Reason for Rhythm: Military veterans tap into healing through dance

Published: May. 20, 2023 at 11:06 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - It’s a place where military veterans trade in their combat boots for saddlebacks and keep time not with a watch but with their movements.

The rag-tag troupe meets weekly at the VA Medical Center in New Orleans to dance through therapy.

Adaptive Tap Dancing and Cognitive Fitness is an hour-long class with a ‘come as you are’ approach to rhythmic dance.

Heidi Malnar leads the charge, a professional dancer from Chicago who’s called New Orleans home for years.

“It kind of ties into growing up as a military child. We moved about every three or four years but for me dancing was the constant,” said Malnar. “So, I knew wherever we would go I would have this outlet and expression.”

She comes from a long line of World War II veterans.

“That was the inspiration in wanting to stay close with this community,” she continued.

Each veteran comes to the circle with their own stories of struggle, and they all leave with a boosted mood and an elevated heart rate.

“I think it makes you more relaxed and one of the things, like with anything, you meet a lot of people, and you get to talk to people and you’re out of the house,” said Air Force veteran Sasha Newstate.

The class salutes their service while catering to their needs.

Army veteran Josanne Sjostrand uses tap gloves to make sounds.

“I started getting leg cramps because of lack of potassium and Heidi said, ‘Hey, I’ve got these gloves with tap stuff, you know!’,” said Sjostrand.

The class is not dance therapy, but Malnar explains that tap dancing is therapeutic in nature.

‘The physiological– producing endorphins, serotonin, all the feel-good neurochemicals in the body and then the physical-- getting our heart rate up and moving our body,” said Malnar.

One of the motivated members, Earl Marlowe, has been there since the first day of class.

He served in the Marine Corps for two years, saying his experience was not pleasurable.

This class helps heroes like him heal.

“Even if I’m having a pretty bad day, it turns it around because it takes my mind off of everything and then I focus on the tap dance class and when I’m done, I think, ‘Okay, I’m ready for anything now,’” said Marine veteran Earladelle Fletcher.

The program was born out of a collaboration between Malnar and the VA’s music therapist, Tom Petterson.

“People come in, they’ll check out one of our groups that we offer and then immediately want to be part of a lot of the other ones because it’s such a supportive community that we have created, and they have created,” said Petterson. “Just the intrinsic benefits of participating in dance or music, whatever it is, can be so wonderful on so many levels to our veterans.”

From day one of the class, the dancers faced a challenge.

“We had just started in May of last year and Tom was like, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to be entering this festival,’” said Malnar. “So, not only was I like, ‘Welcome to tap, and now let’s rehearse!’ It felt like a lot of pressure but it was also a really great goal. They did great.”

The dancers placed first regionally in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival and third in the nation.

“Heidi had a routine for us to do. It was part of that stuff that we were doing with the arms and everything. We just laughed about it,” said Marlowe. “We didn’t think it would go anywhere or do anything. It was just fun to do. Next thing you know, Tom said, ‘Y’all won at the national.’ So they gave us a nice medal.”

The veterans take comfort in each other.

“Part of this is also adapting to military culture. Camaraderie is a big thing,” said Malnar. “Being able to do this with their peers and let their guard down and just have fun is huge.”

That fun has medicinal benefits.

“You can use music therapy, recreation therapy to work on goals related to your brain injury or your PTSD so we have a lot to offer in general with that,” said Petterson.

By marching to the beat or creating their own, these heroes have found their reason for rhythm in each other.

“For me, there was a time in my life where I thought about joining up and it didn’t happen, but I always wanted to be in service to service members in very concrete ways,” said Malnar. “For me, this is all full circle.”

Veterans interested in joining the dance group, who are not already enrolled in VA healthcare, can walk into the medical center on Canal Street without needing an appointment and sign up.

The hospital is open 24 hours a day.

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