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Dancing for Parkinson’s: Aesthetics, not Symptoms

by Bonnie Rosenstock
February 7, 2014
New York, NY
Mata Stevenson is not your typical dance student. Her upper torso curves over, and her head hunches down, symptoms of the ravages of Parkinson's disease (PD). But in this class Stevenson is not so unusual. She is one of a growing number of people who Dance for PD.

I met Stevenson and her dance mates in a Monday Dance for PD class, held twice monthly at The Juilliard School on West 65th Street. (Juilliard donates the space) There were about 25 students, in a wide range of ages, almost equally divided between men and women, in varying stages of the degenerative disease. Some were in wheelchairs; others relied on walkers or canes; and others used no ambulatory aids. As David Leventhal, Program Director of Dance for PD, headquartered at Mark Morris Dance Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, explained, "It is the nature of PD that the body has already gone through changes because it usually isn't diagnosed until 60% to 70% of the dopamine-producing cells are dead. So even the recently diagnosed are starting to explore their new identity and what it means to live with PD even in the early stages."

On this day, Leventhal and Julie Worden taught the 75-minute class (there are always co-teachers), accompanied by William Wade on piano. They sat in chairs in the center of the large, semi-organized circle of participants for the 45-minute seated warm-up.

Also in attendance were caregivers, family members, friends and volunteer assistants, who aided individuals who had more difficulty with mobility and communication.

Dance for PD attracts people who want to volunteer.Dancers or those who have a dance background, physical therapists and yoga instructors, as well as people in the community who don't know anyone with PD but just want to help out. Volunteer Amy Bauman, an occupational therapist and dancer, took the two-day teacher training workshop last year and is now in the advanced program. "I love dancing, and this is the best dance class in the world," she exclaimed.

We followed the teachers' movements, which they enhanced with verbal cues and creative imagery. We moved body parts individually and in combinations to varied musical genres and rhythms. We learned an American Sign Language version of Autumn Leaves, a complex of hand and upper body movements that required coordination, focus and concentration. For the last half hour there was standing barre work (pliés, port de bras and stretches), moving across the floor in a taught sequence, and for the pièce de résistance, learning a segment of a lyrical Mark Morris work. The class ended with a circle in which we held hands and sent around a wave of good energy -A workout comparable to any dance class.

Stevenson has been taking Dance for PD classes for more than five years. As a result, she got rid of her wheelchair and now navigates the city with the help of a cane.

"The classes have made me more confident and a better dancer," she said. "It's absolutely necessary for people with poor balance and coordination. Exercise is almost as important as medication for me."

Helen Jacobs, who also uses a cane which she has dubbed "Able", added, "Before my diagnosis with PD, I used to take dance classes for exercise and the Dance for PD class has allowed me to feel somewhat normal again. This group has been a lifeline for me, and the specialized dance classes have definitely improved my movement and walking."

Dance for PD is the brainchild of Olie Westheimer, executive director of Brooklyn Parkinson's Group (BPG), the 12-year-old flagship program. While she was studying for her Master's in Applied Linguistics, she ran support groups for her husband, who was head of the Parkinson's Disease and Related Disorders Center at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. She became intrigued by the problems people discussed, about moving and helping themselves to move. "It's very well known if you have an outside stimulus, visual or verbal instruction, music, proprioception, touching, it reminds you where your body is. For over a year I heard people talking about this. They had so many elements of how they helped themselves, it was like learning to do a pirouette," said Westheimer, who had formal ballet training.

"I thought dancing has more to offer than physical therapy because of the way you think about solving a problem as a physical therapist and the way you think about using your body as a dancer. Physical therapy concentrates on helping a part of the body, but that's not how you move in the world; you use your whole body. I thought, why hasn't anyone done this before?"

That idea, of using dance for PD sat percolating until one day in 2001, Westheimer read in The New York Times that Mark Morris was opening a dance center in Fort Greene. When she came upon the quote, "We want to be part of the community," Westheimer, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, scheduled a meeting with executive director Nancy Umanoff of the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) and proposed a collaboration. "I was confident that Mark Morris would at least listen to me," said Westheimer.

Umanoff did listen and said yes, they'd love to try it, and they would even provide the teachers and musicians. The teachers developed the material for the class in consultation with Westheimer and members of the class. Westheimer doesn't teach, "but she was always a facilitator with an expert eye to what was needed," said Leventhal, one of the first instructors.

"At the beginning I called them movement classes so as not to frighten people," recalled Westheimer. "People would argue, ‘How do you make your brain control your body? I am not going to a dance class when I can hardly move.'"

Westheimer was resolute about using professionally trained dancers because she observed that the support groups focused on dealing strictly with PD. "The whole idea is that these classes do not address symptoms. Dancers have to figure out from A to B."

She added, "It's much more fun to go to a dance center and be taught by dancers, meet other people, have a good time, be social, hear music and move your body than go to a physical therapy office. It's not like one or the other; it's just an added invitation and opportunity to think about yourself in a different way. More and more doctors get it, and they send students. Now we have a whole program: singing, movement lab, experimental things, fun and games, group meetings, outings, an art workshop at MoMA. They come to dance classes and other classes and feel less excluded and separated."

I met Peter Ecklund, a working jazz musician (trumpet/flugelhorn/cornetist), after taking a Wednesday BPG class. A tall, slim man with a slow gait, Ecklund, 68, was diagnosed with PD in 1999. He has attended self-help groups and admitted that he tired of listening to the same story over and over again. "It's helpful once a week to be around people who have PD, who don't necessarily talk about it but experience it," he said.

"When I started having problems sequencing emotion, I discovered if I do things in rhythm, if it carries with it the emotions of dance, it smoothes things out and makes it possible. It's a new use of wonderful resources, making movement flow on a much higher plane," Ecklund added.

Dance for PD is "an approach," said Leventhal. "We don't have a set curriculum. It's more of a philosophy and mindset. The techniques are up to the individual teacher, and we like to keep it that way." Some classes are more ballet focused, some more contemporary/modern, some are taught by tap teachers, and even indigenous dance genres are utilized. In India, Kathak is used as a warm-up and Bollywood across the floor. "It's the same model: classical progressive warm-up, then fun theatrical style towards the end of the class," he said. "We are focusing on movement as an aesthetic experience, set by the imagination and not by a fitness regimen."

Leventhal also explained that they don't consult with PD experts because it tends to make the experience about PD. "This class is not about PD; it's about dancing for a specific population that has PD. It's a fine balance," he noted. "We tend to craft things that are adapted, like speed and complexity, so it can be done by people of all levels of ability and mobility. But we don't teach to specific symptoms because everything in the form of dance is designed for PD. The things that start to go away, like posture, stability, natural physical rhythm, control, coordination of different parts of the body, ability to understand where different parts of the body are in space, multi-tasking, expression, whether voice, face, or physical action, they are also the things emphasized in every dance form. Dance fits PD like a glove."

Since 2007, MMDG and BPG have been offering teacher-training workshops in Brooklyn and other cities for dancers and PD organizations interested in learning how to organize and teach Dance for PD classes. The great majority of the classes across the country and in nine countries overseas stem from this program, said Leventhal. There is an introductory weekend training, which imparts enough basics to start a class. There is also advanced training for certification as an official Dance for PD teacher. "The best thing is if you are a dancer in a company and have some performance background, but it's not required," said Westheimer. She noted that not every dancer makes a good teacher. "You have to love working with older people and disabled people," she said.

In Brooklyn, I took two half-classes, going from one studio to the other. In the warm-up part of the first class, Dr. Tara Sherman, a psychiatrist in private practice and former dancer with the New York City Ballet, took the lead, with back-up by Leventhal. "I want to bridge Western medicine, and particularly a neurodegenerative disorder, with the healing power of the art," Sherman said. This was her teaching debut. "I loved it and felt its power," she said. Sherman is starting her own group at the Riverdale Y on February 20.

In November 2012, BPG presented its first staged performance, with two pieces of adapted excerpts from the Mark Morris repertory and three from different choreographers. It was such a joyful experience that participants wanted more.

"The performance component is important," said Leventhal. "It gives us a chance to work on the same material over the course of many, many months. We can get much deeper into the movement. It's very satisfying but also very challenging," he acknowledged.

They are currently rehearsing for their next concert with about 20 participants, an adaptation of four or five sections of Morris's "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," with music by Handel, based on poems by John Milton. The theme is the discourse between optimistic exuberance and a more pensive melancholy worldview. It is tentatively slated for sometime in June. "We try not to set a date because it applies too much pressure," said Leventhal.

Sharon Resen, 67, diagnosed in 2005, is one of the repeat performers. "Performing last year was like a dream come true. I always wanted to dance onstage. It is pretty much professional caliber, and they treated us like professionals, with the staging, lighting and costumes."

No longer able to keep up with folk dance, Dance for PD is the only form of dance she is able to do. "Starting out sitting and upper and lower body movements, with music, builds you up so you have stamina to do it. It has given me a sense of confidence and feeling good about myself. It's also the love that the teachers feel towards us and us towards them."

Said Westheimer, "We're all about art, fitness and community. Dance combines all three. It's a fabulous program, I have to say."

Dance for PD and BPG offices at Mark Morris Dance Center, 3 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217. Advanced registration is required for all dance classes in Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. Sign up at www.danceforpd.org, or call 718-218-3373. For more information about the free classes, programming and support services, contact maria@brooklynparkinsongroup.org, or call 718-522-0553. Website: www.brooklynparkinsongroup.org.

Dance for PD at Mark Morris Dance Group. Photo by Johan Henckens (MMDG).


Martin Thall, a member of the Brooklyn Parkinson, dances with David Leventhal of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Photo by Katsuyoshi Tanaka.


John Heginbotham teaches members of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Photo by Amber Star Merkens.


Dance for PD at Mark Morris Dance Center. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor


Dance for PD at Mark Morris Dance Group. Photo by Amber Star Merkens.


Members of Brooklyn Parkinson Group in Dance for PD at Mark Morris Dance Center. Photo David Bee.

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