Building health and wellbeing through the arts

  • sky ribbon dancer
  • tyco drum performance
  • Josh Arnold and choir
  • boot wearing mature dancers
  • dancer in red dress
  • musical performance with dancers

If ever there was a case made eloquently and profoundly for the value of the arts as preventive medicine it was at the 15th National Rural Health Conference.

From mature-aged women dancing in gumboots, to a woman in glorious red gowns acting out the impact of endometriosis on her life, to the warm emotional Welcome to Country from Aboriginal leader Dewayne Everett-Smith, to Tassie primary school kids crafting songs and performing them to a standing ovation with outback musician Josh Arnold and more, the arts and health program at this year’s National Rural Health Conference was a stunner.

More than 100 artists offered performances and presentations, large and small, public and intimate to drive home a rising appreciation that the arts is another way for its creators, makers, participants and viewers to build health, resilience and wellbeing.

Septuagenarian Shirley Gibson was among those who danced in gumboots for the Mature Aged Dance Ensemble’s (MADE) performance Frock at the conference. Created by the Sydney Dance Company’s Graeme Murphy especially for MADE, it had been a joy to perform, she said.

“People think because you are old you can’t do this but we are really at the cutting edge of mature-aged dance performance”, Shirley said.  

MADE also runs Movers and Shakers classes for people with Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis and classes for people with Alzheimers or who’ve suffered strokes because research showed it was so beneficial.

Set against a giant screen on the Conference stage on which a film of herself dancing was screened, Canberra artist Liz Lea told the story of how she ignored the pain that was endometriosis so long that it eventually stole her ability to bear children. She also presented with Katie Senior a film called The extra some, about Katie’s achievements in her life with an extra chromosome.

The Cairns-based theatre company, Tropical Arts, told the story of 19-year-old Joy who has an acquired brain injury whose shame around her speech disappeared after she joined the company’s Twelfth night production. Avril Duck and Velvet Eldred explained how the company makes inclusive theatre, involving anyone who turns up and creating opportunities for body-based learning to help shape change.

All this demonstrated what United States arts/health academic Jill Sonke told the conference - that there is compelling evidence that engagement in the arts is good for us and helps us live longer and thrive as we age; that is, that it can determine our health.

Jill, who is the Director of the Centre for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida, said this evidence was now so compelling that thought leaders in the United States and Europe are now crafting public health frameworks for best practice on engaging the arts.

“Half of all hospitals in the US are now running arts programs and … physicians in Canada are prescribing visit to museums for older people”, she said. “In the UK the Government is paying people to participate in the arts.”

Jill quoted various studies showing that independent of where they lived, their socio-economic status, their education levels, people’s cognitive function improved with greater engagement in the arts (by visiting museums, galleries or exhibitions or attending theatre, concerts and opera).  Participating as creators also showed benefits. One study showed that for children, engaging in the arts reduced the risk of social and behavioural instability at the onset of adolescence.

With this in mind, Jill urged rural and regional communities to adopt and encourage local creativity.

“In many rural communities there are arts deserts”, she said. “There’s a lack of infrastructure for formal arts engagement, but in those communities there is a wealth of resources … of creativity … of interest in the arts and in creative engagement that can be garnered for building healthier and stronger communities in rural and regional Australia.”

Hobart-based dancer and choreographer Kelly Drummond Cawthon, who created the Conference arts and health program, said she wanted to provoke delegates to consider the arts as a core determinant of health.

“It highlighted our community’s hunger for the arts in health programs,” she said.


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