A Róisín by any other name would smell as sweet! How an Irish American woman's heritage led to her establishing "Movement as Medicine", using Irish dance as therapy.

What’s in a name? When William Shakespeare first posed this question for his star-crossed lovers, he sought to express the notion that a name has no bearing on a person’s character. But I believe just the opposite. With a name as unique as Siobhan, I cannot ignore the impact it has had on my life and the journey it has led me on to where I am right now.

Even before I entered the world, my name carried great significance in my family. It represented a cultural compromise; my Sicilian mother giving in to the whims of my father who comes from a large Irish-American family. It was just like putting pasta and potatoes on the same plate. Yet the choice was never really a problem for my mom, for she was always moved by its meaning, “God is gracious.” Growing up, this maxim has always provided me with great comfort and acted as a moral compass for me to follow: to live life gracefully and gratefully.

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At first blush, my name looks like a strange confluence of letters that seemingly have no relation one to the other. The nearly endless cycle of mispronunciations began within weeks of my birth at my very first pediatrician appointment. The nurse liked to call the babies’ names out loud when it was their turn to be seen. My parents never forgot the bewildered look on her face; they knew that her eyes had reached my name on the list. Since then I have encountered countless variations of perplexed faces, but where others found confusion I took great satisfaction, knowing that I would always leave an impression on whomever I met.

With this seemingly unpronounceable Irish name, it was perhaps preordained that I would connect to my heritage in a deep way. When I was five years old I started competitive Irish step dancing; the music hasn’t stopped playing in my head and in my heart since. My passion is such that to stop step dancing would mean to stop existing.  However, I never truly understood how much step dancing could impact the lives of others as well as my own.

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I have deemed myself a storyteller by trade with the utmost respect for details, but I know that oftentimes, pen and paper or even the spoken word cannot truly capture the meaning of a moment. Irish dance, however, possesses infallible narrative qualities that make it ideal for communication. Music and movement, body and soul create a universal language accessible for everyone. One of my favorite ways to express this is when I can create my own unique choreography, something that can tell my own personal tales.

For me, it all starts with a sound. I love listening to my favorite songs, especially ones with a powerful lyrical composition, and finding a hidden reel or jig in the melody. When I close my eyes and lose myself in the music, I can see and feel the steps coming alive, the stories unfolding before me.

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For the past few years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to perform one of my original routines for multicultural shows both at the high school and collegiate levels, the ideal places to share my passion for my Irish culture with my peers. In the fall of 2016, following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, the sponsor of my high school’s multicultural show designed the theme around simply, love: a flame whose embers needed to be tended after such a horrific tragedy. 

With a weight heavy on my heart and shoulders, I fashioned a modified slip jig to a rare acoustic rendition of U2’s, “Love is Blindness” sung by their lead guitarist, The Edge, to convey my personal feelings.

It was the perfect tribute to the spiritual sorrow felt across the country, one that communicated deep, emotive reflection and a requiem for love. Set to the soulful stylings of Edge’s voice and deliberately solemn cadence of his guitar, my hope was for the audience to let go of their sadness and lose themselves in the moment. Irish dance fosters a space for an endless, living narrative: hearing the music flourish in your head and feeling the rhythm pulse through your veins, taking over your heartbeat and breathing. Mind and body perform an ethereal two-hand together on the same stage to communicate life’s greatest sentiments.

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Miraculously, this unity of body and soul has real-world application and implication off the stage.  It allowed me to take my involvement in Irish dancing to a whole new level. During my senior year of high school, as I am now a freshman in college, I was tasked to conduct an original research project to fulfill my AP Capstone diploma. The summer prior, I discovered an article in IrishCentral with an unforgettable headline: Italian doctor finds cure for Parkinson’s Disease in Irish dancing.

It told the story of Dr. Daniele Volpe, a neurologist from Venice who specializes in the treatment of Parkinson’s. Volpe also happens to be a lover of traditional Irish music. On one of his many visits to Ireland, where he would play with local bands, the doctor noticed a Parkinson’s patient who had full mobility when he danced to the music, carrying himself as if he had no neurological disorder of any kind. Intrigued, he established Irish Set Dance Therapy (ISDT) as not only a feasible but remarkably effective practice for Parkinson’s rehabilitation. 

Inspired by his research, I approached Florida Hospital’s Parkinson’s Outreach Center. They already had a program centered on creative movement and dance, which they call “Movement as Medicine.”

After meeting the program director and dance instructor, they became just as excited as I was, and agreed to mentor me through my senior AP Capstone project. This undergraduate level research sought to understand how the specific elements of Irish dance and music work together to improve mobility and quality of life for Parkinson’s patients. From my findings, I determined that the multisensory narrative nature of Irish step dance yields maneuverability on both a motor and cognitive standard, illustrating the mind-body connection and neuroprotection of dance-based therapy.

Words cannot adequately express the sense of fulfillment these endeavors have given me, knowing that I am helping others to live a healthier, happier, and more productive life. This was a game changer. It’s one thing to have a passion; being able to channel it to make a difference in someone else’s life is truly humbling. I think of the poster hanging above my bed, adorned with a quote from Jacques d’Amboise:

“Dance is your pulse, your heartbeat, your breathing. It’s the rhythm of your life.”

This means so much more than any trophy or place on a podium. Dancing to jigs and reels will never feel the same way again.

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