Vets 'Step Out' Of Their Comfort Zones To Dance, Heal In New Class
A woman with electric blonde hair and floral print pants floated among the six dancing couples, stopping only to correct a step or give praise.
“Step! Step together, step! Step! Step together, step!” she yelled over the Diana Krall song coming from a stereo in the corner of the room. “So, scoot a little instead of marching, ok?!”
The floorboards in the basement of the Masonic Temple in Fort Collins creaked beneath Sandy Newlin’s feet as she came to a stop.
Next to her stood a tall man wearing an 8th Infantry Division baseball cap. Doug Newlin, Sandy’s husband, pulled a small remote from his pocket. He flicked it in the direction of the stereo, shutting off the music.
“Alright children, gather round!” Sandy yelled. “Questions?”
The couple is the driving force behind a new dance lesson series in Fort Collins called “Veterans Steppin’ Out! Boots on the Dance Floor.” They hope to give veterans a space to gather and heal from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other ailments by sharing their love of swing, foxtrot, blues, lindy hop and other dance styles with the community.
The lessons typically last an hour and are informal. While teaching, the Newlins are congenial with their students and each other, playfully bickering in between demonstrating a dip, new steps or how to lead a partner.
At a recent lesson in April – the fourth week in their 6-week series – Doug gave the group a quick pep talk.
“If you do this and you do it like we’ve been showing you – you get out on the dance floor –and everybody’s going to say, ‘Damn, you guys know what you’re doing,’” he said. “’Cause it looks like you know what you’re doing because you’re following the music!”
Dance as therapy
The Newlins have been dancing and teaching across the state for more than twenty years. They were original members of the Jumpin’ Jivecats, a lindy hop troupe in Fort Collins.
On a trip to visit family in San Diego several years ago, Sandy saw a report on ABC 10News highlighting a local group called Soldiers Who Salsa, which teaches ex-military servicemen and women recovering from injuries how to salsa dance.
The Newlins contacted the program’s director and adapted it to fit their backgrounds.
“The point is veterans need to step out into the community and feel safe going out and doing something like dancing in public,” Sandy said.
Studies show dance can be used as a building block for the beginning stages of PTSD treatment. Movement therapy can help reduce anxiety in people with severe mental illness. Research has found that music helps reduce stress, improve coping and help process trauma.
Less than half of veterans living in the United State are enrolled in the VA Health Care System. According to data from 2014 outlined in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' 2016 National Suicide Data Report, it found that an average of 20 vets die by suicide every day. The number represents 18 percent of all deaths by suicide in the country.
178 veteran suicides were recorded in Colorado.
In his class, Doug wears his 8th Infantry Division hat so students know he’s also a veteran, he said. He served in the Army in the early ‘60’s.
He said his goal for the classes is simple: to have fun and watch out for his peers.
“If we can save one guy or get one guy that feels better after he comes out of this, [we’ll be satisfied],” Doug said. “You don’t stand by and watch a brother kill himself.”
‘I’m just calm afterwards’
After leaving the Navy in 2013, student Karla Nolan was ready to move on with her life in Fort Collins. To cope, she didn’t tell strangers she was a veteran. She kept it to herself for a year because she was afraid of the stigma that follows former soldiers.
And she wasn’t alone. Many who leave the military are reluctant to share their status as a veteran, she said.
“I feel like a lot of people are in my same situation.,” Nolan said. “Some people come out right away and want to identify and connect to others and some people - it takes them a little longer to come around.”
While working at the Veterans Resource Center at Colorado State University, Sandy Newlin came with brochures, recruiting students for her new dance lesson series.
Nolan took one for herself. That night, she brought it home to her husband, Shaun.
“We’re going to the dance class!” she announced.
Since coming, she’s been surprised by the number of new friends and skills she’s developed. She said it’s a great date night for vets.
“Some of our friends say that this class helps their marriage and I can totally see that,” she said. “And Doug and Sandy are great examples for setting how to still be dancing with each other when you’ve been married for [so many] years.”
Denzil Packard Jr., a Navy veteran who left the service in 2002, comes to the Newlins’ classes because it helps him deal with his depression and anger, he said.
“When you’re dancing, you’re not worried about everything that went on through the day,” he said. “I [come] to this class and I’m just calm afterwards.”
Not everyone who comes to the Newlins’ class needs treatment for PTSD, Sandy said.
“But some do,” she said. “And it doesn’t really matter. This is a place where it’s safe and they understand what’s going on.”
The group communicates through a secret Facebook page to protect members who wish to remain anonymous, as well as through a public community page, where the couple posts updates and class offerings. There is not an official website for the program. All lessons are free.
The Newlins say they hope to expand their dance classes to other areas of the state, if the demand is there. They plan to finish up their first 6-week series this spring, with another starting up this summer.