Community Dance and Cancer

As an occupational therapist, I am aware of the importance of movement when the body is holding pain. This pain can be emotional as much as physical. So, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2008, it seemed natural to take the opportunity to join a community dance for people touched by cancer. The ‘circle of life’ project involved us in three months of weekly dancing, where we bonded and grew together with a group of people who had been affected by cancer. I eventually went on to write a research paper about the experience, which was an intriguing development for me as an ethnographer.

From the outset the ‘Circle of Life’ dance occasioned a multidisciplinary creative collaboration between Chris Watson (The University of Otago Mozart Fellow) and Sue Wooton (The University of Otago Burns Fellow) and Barbara Snook (Caroline Plummer Fellow). Barbara worked with the participants to create the dance; Chris created an abstract composition for piano and bells to accompany the dance and Sue wrote a poem, ‘Fall Sonata, about a friend of hers who was dying of cancer at the time. Her poetry was recorded over the music and this recording accompanied the dance. While collaborations between music and dance or even literature and dance are not uncommon, this was the first collaboration that had taken place between the arts fellows at the University of Otago.

The workshops with the participants provided a core focus and each week a group of visual artists would attend the sessions, quietly observing and sketching and becoming accepted as members of the group. During the performance week, the artists held an exhibition of their works that were drawn directly from their observations and experiences over the ten weeks. Above all, the dance participants were collaborators, with each other, with myself and with every other person who became involved. Each of the artist/participants involved informed each other throughout the process. The ‘Circle of Life’ was the central theme, but the collaboration allowed individuals to create their own work in a manner that was true to themselves and their art form. The dance itself was organic and was generated without any reference to the accompaniment.

The music with poetry was heard for the first time when the dance was ready for performance. The Mozart Fellow, Chris Watson, delivered the music CDs to the dance studio during the session before the performance. The group then rehearsed to the ‘Fall Sonata’ music, and although there had been no previous consultation, the dance and the music finished at exactly the same time. We hadn’t known how long the dance would be and therefore could not advise Chris how long to make his composition. Sue Wootton’s poetry was fitted around the musical composition dictating the length to some extent. There was a moment of absolute wonder at the conclusion when everything came together: the music, the poetry, the visual art and the dance.

In the initial session, Barbara asked the question of all of us: ‘why have you come?’ and then she asked each of us to contribute a gesture that represented our hope for the community dance. These gestures were then transformed into dance over the course of three months. The dance was eventually performed at the art gallery, but by this time, I had to accompany my mother back to Ireland. We missed the final performance and I became fixated on creating a record of our journey. I brought the group back together for this purpose several times and obtained ethics permission to write up their words as a research project. I co-authored that article with Barbara and Assoc Prof Buck., both lecturers at Auckland School of Dance.


Butler, M., Snook, B. and Buck, R. (2016) ‘The Transformative Potential of Community Dance for People With Cancer’, Qualitative health research, 26(14), pp. 1928–1938.

The dance was recorded at various points and a video can be watched here