Sometimes, you find a volunteer project that you thoroughly enjoy. It fits your tastes and energies exactly. The work you do instantly brings a smile to your face and to the people you are serving. In fact, it doesn’t feel like work at all. This kind of project is gratifying on so many levels; in tangible and not-so-tangible ways, you know the project is a true benefit to others.
For me, that project was partying. With old people.
Bjorn and I helped out at an Alzheimer Tanzcafe (literally, dance cafe) recently in Berlin, Germany. It really did feel like we were getting ready for a party. We pushed tables together, put out chairs, laid out flatware. Bottles of mineral water were placed, napkins folded fancy, flower bouquets positioned.
The guests started to arrive. Most came in wheelchairs or with walkers. Many had caretakers or family members with them. Some didn’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s, but had other, varying disabilities. A few were not so old.
We went around the room with the other volunteers, shaking hands and greeting the guests. Then we sat down at a table. Other volunteers came around, serving coffee and huge pieces of peach cheesecake. It was drier and more clumpy than the cheesecake I am used to in the U.S., but still very tasty.
We chatted amiably with the others at our table. Sometimes there were language obstacles, but it’s amazing what a cheerful smile and large hand gestures can do.
And then the magic happened.
The hired musician at the back of the room began playing old-school music on his huge synthesizer. Volunteers started asking people to dance. The coordinator pointed out a woman that I should approach.
I walked over to her with some hesitation. She sat unsmiling, her face a wreath of wrinkles, eyes staring blankly but resolutely past me, even when I was near. What if she didn’t want to dance with me? What if she refused? Now I know what a junior high boy feels like, I thought. I pasted a big smile on my face, bowed and held out my hand to her.
She put her hand in mine and immediately stood up. She led me to the dance floor and automatically and nimbly began dancing a waltz with me. She grabbed one of my hands and held the wrist of my other one. It was awkward.
As we made our way around the room, I realized I knew the tune; it was the “Blue Danube Waltz.” I begin to sing along with it, “La lala la la…” She smiled, dropped my wrist and held me closer. She sang along with me.
The moment felt surreal: Here I was, waltzing to the “Blue Danube,” in Germany, with a woman. It was awesome.
My next dance partner held me close — real close. He, too, had sat with an emotionless mask on his face, but as soon as we got on the dance floor, he crushed me to his chest and began moving around in expert and complicated dance steps. I struggled to not step on his toes and maintain some space between us. I tried to crane my head back for more air, but he held me in a vise grip.
I said to Bjorn afterward, “I bet that guy was a player back in the day.”
Bjorn said, “Who, the tango guy?”
Ah, the tango! Of course that’s what he had been doing. It all made sense now; the tango is a very close, intimate dance. I felt foolish and a little guilty for thinking the music seemed to revive more than memories in some.
I danced with several others. At one point, a conga line formed and we danced around the room — and around and around and around. It went on so long, most of the guests dropped out. It even got me tired.
But perhaps my favorite moments occurred with a dance partner from my own table. He had sat silent and unresponsive throughout the cake and coffee, even though his relatives had tried hard to engage him. They told me he had dementia. He didn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone. His balance didn’t seem too good, either. When he stood, I got the feeling that he could fall over at any time.
One of his relatives asked me to dance with him. He was already standing, gripping the back of a chair. He refused to dance with me. His relatives stood around him, softly cajoling him in German. Smiling, I held my hands out in front of him, palms up. I began softly singing to him. He released his grip on the chair and took hold of my hands.
I led him onto the dance floor carefully. I started doing a slow two-step, hoping that he wouldn’t fall. I sang louder. He gripped my hands tighter. The louder I sang, the more he seemed to perk up. Steadily, he began moving my hands side to side in rhythm with the song. He took over the two-step. Pretty soon, he was leading me around the dance floor.
He was a very thoughtful partner. He never made eye contact with me, but I knew he was aware of me and was looking out for me. As he led me around the dance floor, he made sure I didn’t run into any objects and guided me so that we didn’t bump into the other dancers. When he was tired, he escorted me back to the table, and motioned me toward a seat. He didn’t sit down until I had — a gentleman until the end.
I was still smiling when all the guests had left. I smiled while gathering the dirty dishes and putting them away. I smiled while I hunched over and pushed the trolley of dirty dishes outside. I smiled as we walked to the bus stop and all the long way home. I was still smiling when we finally made it to our apartment.
Sometimes, the person who benefits most from a service project is me.