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Lauren Kopec was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease three months before performing the lead role of Clara in “The Nutcracker” in 2003.
By The State Journal-Register | FILE
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Healthy dose of the arts
By Janet Seitz Carlson

As an artist and a writer, I see a strong connection between art and health and well-being. On a personal level, smashing glass to smithereens for frit to create my fused-glass floral images is a constructive outlet in a couple of respects. Art-related activities help me channel energy, redirect my thoughts, provide an emotional outlet or give me respite to let a creative process help resolve other issues.

The arts and their link to mind, body, and spirit have been a mysterious part of humanity for thousands of years. The arts - visual, music, dance or drama - can transform one's physiological state and perception, making a difference in how we feel, whether creating or experiencing an art form.

For visual multimedia artist Joan Burmeister, "Art has always been more of an emotional outlet. Some people do great art when they are stressed. Sometimes, I am like that. I find it somewhat calming. It's just me and the paper and some music ... my heart becomes part of what I do."

"The arts are vital to improving physical as well as mental health," says Springfield Ballet Company artistic director Julie Dunn. "The art of dance especially provides total body strengthening and toning. Dancers are some of the fittest athletes in the world."

Dunn relates the experience of former company dancer Lauren Kopec, diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease three months before performing the lead role of Clara in the 2003 "The Nutcracker."

"Dance classes and rehearsals were an important distraction from her illness - a reason to keep fit as well as a reward for persevering during the most difficult time in her life... Lauren never missed a class or rehearsal, although sometimes her schedule required her to go straight from chemotherapy treatment to the dance studio. This is the best example I know of that demonstrates the healing power of the arts."

Lauren is a third-year nursing student with plans to become a nurse practitioner.

"The dancing gave her something to look forward to as well as kept her strong physically, mentally and emotionally," says her mother, Barb Kopec.

Those in the medical field see that power, too.

Ann Collins heads marketing at SIU Physicians and Surgeons and sees her participation in the arts as "extremely beneficial."  She performs, sings, plays violin and prepares young people for auditions and singing groups.

"As a full-time employee in health care and a full-time caregiver for my mother and father for the past five years," Collins says, "I get such a feeling of respite when I can be part of the art scene."  

Involvement in the arts gives "just the time away from caregiving and work pressures that I need to re-energize and keep my fingers in the pot."

Dr. Robert "Mickey" Finch knows when there's something to sing about. The ear, nose and throat specialist sees a lot of performers.

"There's nothing more frustrating to a singer with nodules who can't sing," Finch says. "It's important for people to perform music. It gives them great joy and makes them feel better.

"From my perspective, it's very athletic and it's healthy. Whether you sing karaoke or you're an opera star, there is a joy in life to project that artistry and emotion. It makes them happy to share that joy. When you sing you get other people involved. Music engages people. It's a multifactorial thing."

In recent years scientists have been looking closer at what happens in the body when patients paint, write or listen to music.

Activities affect specific parts of the brain relating to the "feel-good" systems, which then foster the release of substances for suppressing pain or fighting disease.

Overall, there is growing recognition for the healing power of the arts ranging from lowering stress levels, reducing pain medication, speeding recovery and increasing social interactions.

Health-care organizations, including those locally, are increasingly putting art therapy and music therapy to work with patients as well as discovering the health benefits of an artistic, aesthetically pleasing care environment.

The arts provide a process to connect us to ourselves and each other. While science may not yet prove the arts help us live longer, they do help us live better.  


Story published Friday, December 5, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 7 )

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