half, I can forget about having cancer and what I’m going through,” said dancer Cindy Rooney, of Ashton, who ended treatment for breast cancer just two weeks ago. ‘‘I feel comfortable and free, like a balloon floating.”

Andai, a psychotherapist of 30 years with a practice in Fairfax, Va., calls the two-step program ‘‘Catching Life’s Breath.” It combines the therapeutic effect of communal dance with group psychotherapy, she said.

‘‘It’s not just about relaxing, it’s about creating community through dancing together and holding hands,” she said. ‘‘Their emotions surface and can be released. It’s not specifically for cancer patients, but anyone needing help.”

Dance therapy
For more information about future offerings of the Sacred Circle Dance class, call Suburban On-Call at 301-896-3939.
Andai said her own close call with breast cancer a few years ago motivated her to offer the program as part of Suburban Hospital’s support services for breast cancer patients. She also teaches circle dance classes at George Mason University and at the University of Maryland Continuing Education Program.

‘‘I had a scare but luckily it turned out to be benign,” she said. ‘‘I went through an array of emotions, fear and hope and wondering what was going to happen. Dance can release those emotions and bring a sense of calm.”

The class also offers an opportunity for women to share feelings with others that not only understand, but also accept them.

‘‘We’ve all got cancer, or survived it, or have family members with cancer, so there’s a wonderful camaraderie. It feels like family,” Rooney said.

The folk dances hail from countries like Greece, Russia and Israel and reflect themes that resonate with women whose lives have been altered forever by a diagnosis of cancer.

One Greek dance enabled the women to tap into the strength of a bull. The dancers pulled in close to the center of the circle, stamped their feet and dipped their heads. They focused on the center of the circle, where a mirror placed on the floor reflected the light of votive candles and served as a ‘‘sacred fire.”

‘‘When you stamp [your feet], you claim your space. You are a bull with a lot of strength,” Andai told the dancers. ‘‘Whatever is on the tip of your horn, you leave behind in the sacred fire. You may want to think of something that needs renewal or cleansing, or something bad you want to leave behind.”

At times, the women smile and laughed as they gracefully moved to the joyful sounds. At other times, they closed their eyes and moved slowly but in unison to a more somber tune.

‘‘After you’ve gone through cancer treatment, your life is changed, period,” said dancer Margot Lawson, of Rockville, who finished treatment nearly a year ago. ‘‘It sounds goofy, but [sacred circle dancing] is a good way for cancer patients and survivors to come together and feel good about ourselves.”