All Posts By

Dylan Klempner

Local author explores varied responses to gentrification in her oral history of DC’s Shaw, LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods

By Dylan Klempner

 This article was first published in The DC Line here.

What does gentrification feel like? 

The answer is complex, it’s safe to say. Perspective matters. If you have been displaced or if the neighborhood you grew up in is no longer recognizable, maybe you feel anger and resentment. If you are a developer who made a profit from condominiums you sold, maybe you feel satisfied. If you’ve cashed out the equity in your home after seeing the area you used to consider run-down and crime-ridden become vibrant and safer, maybe you feel some mix of relief and pride — or if you’ve stayed, maybe you feel annoyed by the new residents who don’t bother to say “hi” when they pass you on the sidewalk. If you just moved into a gentrified area, maybe you feel fulfilled in having found a hip neighborhood with all the amenities you wanted. 

These and other complicated emotions are expressed in Shaw, LeDroit Park & Bloomingdale in Washington, D.C.: An Oral History by Shilpi Malinowski. Published last October, her book examines what it feels like to live in a gentrified community. Malinowski, who lives in the area she writes about, focuses on the thoughts and feelings of 13 neighbors, blending their narratives with her own. A reflective narrator and effective interviewer, she gets her neighbors to open up about their closely held reactions, emotions and beliefs. Together, the 14 of them consider gentrification’s impact by discussing a wide range of topics including displacement, crime, public education and politics.

In 2011, Malinowski and her husband bought a four-bedroom home that had been divided into two two-bedroom units. It was their first experience as homebuyers. As a condition of the sale, the prior owner — who also rented out several other properties in the neighborhood — stipulated that her downstairs tenant, a single mother, would not be evicted. The couple agreed to the terms, and the tenant remained until 2018. 

But another tenant — also a single mother — lived in the unit that the author and her husband eventually occupied. She was displaced. “I am still unsure of how I feel about that series of events,” writes Malinowski. She now understands that a key part of gentrification-related displacement occurs when owners sell their houses and evict their tenants. But she didn’t realize that at the time. The memory prompts a sequence of soul-searching questions: “Were we forgiven because we had at least maintained one unit of affordable rental housing in the neighborhood? Who was responsible? What would have been the most just series of events?” 

She is still trying to answer these questions, she writes, allowing that their decision to move to the Bloomingdale neighborhood was based on feelings of excitement about the area’s advantages. “We moved into a thumping neighborhood.” She lists its highlights, including the Sunday farmers market, busy sidewalks and Big Bear Cafe. 

Gentrification’s most devastating impacts are experienced by those least capable to deal with them, yet the thoughts and feelings of the displaced are largely missing from Malinowski’s book. It feels like an oversight. Did the author attempt to interview the single mother she and her husband displaced? Would hearing her voice now have helped the author answer her questions and deepen her understanding of her place in the neighborhood and her role in the gentrification process?

Greg Mason’s story of partial displacement provides the book’s best opportunity to portray the feelings associated with what Malinowski refers to as gentrification displacement. Mason, who is Black, was born in Shaw in 1956 and lived in the neighborhood for 50 years. He reminisces about its “family atmosphere,” when crime was low and he and the other children got 5-cent ice cream cones from Mr. Palmer’s and were offered free bags of day-old cupcakes and pies from the Wonder Bread Bakery on Georgia Avenue NW. In 2000, after experiencing a series of losses, including the deaths of his brother, father and mother, Mason received support from his neighbors — including the local drug dealers: “Everybody surrounded me. Everybody came together, you know. ‘We got to look out for Mason.’” 

But members of Mason’s family fought him in court for ownership of his home. After a five-year battle, Mason lost the property. “I didn’t have the money to buy them out,” he tells Malinowski. He lived in his SUV for a year. Now he lives “a few blocks east of his childhood home” while maintaining a constant presence in the neighborhood. Owing, it seems, to Mason’s fortitude and deeply held commitment to the property, subsequent owners of the house have allowed him to take care of the rose bushes his mother planted 70 years earlier. “When I come in here and work on the rose bushes, I’m at peace,” says Mason.  

Nick Grube and Christina Papanicolaou, who are white, currently own Mason’s childhood home, which they purchased in 2020 for $1.3 million. Malinowski writes that they have “a relationship with Mason and complex feelings about how they ended up in that home and what their responsibilities are.” Papanicolaou says that she and her husband are “hyperaware” that they are gentrifiers. As a result, she feels “self-conscious” as well as a sense of “guilt.” She says “gentrification is a lot like colonization.” After taking land and resources from local inhabitants, “you are depleting the culture of what was originally here.” Her solutions: “Be respectful to the people that live here and that are originally from here.” Grube, her husband, says growing up in Hawaii taught him about being respectful. Those who are oblivious to their surroundings are disrespectful, he says. “You’re using the place rather than being a part of it. You’re extracting.” Papanicolaou wants to do more for the community but comes across as overwhelmed and dissatisfied with the options she is aware of. “How can we give back in some kind of way — or at least shop with local businesses? And I don’t know, support local music or culture? I don’t know. Do we give mutual aid donations? I don’t know.”  

In a recurring topic throughout the book, Malinowski and her neighbors seek to understand diversity and integration in their community through discussions about their children’s education. The author writes that the diversity of her children’s school, Seaton Elementary, was a “huge plus.” Her husband is white, and she describes herself as a “relatively privileged South Asian American” used to navigating majority-white spaces as a racial minority. At the same time, with her parents having immigrated to the United States, she “feels huge amounts of tenderness, empathy and similarity with immigrants who are putting their kids in the public school system as a path to success.” 

Public education also appears to reveal the extent to which the community really is integrated. Seaton has racial and language diversity, and it is designated as Title 1, meaning more than 40% of the students are from low-income families. For most of the parents, there was more integration in the school than they had ever experienced, she writes. Yet the parents themselves tended to self-segregate: “People of the same race often clustered together.” 

Using a more scientific approach, Derek Hyra’s 2017 book Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City reveals that beyond reduced instances of crime, few advantages ever reach low-income people who stay in gentrified areas. Hyra, an American University professor and founding director of its Metropolitan Policy Center, spoke with 60 residents and community stakeholders in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood between 2009 and 2014. He found that longtime residents often lose political positions and cultural roles, and they tend to feel they’ve lost their community. “Few deep, meaningful interactions occur across racial and income divisions,” writes Hyra, who is white. He calls the phenomenon “micro-segregation.” 

Particularly given the geographic overlap, it’s a bit surprising that Malinowski doesn’t mention Hyra’s work.

In Malinowski’s book, her African American neighbors describe their thoughts and feelings about diversity and integration. Longtime residents such as Leroy Thorpe and Michelle Carthen offer varied reactions to the changes they’ve experienced, including a sense of lost culture and political power. 

Thorpe served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner from 1986 to 2006, and a key tenet of his tenure was fulfilling his pledge to rid the area of open-air drug markets and crack houses. “And I did,” he says. As an ANC commissioner, he fought for the interests of the neighborhood’s Black residents. He grilled businesses that appeared before the neighborhood commission: “Are you going to provide jobs for the people?” Thorpe saw gentrification coming. One signal: As white people moved into the neighborhood, his share of the vote in ANC elections decreased. Mindful of the changes ahead and the likelihood of displacement, he bought a house in the neighborhood in 1998 and encouraged other Black people to do the same. “Property values are going to go up; you better get a house right now,” he told them. 

Thorpe told Malinowski that he sometimes feels out of place in his own neighborhood. White people often try to control the economics, politics and education of an area, he says. “I feel that the White folks around here look at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’” They don’t realize that the neighborhood is safer because of his work in shutting down the crack houses and open-air drug markets. Thorpe decries other unwelcome changes that came with gentrification. Black people lost their culture, he says. “There are no clubs.” The places where Black kids played are now dog parks. He also sees a segregated DC. White and Black people don’t hang out, he says, unless they are “high society, when these people are the head of a company or a politician, but there is no socialization.”

Carthen, who attended a local elementary school in the 1970s, says her oldest son was born during the city’s crack epidemic. In parenting her two boys, Carthen says she had “five pillars: I wanted them to get out of the city alive, drug-free, baby-free, disease-free and record-free.” Both of her sons went to college on scholarships. “It was hard because, in order to do that, you have to give up yourself — you have to give up your life.” Today, her boys, who grew up in the neighborhood, feel as though people look at them as if they don’t belong when they come to see her. While she says she is glad she stayed, she has mixed feelings about the neighborhood: “It doesn’t feel like a community anymore. It just feels like a place where we live.” 

Of all the people Malinowski interviewed, Gretchen Wharton has lived in this part of the District the longest. Born in 1946, she has called the neighborhood home ever since. Now retired, she is a member of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and chairs the board of directors for Shaw Main Streets, a nonprofit whose mission is to revitalize business corridors in Shaw. She welcomes some of the changes that have occurred over the past 15 years, including seeing people feeling safe enough to walk the streets. “Community is what makes you feel good about where you live and what makes you want to stay there and make it grow,” she says. But she also sees evidence of DC’s racial divide: “The decision making/power play role has always been at the behest of Caucasians.”

Creating more equitable and just outcomes for longtime residents in gentrifying areas requires intentional policies that protect their ability to stay and thrive for years to come, according to Hyra. In his book, he recommends that communities preserve affordable housing and small businesses while also helping low- and moderate-income residents obtain living-wage jobs and retain positions in local governance. He further proposes that neighborhoods establish “third spaces” — places where people of mixed incomes can come together for shared activities. 

Through listening and recording her neighbors’ thoughts and feelings, Malinowski has created a literary “third space” of sorts. She writes of her hope that readers will “feel liberated to come up with their own understanding of life in our gentrified neighborhood.” Her volume of candid oral histories and personal narrative offers an opportunity for reflection and invites readers to consider their own views of gentrification, whether or not they live in Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park and Shaw.

Shaw, LeDroit Park & Bloomingdale in Washington, D.C.: An Oral History by Shilpi Malinowski (160 pages, $21.99) was published in October 2021 by The History Press as part of its American Heritage series.

This article was produced in conjunction with Day Eight’s February 2022 conference on “The Crisis in Book Review.” The DC Line worked with conference organizers on the New Book Reviewer Project, an initiative to grow the cohort of qualified local book reviewers. Dylan Klempner is one of eight writers assigned as part of the conference to write a review for The DC Line or the Washington Independent Review of Books.

DC-area art therapists explore ‘Resilience Through Art’ in online exhibit

by Dylan Klempner

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive demand for mental health services, a DC-based group of art therapists is participating in an online exhibit that highlights the potential for cultivating resilience through art making. 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 35.9% of adults in the District reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder in a survey conducted from Sept. 29 to Oct. 11, 2021. This figure is somewhat higher than the 31.6% of adults nationwide who reported these symptoms.

As the need for mental health support has grown, therapists themselves have also reported symptoms of burnout. Some concerned about increased demand on already-strained mental health professionals are labeling this “another pandemic mental health crisis” and are calling for changes in the nation’s mental health system, including added support for therapists.  

Amid these trends, art therapists in the greater Washington, DC, area are using an online art exhibit to build community and share personal examples of art’s therapeutic potential. 

Works by 25 art therapists are part of “Resilience Through Art in 2020 – 2021,” an online exhibit available on the website of the Potomac Art Therapy Association (PATA), a professional organization serving the Washington area. The group is a chapter of the national American Art Therapy Association (AATA) based in Alexandria, Virginia. 

An untitled work by Tyler Strusowski, president of the Potomac Art Therapy Association’s board, is part of the exhibit of works by 25 art therapists. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Strusowski)

Tyler Strusowski, president of PATA’s board, is one of the art therapists whose work is in the show. 

Prior to the pandemic, he had been working as an art therapist and artist-in-residence at the McClendon Center, which provides mental health services in DC and operates an art studio for its clients.

Tyler Strusowski

A month into the spring 2020 lockdowns, the DC-based art therapist remembers craving the art making he was missing. “When I was working at the McClendon Center, art was in my life, every day,” said Strusowski. “When we went into lockdown, it wasn’t.” 

Inspired by the tulips and poppies blooming in his Northeast DC neighborhood, Strusowski bought a large canvas and began collecting collage materials. 

While working on his piece at home, Strusowski learned that a client he had become close to had died. As he dealt with his feelings about her death, art making served a therapeutic role, he said. “I was mourning her through that process.” 

Art therapy defined

Research has confirmed the effectiveness of art therapy, a mental health profession that specifically integrates psychotherapy theories and practices with the intentional selection of art materials, according to Jordan Potash, associate professor in the Art Therapy Program at George Washington University. 

“With an art therapist, a substantial amount of time is going to be spent actually creating artwork,” said Potash.  

Making art during an art therapy session can help clients relax, a welcome contrast to how they might respond in a different context, said Tally Tripp, associate professor and founding director of the George Washington University Art Therapy Clinic in Alexandria, Virginia. 

“It doesn’t have quite the same stress involved in the purely verbal therapeutic relationship,” she said. 

Tripp said that some clients, especially those who have dealt with trauma, may have difficulty accessing words and emotions. Art making offers tools she can use as their therapist.

“We can work with clay or experiment with different kinds of media, and that’s going to promote a healing that is really strengths based,” Tripp said.

Tracy Councill, program director and co-founder of the DC-based nonprofit Tracy’s Kids, created prayer flags for the exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Councill)

Art therapy can help people cultivate resilience because it is an “active and engaged practice” that provides a sense of control, said Tracy Councill, program director and co-founder of the DC-based nonprofit Tracy’s Kids

“It puts you in a position of control. And that can be very meaningful to people in therapy,” she said. 

Like other mental health professionals, art therapists must undergo academic and clinical training before obtaining credentials to practice, said Potash. 

The Art Therapy Credentials Board, a group based in Greensboro, North Carolina, offers testing that leads to a national credential for art therapists. Practitioners may also need to pursue additional licensure in their home state. More than a dozen states, including Maryland and Delaware, have passed laws granting licensure specifically for art therapists, and DC recently followed suit.

“Licensure laws, in general, are there to protect the public,” said Potash, who serves as chair of PATA’s licensure committee. “Only somebody who has the unique education and qualifications of an art therapist will be able to call themselves an art therapist.” 

The Professional Art Therapist Licensure Amendment Act was signed into law in DC by Mayor Muriel Bowser in April 2020. The law, passed by the DC Council at PATA’s behest, lists qualifications and standards to practice as a professional art therapist in the District. 

Art therapy and resilience 

Councill said many art therapists use their personal art practices to process their own experiences. “In my work, there is a lot of sadness and loss, right, because I work with a lot of kids with serious illnesses.”

Tracy Councill

Though she rarely makes art directly about losing a patient or someone close to her, Councill has a “need to be creatively engaged. I need to have an arena in which I feel that sense of agency and that ability to respond and be resilient.”  

That’s the line of thinking that led Kelly Jacobs, PATA’s vice president of communications, to come up with the idea for the online art show. 

She said that as the shutdowns took hold, she tried to think of creative ways in which members could connect and share their artistic experiences without requiring a Zoom call. Together, she and her colleagues settled on the idea for the show’s title, which focuses on the idea of resilience. 

Jacobs said she heard from art therapists in the early days of the pandemic about the stress they were under, the challenges they faced, and the adaptations they made. 

“It was hard, but there was so much creativity that was happening. And that all seemed to just kind of relate to this idea of resilience,” said Jacobs. “Adapting, being creative, growing from the experience.”

For the artwork she submitted to the PATA art show, Tripp used a technique known as slow stitching, which emphasizes the use of needle and thread for art making rather than for their more practical purposes, such as mending. Tripp said the practice is good for stress reduction. “It was just a way to be focused and relaxed.”

Tally Tripp submitted her stitching project for the online exhibit. (Photo by Mark Morrow)

A half-century of art therapy in DC 

The history of art therapy locally goes back at least a half-century. In 1971, Bernard Levy and Elinor Ulman co-founded George Washington University’s Art Therapy Program, one of the nation’s first. 

The DC area has also been home to leading art therapy programs including Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense that began in 2004. 

Tracy’s Kids, a medical art therapy program for children dealing with cancer, had its start at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. The nonprofit now also supports seven other art therapy clinics at pediatric cancer hospitals, including Children’s National Hospital. 

Art therapy and the political sphere 

Art therapy has long enjoyed bipartisan backing from politicians and their families. 

Just a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hillary Rodham Clinton – then a newly elected New York senator – read a Congressional Record statement supporting art therapy as a mental health field. 

Marcelle Leahy, wife of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, is a Tracy’s Kids board member, while Karen Pence, former Tracy’s Kids board member and former second lady, has played, perhaps, the most visible role in raising awareness about the field. 

Shortly after the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017, Pence announced that art therapy would be her signature cause. 

But many art therapists challenged the AATA’s willingness to embrace the second lady as an ally. In protest, more than 1,700 joined a Facebook group known as Art Therapists for Human Rights. 

“We demand that AATA respond to Karen Pence’s stated commitment to our field by asking her to publicly take action for the rights of … all people who are in danger as a result of the policies of the current administration,” reads a statement on the group’s page describing its mission during the Trump administration. 

Pence’s interest in art therapy prompted a lot of conversations among art therapists about government policies and other factors that impact their clients, Potash said. 

“Systemic racism takes a toll on clients and limits their ability to access services in ways that they can’t overcome on their own,” said Potash. In the years since Pence’s endorsement, he added, AATA has reviewed its policies and practices and looked “at how to make changes in the interest of equity and inclusion.” 

Art therapy and social justice

Potash uses art therapy to facilitate intergroup dialogue. Art therapists, he said, can play a meaningful role in supporting social justice and community development.

Art can help people visualize systemic injustices, said Potash. “But just showing them might not be enough.”

Art therapists, he explained, can help untrained audiences who may not have the skills to see meaning in a work of art — a role particularly valuable when it comes to getting a deeper understanding of artwork about injustices. 

“Art therapists can help to lead meaningful opportunities for viewers to really get a sense of what it is the artists are trying to convey,” he said. 

As a result of art therapists’ training in psychotherapy and group dynamics, they can also help people use art to communicate about their differences and come up with new policies and programs.

“Art therapists can also — using our skills in groups and whatnot — create art making opportunities where people come together to create art and to try to reimagine ways in which the world could be.” 

Participants at a workshop held as part of George Washington University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service were asked to create images of a personal experience that defined their social. cultural or political outlook. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Potash and Alberta Gyimah-Boadi)

Prior to the pandemic, Potash and a colleague, art therapist Alberta Gyimah-Boadi, led a series of intergroup dialogue workshops that incorporated art making at GW during its Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, as well as at public libraries in the District and in Virginia, they said. 

“We ask people to come and create art [based] on an experience from their life that has led them to their current political views,” said Potash. “The goal of this is to refocus people not so much on political debate, but that people’s perspectives come from somewhere.” 

Gyimah-Boadi said she and Potash were inspired by King’s teachings that encourage people to work together to fix a flawed system. The two of them asked participants to use art making to focus on one another’s stories rather than on their individual views.  

“People may see the issue differently,” said Gyimah-Boadi. “But at the bottom of it, there’s still an issue.” 

For PATA’s virtual show, several art therapists submitted artwork focused on social justice. 

Councill contributed three pieces titled “Prayer Flag Portraits” that depict the faces of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, whose deaths prompted massive Black Lives Matter protests around the world during the spring and summer of 2020. 

Councill, who attended some of the protests, said that the prayer flags are a form of personal expression. “They’re still hanging on the front of my house.” 

She also brought the art to work at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, the site of one of the Tracy’s Kids art therapy clinics. Many of the children being treated there are African American, she said. 

“I wanted to make it very, very clear to the kids and families that I work with, that I want to do everything I could to be present to them,” Councill said.

“The kids also made their own prayer flags about things that they were worried about during that time,” she said. Some made art about the protests, violence and the pandemic. 

For Strusowski, art making works therapeutically for him in multiple ways. “It becomes my way of processing things that happen and developing insights as to what my feelings actually are,” he said.

He described insights that arose during the spring of 2020 while he worked on his piece for the online exhibit. Through the art making process, Strusowski said he came to realize that despite being close to a client who died, his understanding of her life was limited. 

“I didn’t live their life. And I didn’t have the things that happened to her, happen to me,” Strusowski said. “And that’s kind of where I started to come to peace with the fact that I would never see her again.” 

Quicksilver resumes some in-person arts activities for seniors after months of physical isolation

by Dylan Klempner

This article was first published The DC Line here.

At a time when the world has been preoccupied with the health of seniors, dancer and choreographer Nancy Havlik has continued teaching an unlikely approach to the physical and mental well-being of people over the age of 65 — dance. 

“We were meant to move. It’s part of our DNA,” said Havlik, who has led Quicksilver, a group of improvisational senior dancers, for the past 25 years. 

The program is sponsored by Arts for the Aging, a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit founded in 1988 by scientist, arts patron and sculptor Lolo Sarnoff that offers multidisciplinary arts programs for seniors with a wide range of physical and cognitive abilities. In addition to Quicksilver’s dance classes, Arts for the Aging also offers storytelling, singing, drawing, painting and photography classes. The organization also employs 25 “teaching artists,” including visual artists who exhibit nationally, opera singers who perform at the Kennedy Center, and professional dancers such as Havlik.

“Everyone has a different entry point to art, and if we can cover a lot of those areas and ways of reaching people, you’re more likely to spark that connection,” program director Sarah House said in a recent interview. 

Seniors throughout the Washington area can participate in Arts for the Aging programs — primarily online until a full in-person schedule resumes — through partnering community and residential care settings, including adult day centers, community centers, assisted living communities, nursing homes and senior villages. 

In the District these include Iona Senior Services, East River Family Strengthening Collaborative’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Senior Program, Genevieve N. Johnson Senior Center, and Kingdom Care Senior Village. Other offerings are presented in conjunction with The Phillips Collection and the Smithsonian Institution’s “See Me” program. 

Quicksilver dancers lead a pre-pandemic workshop with participants at Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo by Stephanie Williams Images courtesy of Arts for the Aging)

Havlik says she happened to launch Quicksilver just as DC-based choreographer Liz Lerman was disbanding Dancers of the Third Age. A number of older dancers from that company joined her group, whose members typically have a weekly rehearsal in addition to their work with seniors. When the pandemic kept participants out of rehearsal spaces and senior centers, a core collection of members continued to meet online.  

 “[Improvisational dance] is a skill set,” Havlik said. “And you learn it by practicing it together.”

Beginning in March 2021, the members of Quicksilver — vaccinated and wearing masks for the first few sessions — bundled up for outdoor in-person rehearsals on a basketball court at the Chevy Chase Community Center. Occasionally the sessions were displaced by a pickleball group. But Havlik said it was still great to see fellow dancers and share space with them again.

On July 19, Arts for the Aging held its first in-person activity since the start of the pandemic. House, who attended the event at the Genevieve Johnson Senior Center on Blagden Avenue NW, said visual artist Marcie Wolf-Hubbard showed seniors and staff how to use drawing materials to replicate nature-inspired stained glass. 

Janine Tursini, Arts for the Aging’s director and CEO, said the organization will continue offering virtual and hybrid options for the time being. Quicksilver began in-person rehearsals (masked and socially distanced) in September, but for safety reasons has not yet facilitated dance workshops with Arts for the Aging’s client sites. Overall, four of the organization’s 24 clients are currently able to host in-person programs.

Research in the field of creative aging suggests regular participation in the arts can have health benefits, according to Tursini. But she is careful to point out that, while the creative activities her artists facilitate can be therapeutic, they should not be considered therapy. Nor are they entertainment, although some may find them entertaining. 

“They’re all about participation,” Tursini said. Teaching artists often stand at the center of a circle, encouraging group members “to dance with one another, talk to each other, imagine with each other.”

Arts for the Aging also trains other artists to use their model when working with seniors. When The Washington Chorus contacted Tursini, its singers were already performing in nursing homes and assisted living communities, but the group contracted with Arts for the Aging to help develop performers’ participatory skills. 

During the training, Quicksilver dancers divided chorus members into small groups and taught them “movement phrases” that they could do along with their songs. For example, Havlik noticed that the singers were already rocking from side to side while they performed. “You can get your group of frail seniors to rock with you,” she recalled telling the trainees. 

The Washington Chorus training was cut short by the pandemic, but the nonprofit plans to continue training artists who wish to work with seniors, in part through a collaboration with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. 

Havlik says the trainings help artists feel more confident about working with seniors. “We kind of take what they already have, and just affirm it,” she said.

Improvisational dance is an example of a multidisciplinary art form in which virtually anyone can participate. Focused movement isn’t just for trained dancers or trained athletes, says Havlik. Inviting people who may be inactive — whether due to illness or limited mobility — to move can appear to wake them up. “You see their essence come out,” Havlik said  

She recalls seeing the simple gestures of a man taking a class at the Downtown Cluster’s Geriatric Day Care Center before the pandemic. His health had been deteriorating, and he could hardly move. During a dance with Quicksilver, the man began tapping his knee with his fingers. 

“And then he had a little shake of his arm. And then his shoulder on the other side would wiggle a little bit,” Havlik said. “It was close to the end of his life, but he was still in the group.”