Dance is emotional. Dance is powerful. Dance is hopeful.
Through movements graceful and grand, energetic and bold, individuals young and old shared messages of support and compassion Saturday at the Dance for Hope, an awareness event and fundraiser for the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative. Formed in 2004, the organization includes more than 30 members dedicated to awareness, prevention and providing resources.
Now on its ninth year, the Dance for Hope drew more than 350 individuals to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Student Union for an afternoon of food, music, information and conversation, an opportunity to broach a sensitive and difficult subject with an artistic and creative approach.
Dancers from La Crosse Dance Centre, Ho-Chunk Youth Services, the La Crosse Hmong Dancers, YMCA Dancers, UW-La Crosse Hip Hop Team, Click’n & Grin’n Cloggers, Affinity for Dance, Misty’s Unlimited, I+E Dance Company and the Sahara Desert Dancers gave performances throughout the event, with event attendees invited to join in for mass dances.
“We’re using the gift of dance to impact or touch families who have been impacted by suicide,” said Misty’s dance instructor Elisabeth Michelson.
Michelson and fellow instructor Kylie Williams chose songs both poignant and positive for their dancers, sharing the thought behind the selections with the older students, how their performances may impact the audience and encouraging them to “come in with a sensitive heart,” Michelson said. Dancer Ava Matti, 8, was especially moved by the lyric “Out of the darkness and into the glow” in her groups song, “Shine.”
Tim Blumentritt, director of the CARE Center and a La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative member, opened the event with the Click’n & Grin’n Cloggers, performing to “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” featuring uplifting lyrics including “I got that sunshine in my pocket, Got that good soul in my feet.” While joyful on the dance floor, Blumentritt teared up when asked about his passion for helping those struggling.
“Everyday I work with people who are dealing with depression or considering suicide,” Blumentritt said. “The pain must be immense. People think about going and hanging themselves on the fence that’s right there — they already have their shirt ready. What really motivates me is getting people to talk. A lot of conversations happen at this (event) every year and as a result more and more people are sharing their stories, and a lot of those stories are of hope.”
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An estimated 16.2 million adults in the U.S. have depression, according to the World Health Organization, with 44,000 Americans dying by suicide each year. Males are four times more likely than women to die by suicide, though females attempt to kill themselves twice as often.
Locally, 20 suicides were reported in La Crosse County in 2017, the number increasing to 22 in 2018. Ranging in age from 20 to 78, all but two were male, six of them veterans. Ten died as a result of hanging and six by gunshot wounds, with the remainder caused by overdose, suffocation and jumping.
“We need to continue to persist in helping people know there are resources available in our great community,” Blumentritt said of the rise in suicides. “La Crosse has a lot of caring people, and part of this event is bringing people and resources together. We continue to reach out to younger people, which is really important to the work that we do.
Though his daughter Nora, 6, who performed with Misty’s, is too young to understand the topic of the event, Matt Stapleton noted that dance helps youth develop confidence, empowerment and strong minds, and says of mental health, “It’s something that’s easily overlooked, but shouldn’t be.”
The Suicide Prevention Initiative’s work is ongoing, with recent efforts including the installation of signs on Grandad Bluff which read “Your Life Matters,” along with a help number, in hopes “someone will pause for a second and make that call.” The group’s next step is adding signage to the Cass Street Bridge, spurred by a suicide attempt Blumentritt witnessed last summer.
A young girl, Blumentritt says, was crying and poised to jump. A police officer arrived, the distraught girl presumably having called 911 for herself, and placed out her hands so the officer could cuff her for her safety and take her to get help.
“(Signs) are the kind of opportunity we have as an organization to help people,” Blumentritt said. “We may not get to zero suicides, but certainly we know through our efforts we can reduce the number.”