Art as Healer: Dancing and Drumming to Combat Disease

Hand beating a drum

Artists have always known the transformative effect that the arts can have on both the creator and the viewer. Recently, many medical practitioners around the world have also begun to recognize the restorative powers of arts and creativity, and are utilizing artists and art therapies as part of their medical practice.

This type of experience has been proven to be a powerful tool for patients with dementia, cancer, PTSD, depression and more, improving patients’ quality of life and promoting healing. 

Keep reading to learn how some artists are teaming up with doctors and researchers to understand how their (and others’) art can heal the human body and spirit.

Percussion as a means to Wellness

John Beck on stage drumming

John Beck presenting at the annual Artivate Summit.

John Beck, percussion professor at the University of North Carolina School of Arts (UNCSA), has been recognized for his efforts to use community drumming as a way to help patients undergoing chemotherapy and was awarded the Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service from the League of American Orchestras for his work using group drumming as therapy. 

According to research conducted for an article in Oncology Nursing Forum, “The therapeutic use of music for cancer-related pain,” gives patients a sense of control over their situations, reduces physical and psychological symptoms and, equally importantly, gives them some measure of relaxation.

Dr. Christian Northrup M.D. cites a number of positive effects for a multitude of ailments:

Impacts of drumming

Beck started using group drumming sessions in hospitals in 2013. His work is not only artistic but scientific, as he conducts qualitative exploratory research to continue to receive grant funding. A grant from the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at UNCSA enabled him to reach more patients and share his artistic gifts. Likewise, he is able to share his “artrepreneurship” with others including his students, many of whom are inspired to go on and do important art therapy work as well. 

Beck has a very personal inspiration for the work he does, as he shares in the Ford Musician Award announcement. His first wife died after a struggle with cervical cancer. “It is why I have a passion for it—because I have lived the cancer experience from the primary caregiver’s perspective, and I know how hopeless it feels.”

Using Creative Movement for Social and Physical Healing

Christina Soriano presenting at Artivate 2019.

Christina Soriano presenting at Artivate 2019.

Christina Soriano, a trained dancer and choreographer, is the Associate Provost for the Arts and Interdisciplinary Initiatives and an Associate Professor of dance at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. The founder of IMPROVment, a program focused on physical and mental fitness for those with neurodegenerative diseases, Soriano was recognized as a 2018 Influencer in Aging by Next Avenue for her work in helping the aging--particularly those with Parkinson’s and/or Alzheimer’s disease--by leading free weekly community dance classes. 

Now, with the help of a colleague who is a scientist and an assistant professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine, Soriano has been given a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health that is focused on studying how improvisational dance benefits people socially, the physical effects on different body systems, and whether it improves quality of life for people with dementia. 

In, “Dance Movement Therapy: A Healing Art,” by Fran J. Levy, she shares that dance and movement therapy have been used with individuals who have been victims of abuse, have eating disorders, sufferers of dementia, and people experiencing grief with great success. Participants noted that the creative movements increased their sense of wellness, allowed them to relax, built self- esteem, and increased flexibility.

Effects of creative dance:

Soriano got interested in the effects of dance on the elderly when her mentor, Glenna Batson, a physical therapist, dance and movement practitioner, and dancer herself asked Soriano to join a study about balance. The worked helped Soriano to find, “’a new way to fall in love with my art.’”

As artists, we have the benefit of a trade that is therapeutic in nature and allows us to renew our minds, bodies, and spirits. Even more powerful is our ability to help others using the artistic processes that we love.


The Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at the UNC School of the Arts connects themes of art, healing, leadership and entrepreneurship through the annual Artivate Summit, which brings together practitioners from all of these fields for creative exchange and collaboration each year.

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