From Tara Rynder's "First Do No Harm" performance at Rose Medical Center. Image credit: DW Burnett
A story of using dance and play to build resilience within healthcare professionals.
“I had a tumultuous upbringing so dance was my form of resiliency. I didn’t have a safe space or the language to express myself so I would dance to release my feelings. When I danced I would move emotions from my body and I would feel better. As I got older I realized dance was an integral part of my healing process and this is why I have not stopped dancing." – Tara Rynders
Tara Rynders is a performer and artistic director based in Denver, Colorado. She is also a registered nurse. Here is her story of art healing.
Tara combines her passions for creative expression and nurturing through immersive performances and art-based workshops for healthcare professionals. She uses the power of dance and play to combat compassion fatigue and build healthcare workers’ resilience.
Tara was recently awarded the EY Next Wave Leadership Award by the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts (CBCA). The CBCA award celebrates the impact she has made by bringing the arts into healthcare settings, as well as into the homes of healthcare providers. The award specifically recognized Tara’s recent works, “Resiliency Moments," a virtual experience that was created during the pandemic to bring artists and healthcare providers together. In "Resiliency Moments," artists create safe artistic spaces for healthcare providers to reflect, play, and tap into the resilience that comes from being creative in relationship with others. This work provided space for healthcare providers and also created employment for artists during the pandemic.
Rynders worked in close collaboration with artists Clare Hammor, Alison Waldman, C. Meranda Surmanek, Abby Ahmad, Son Chung, Kelly Greenlight, and Alberto Denis to create and execute "Resiliency Moments."
She was also recognized for “First, Do No Harm,” an immersive theater performance that took place in Tara’s own workplace—Rose Medical Center. “First, Do No Harm” was created in collaboration with artists Jadd Tank and Lia Bonfilio. It was performed in 2018 pre-pandemic and explored burnout and secondary traumatic stress from the perspective of patient’s family members and directly from nurses.
As a child, Tara didn’t know that a career could be made in the arts. Thus, she didn’t see herself becoming a professional performer. So, how did Tara forge her unique path within arts and healing?
“I wasn’t brought up thinking that dance could be a sustainable profession for me.”
When it came time to pick a professional career, Tara chose nursing. “Nursing came pretty naturally to me as a pathway,” she shares.
“I love nurturing. As a child I learned that in order to care for myself, I knew I had to care for others. I knew I would be safe if I could create a safe space for others.”
But, dance was always in her life. “I danced a lot and taught dance where I grew up in Reno, Nevada. I continued to dance in college while I got my nursing degree. Even as a nurse I kept dancing and applied for grants.”
Creating a new definition of resiliency
In 2006 Tara’s mother passed away. She described the moment as when her foundation was pulled out from her. Her mother was one of her main supports; “I didn’t know what to do,” Tara uttered.
Up until this point, Tara’s definition of resiliency was like many of ours—the ability to bounce back—to say, “I’ve got this. I’m strong enough.” But, Tara shares a different feeling. “I was broken. I couldn’t push forward and bounce back.” At this time she turned to dance as solace.
“Dance has always been my place of comfort and joy. So I decided to move to Colorado and get my Masters in dance. I decided to run to what brought me solace and joy and this has always been dance. I spent the next three years dancing and grieving the loss of my mother."
It was during this time that Tara discovered her new definition of resilience: a space of softening—a space to share grief and to garner and sit with support. A space to tell the truth about how she was feeling. Resilience, she realized, is a space to reflect.
From Tara Rynder's performance "First Do No Harm" at Rose Medical Center. Image credit: DW Burnett
Turning pain into performance
Following her mother’s passing, Tara explored her creative process. She ended up creating a new relationship between the audience, the stage, and the performer.
“I want people to be connected through the arts. I want to create intimate views that you cannot experience through the stage. So my process is around intimacy and connection. I create space for interactivity.”
This discovery originated yet again from a place of loss.
In Tara’s last year of graduate school her sister had an acute onset of ADEM (Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis). She was in the ICU. She went into a coma for many months. She couldn’t move her body or speak. So, Tara took a semester off of school, packed up and moved to California to be with her. “I spent my days speaking for her, navigating the system for her, bathing her.” Tara was supposed to be creating her thesis at the time, but found that she couldn’t make a dance and put it on stage given her familial circumstances.
Instead, Tara created the production “You & Me”—a three-hour long, curated evening experience.
“You & Me” is a multidisciplinary, collaborative performance that engages both the performers and guests in one-on-one performance installations. The performers and the guests experience the performance symbiotically—partaking and creating together in the moment. “You & Me” creates a non-traditional look into art, intimacy, and performance.
“It started in my home in 2010. It was innovative at that time to perform dance outside of the theater.” In the years since, “You & Me” has since traveled both nationally and internationally.
“You & Me”
Let’s immerse ourselves in this performance for a moment.
Imagine you are standing in an open dirt lot—a few dozen yards from a home. In the distance, by the house, you see a dance performed by Tara and a partner.
But, then you are invited to gather near—and to experience the performance up close. The dance between the couple begins again.
At the end of the dance you are given a map and an appointment card. Tara has signed you up for 1:1 appointments with artists. Before venturing off on your excursions, you stand in a circle and share your name.
Let’s pause here and connect this moment to our experience within the healthcare system.
This moment is supposed to reimagine what a healthcare experience looks like. Imagine showing up to a clinic and—without saying your name—someone says, “Are you Tracy?”
In this imagined scenario, the healthcare workers know you. They’ve done their homework. They welcome you and make you feel comfortable. However, anyone who has spent hours, days, weeks of their lives in an ICU unit, or a hospital setting in general, knows that this scenario is rarely the case.
More often, patients and their families experience a “dehumanizing” effect, which can sometimes accompany a major illness. No longer Tracy, they become “the patient in Room 211,” or a disorder, or a prognosis. For many, this experience makes hospitals a source of anxiety, isolation, and fear. Tara’s work directly contradicts this tendency, reconnecting to the humanity that underlines all caregiving.
To reinforce this utopic experience, Tara mails all attendees cards and small gifts before the performance—sharing that she is thinking of them and excited to see them.
Back to the performance.
Each participating artist offers an experience. Tara’s was dancing on the roof. They dance to the participant’s favorite song. Others rode tandem bicycles belting their favorite songs through the streets while pairs paddled a canoe in Sloan’s lake. Then there was a dinner in which the artists served the guests. The artists are there to care for the guests.
The performance ends with Tara dancing on the table and then everyone is invited to dance on the table together.
Tara shifts the hierarchy within the arts
“There is a shift that happens for the artists when they look at their art as a shared experience. There is power in creating those spaces,” shares Tara. “There is so much focus on the artist within our traditional art sector—artist as the genius. The artist creates. They finish.”
But in “You & Me” the 1:1’s are symbiotic. A performer may be there to open and till the attendees’ hearts for their next experience. “We’re in this as a team. We’re not here to be the best performance,” encourages Tara.
Bringing it back to grief
Tara made the production “You & Me” for her sister. “It is about the intimacy of holding both grief and joy,” she says. “While caring for my sister, we shared intimate spaces. It was a gift along with loss. There was so much grief but it was also a gift for me to feed her and bathe her.”
So, how does Tara’s art reflect this duality of grief and joy?
“I wanted to bring something to people to help them renegotiate intimacy with strangers–to be close to one another, within art-based spaces.”
From Tara Rynder's "First Do No Harm" performance at Rose Medical Center. Image credit: DW Burnett
Art as a tool to give power back to nurses
Tara had her own moment of personal pain and grief when she had an ectopic pregnancy.
“I didn’t realize the power I held as a nurse. We as nurses feel powerless. But here I was on the receiving end of a nurse's care. I remember her holding my hand and saying everything was going to be ok. I was scared and couldn’t communicate. It was the first time I had received care at such a pivotal moment. I wanted to share this with nurses and help them acknowledge their power through art. Even with small gestures and simple words–we hold so much power as nurses.”
Using art to combat burnout and fatigue in hospitals
COVID has shone a blinding spotlight on the burnout and fatigue that hospital professionals combat on a daily basis. But, these experiences existed before the global pandemic.
In 2018 Tara created an immersive arts workshop called “First Do No Harm” to help give nurses language to describe their most challenging experiences. A lot of nurses didn’t have the ability to express what they were feeling, to articulate their own grief. After Tara’s performance many of her viewers say, “I didn't know what it was until it was played out in front of me."
It was evident to Tara that healthcare workers needed outlets and opportunities to feel, to share, and to reflect.
“It's been my experience that the arts create safe spaces to tell the truth about how we are feeling. Talking about how we are feeling is not acceptable in the hospital setting. That's not the culture in the health care system. We are focused on the black and white, on numbers, on outcomes. It’s less so about the journey. The arts are a way into the process. It addresses the gray that we cannot speak about.”
This author has witnessed the emotional, physical and mental tolls on nursing staff while her son lived his first three months in a NICU. A nurse feels grief when their patient dies. They hold shame and guilt when an outcome doesn’t come out. “If a patient grieves, we have to feel that grief. But then we walk into another room and are yelled at because we didn’t bring the crackers.” Tara speaks to the compounding emotions felt in a day, how she has to swallow her tears. And what does that do to her body she asks? What does that do over time?
All of these struggles were amplified during COVID. That’s why Tara created “Resiliency Moments.” Healthcare professionals sign up for 1:1 Zoom videos with artists.
“So much is about feeling seen,” shares Tara—for both the nurse and the patient. Her artistic moments are created to help nurses release, reflect, and build resilience so that they can continue to show up for the moments—both big and small.
Don’t change your passion to get people on board
“In some ways I felt deep acknowledgement during COVID,” asserts Tara. She reflects on a professor telling a story about her Fulbright—about how it was a project that the professor was passionate about and it was what she believed in. Tara’s professor encouraged her students by saying, “someday someone will align with your passion. Don’t change your passion to get people on board.”
For Tara, COVID opened the world’s eyes and hearts to the emotionally and physically-exhausting reality of nursing. The pandemic nurtured a deep passion for our nurses and gratitude for their care. It opened our eyes to the injustices and inequalities that burden patients, our nurses, and everyone in the hospital system. During COVID, people started talking about what Tara had been talking about. “I didn't have to spend time convincing people that there was a problem. People think these ideas are worthwhile. I can now step into these ideas and make them happen.”
Tara Rynders from her performance "First Do No Harm." Image credit: DW Burnett
Embedding arts and resiliency into the system
“Nurses are everyday people like us doing this hard work. There are no super powers.” Tara speaks passionately about the deep sacrifice of nurses, but also how nurses are often unaware of the effects that these sacrifices have on their own bodies, hearts, and minds.
COVID helped Tara recognize that nurses don’t have the time or capacity to build the resilience they need. “We need to change the system. We need to find ways to build resilient processes to support our healthcare workers.”
Large institutional systems like healthcare are indeed a slow-moving albatross and hard to change. But isn’t that what the arts are for? To find the crack in the armor? The arts are not delicate, they are tools—tools to help us break down oppressive systems, open them up and create new dialogue and experiences. Imagine the impact of art-based approaches on rigid systems like the healthcare industrial complex.
So, Tara continues her work—bringing art-based workshops into hospitals and supporting healthcare workers who may, themselves, feel like cogs in an inhumane wheel.
Tara has transitioned from being a bedside nurse to being a nurse educator. It’s more aligned with her work to care for nurses. She continues to lead resiliency training and retreats. Additionally, in an effort to boost healthcare workers’ resilience, Tara volunteers as a RISE peer responder at Denver Health—where she fields calls from hospital staff when they are in need of support and a listening ear.
This summer, Tara will be bringing her intimate and impactful performances to a global stage in Amsterdam as a Fulbright scholar.
She is grateful for her team at The Clinic, Kelly Greenlight, Alison Waldman, Clare Hammoor, and C. Meranda Surmanek for thier brilliance and care as together they disrupt hospital systems and create more creative and equitable healthcare spaces. Learn more at The Clinic's website: www.theclinicperformance.com.
Tara's work recalls the famous line by the late singer Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.”
Brava Tara. And, thank you.
Read more about the healing power of arts in this powerful personal story from one of our own at Artwork Archive.