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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Square Dancing Aids Mental Patients
By John Sabin, 1953

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Square Dancing

Mental patients at St. Louis State Hospital, 5400 Arsenal St., St. Louis, Missouri, have been helped along the road to recovery by a program of weekly Square Dances that has been in operation for nearly thirty years. The Square Dances are sponsored by the St. Louis Chapter, American Red Cross, and are conducted by the Greater St. Louis Folk and Square Dance Federation, an organization of some two-thousand square dancers in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County, and nearby Illinois communities.

The dances are held every Tuesday evening in the main auditorium at the hospital, and Federation members who take part in the program are not permitted to dance together, but must have hospital patients as their partners.

The weekly dances for the patients are held from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., while Federation members may remain for dancing among themselves until 10:00 p.m. St. Louis square dancers have made the weekly hospital dances a regular habit, and many of them say they "don't feel right" if something forces them to miss one of the dances.

Red Cross records show that at least eight members of the Federation have devoted two full years of regular dancing with mental patients. They are Pop Allison, Mr. and Mrs. Ben Gruenwald, Mr. and Mrs. Rudy Milster, Miss Etta Sauer, and Mr. and Mrs. Willie Wirtel.

In addition, another 22 Federation square dancers have spent over 40 hours working with patients. They are Mom Allison, Mr. and Mrs. L. D. Ames, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Bania, Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Brine, Miss Marie Cizl, Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Eaton, Mr. and Mrs. Orvell Essman, L. C. Hargrave, William Ruddy, Warman Spear, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Storms, R. A. White, Mr. and Mrs. Ben Williams, and Mr. and Mrs. Homer Zumwalt.

The program got under way on May 23, 1950, and has been in operation every Tuesday night since then. The Federation in its sponsorship of the program, urges members to attend the weekly dances. However, only experienced dancers are asked to attend because it often is necessary to provide the mental patients with a good deal of assistance in getting through a figure.

The idea of holding weekly Square Dances at the mental institution was the brain child of Mrs. Fred F. Welshaar, an official of the St. Louis Red Cross Chapter, who has devoted many hours during the past eight years to Red Cross work of various kinds. Several meetings with Federation officials led to the program, which is being praised so highly as an adjunct to the hospital's own recreational program for inmates.

For over two years, Mrs. Millie Wirtel, a St. Louis Square Dance caller, has been in direct charge of the weekly dances. She arranges the weekly programs, sees that callers are present for the actual calling, and coordinates the program with hospital authorities. Mrs. Wirtel says her work has been made much easier by cooperation of members of the St. Louis Callers Guild, the organization of Square Dance callers in the area. The callers donate their time and services during the evening and provide all the records and public address equipment to be used at the dance.

Mrs. Ruth Ostfeld, former Director of the Department of Occupational Therapy, thinks a good deal of the benefits for the patients stems from the personal contacts provided in the dancing with Federation members.

Mrs. Welshaar feels that the weekly Square Dances are a "highlight in the patient's life." She adds that often they begin getting ready for the dance well in advance of the time, laying out clothes, brushing hair, and so on. This she takes as a sign of their mental reawakening.

Dr. Anthony Busch, clinical director at the hospital, says "square dancing has helped considerably" in the hospital's treatment that aims at getting patients to form relationships again, to learn to enjoy themselves, to live with other people and not strictly within themselves.

Mrs Welshaar says she knows of two cases in which the weekly Square Dances had a great deal to do with returning patients to a normal life.

Mrs. Welshaar has praised Mrs. Wirtels work as leader of the program, saying: "She has done a wonderful job in making all the arrangements for the hospital dances."

The hospital patients are helped by the weekly dances because the dances provide contact with outsiders, give the patients something to look forward to, and teach them coordination, that is, relating the directions of the caller to the figures they are to do.

Federation members taking part in the program say they can see progress in a patient, often, from week to week. Mrs. Wirtel puts it this way: "The first time some of the patients show up at a dance they appear bewildered and have difficulty in understanding what they are supposed to do. But, sometimes during a single evening of daning you see that some of them begin trying to coordinate their movements to the caller's instructions."

One involved a school teacher who was confined after suffering a nervous breakdown, and the other case was a formeer soldier who had shut out the world and had gone into a shell. In both instances, the dancing relieved their inner tensions, they began to laugh and enjoy themselves, and take an interest in life. Both were finally discharged as cured.

Dr. Busch believes patients at other mental institutions would be helped if similar programs were tried out.

The superintendent of the St. Louis State Hospital, Dr. Louis H. Kohler, is all for the program too. He says: "The weekly Square Dances have a definite therapeutic value in the rehabilitation program for our patients."


By John Sabin, St. Louis, Missouri
From Arizona's Calendar of Events: Hoof Prints, Vol. 4, No. 1, Phoenix, Arizona, 1953.

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