Fists punch. Left, then right. Not fast. Up, forward, repeat.

It’s “Flashdance” in slow motion.

Inside this studio, half a dozen patients are dancing. Almost all of them are in wheelchairs. The music is early rock.

“Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs” queues up on the sound system. The music could just as easily be The Who, the lyrical Bobs—Dylan and Seger, of course—or The Beatles, says RaNae Couture, coordinator of Spectrum Health’s Expressive Arts Program.

Her first name is of French origin. It means “rebirth” or “resurrection.”

That fits, here in the Expressive Arts studio on the first floor of the Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Center in northeast Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The morning session at the center features more than music. The site is also home to painting, poetry, dancing, creative writing and jewelry-making.

There’s a gallery here and at a Kalamazoo Avenue site, too.

Original art is just $30, split among resident artists and to cover supplies.

Couture looks at one painting and recalls the artist.

“To be able to communicate in a way she could experience dramatically increased her quality of life,” she says. “If she didn’t, she wouldn’t breathe, literally.”

The program’s other sites are at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and the long-term Neuro Rehabilitation program on Kalamazoo Avenue.

The studios play a significant role in the rehabilitation process for many patients, helping them improve concentration, visual perception and skills in fine motor and problem-solving.

Forever young

On this particular day, Patricia Winter, 50, is painting. The one-time Avon saleswoman is wearing a ponytail.

“I was really pretty good at it,” she says with a shine about her days in sales.

Her niche now is art, unveiled in broad brushstrokes.

“You never want to think you’re old, because then you lose it,” she says. “You have to keep busy.”

Adds Diane Wilson, a resident here for some four years: “I’m super glad we have the art program, because otherwise I don’t know what we’d do. It’d be pretty boring.”

Wilson uses acrylics to paint an image of a young woman in green, positioned outdoors in the sun.

By now, “California Dreaming” has taken over the sound system. It’s part of a set list titled “Happy, Positive Songs.”

It’s vinyl therapy, Couture says.

A visitor suggests she’s a “spiritual hippy.” She laughs and demurs, but does not deny. The music is intended to mimic the times of their lives, she says.

“The ‘silver tsunami’ is just beginning and it’s increasing dramatically,” Couture says, speaking of Baby Boomers entering their peak health care age. “Music is very important to their generation.”

Couture, 50, is easy to approach. Her brown eyes are direct and she speaks with her hands, telling tales about the success of past patients.

She wears a spackled smock, a silver cross necklace and her nails are unintentionally enhanced with green paint specks. She and her husband, John, have two grown children, 24 and 26.

Couture attended the University of Minnesota, Wayne State University and Aquinas College, where she received a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting.

Along the way she became a licensed nurse, and worked with patients who have traumatic brain injuries. She’s from Colorado, and spent time in Lake Katrine, New York, just down the road from Woodstock. Her family also lived in Naples, Florida, before moving.

“I wanted the kids to see snow,” she says. “They never saw leaves changing. I wanted them to be aware of seasonal change.”

Some time ago, she learned that cubicle life wasn’t for her.

“After a while it was like, ‘I’ve got to stick with the art,’” she says.

Restorative power

In these studios, expressive arts is a full component in the rehabilitation process. And it’s supported by solid evidence.

In a 2010 review in the American Journal of Public Health, experts Heather Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel stated: “Music is the most accessible and researched medium of art and healing, and there has been a principle emphasis on the soothing capacity of music and its ability to offset overly technological approaches to care.”

Creativity can help people express experiences too difficult for words. Experiences such as cancer.

“Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and reservoir of healing,” the review stated. “The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts.”

Randy Meade, Spectrum Health rehabilitation supervisor, is concluding a three-year study on the benefits of expressive arts therapy, with hope for publication in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Meade measured progress of 30 to 35 patients who participated in Spectrum Health’s art therapy program.

He checked the range of motion in patients’ shoulders, elbows and wrists—before and after each art therapy session. He also measured pinch and grip strength at the beginning of the eight weeks and at the conclusion. Possible pain reduction and the benefits of standing during therapy also caught the attention of Meade and Couture.

Environment is the key, Meade said. Music is motivation. Therapy techniques encourage patients to reach further than they might, to the corners of a canvas. Repetition helps progress week after a week.

“In every group we found a few people that made significant changes in their movement. You need to have something to perpetuate it, to keep it going week after week,” Meade said.

“It’s more of an unconscious response, and with that people will oftentimes get more movements. …“I think I was kind of struck by how much movement people have when you ask them to move in ways they enjoy.”

Nowhere is this more evident, however, than in the Expressive Arts Program studio on Fuller Avenue. He credits Couture’s influence.

As the day progresses and the artists ply their crafts, speakers hum “Over the Rainbow,” strummed on a ukulele by Hawaiian artist Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole.

He sings: “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly/ And the dreams that you dreamed of, dreams really do come true.”