Dance for Parkinson's Disease Program

“After class, I find myself feeling lighter, more present, aware, inspired, hopeful, empowered.”

“It’s wonderful to be in control and be graceful.”

“The best part of the program was improved coordination and muscle strength and enhancing self esteem.”

“I like to find reassurance in my capacity to move. I like the fun of it; it picks me up. I like the live music. I find inspiration.”

These dance students’ comments capture the way a lot of us feel about our dance classes. In many ways, the class they’re describing is just like the classes that are such an essential element of professional and aspiring dancers’ lives. It starts with a warm up, ends with progressions across the floor. What makes their class different is that the students have Parkinson’s Disease (PD) or are caregivers to someone with Parkinson’s.

The Dance for PD program was developed in 2001 as a collaboration between the Brooklyn Parkinson Group (BPG) and the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). The driving principle is that professional dancers and people with PD deal with the same challenges—things like balance, coordination, rhythm, movement sequencing, etc. “Dancers do it exquisitely,” says BPG Founder and Executive Director Olie Westheimer, “and persons with Parkinson’s do it in order to function every day.”

Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that wreaks havoc on sufferers’ ability to move. Primary symptoms are shaking, rigidity of the limbs and/or torso, slowed movements, and difficulty balancing. Research indicates that exercise slows the advancement of the disease. Dancing fulfills the same purpose, with the added benefits of social inclusion and an artistic, rather than therapeutic, focus on one’s self and body.

“People think of PD as a movement disorder, but it’s really a quality of life disorder,” says Dance for PD Program Director David Lenventhal. “Depression, isolation, changing relations, diminished sense of ability—these really start to wear away a person’s identity. Your sense of who you are can change from a holistic, healthy person to full-time patient. This program takes people to the feeling of being dancers and away from feeling ‘medicalized’ as just patients.”

DFPD participants agree. “Before I came to the class I felt alienated from my body. The dance class makes me feel like a dancer because I am dancing,” says one. According to a caregiver participant,“This dance class has nothing to do with PD. The participants are not patients. No one is telling them what they should do, or can’t do because they have Parkinson’s. The focus is not illness; it is living. It is self-expression, human connection, joie de vivre, beauty, love. It’s magic; it’s precious.”

The program has been so successful that it’s vastly expanded since its beginnings. DFPD now operates in 11 countries around the world, and between 5,000 and 6,000 people have participated in the program, Leventhal estimates. PD students participate for three years on average, but some remain in the program for as long as ten years. “A decade is a long time in disease progression,” says Leventhal. “There’s no way around the fact that Parkinson’s is a degenerative condition. After ten years participants are definitely facing more challenges. But after ten years of dancing they have all these skills that they’ve been learning. So while their symptoms may be worse they also have more tools, and those have come from the dance classes. It’s really rewarding.”

To deliver the benefits to PD sufferers whose symptoms prohibit them from getting to the studio, DFPD has developed a home DVD version of its classes. And, with a recent $25,000 grant from Google Glass, the program is working on a voice command app that allows home students to free up their hands, which can be important when it’s difficult to control your arms. “The goal is to make this available to everyone, everywhere, at any stage of disease progression,” says Leventhal.

Additionally over 1,000 dance teachers have trained at the program’s flagship Brooklyn location to deliver and adapt to the DFPD class model to their students’ needs and interests. “It’s more of a template than a curriculum,” Leventhal explains. “In Brooklyn we do a combination of ballet, modern, and tap warm ups.  We also do a lot of square, line, and circle dancing. Across the floor we might do a tribute to West Side Story or Fiddler on the Roof, cultural references our students recognize and enjoy. In Pune, India they start with a kathak warm up and transition to Bollywood sequences. Around the world, teachers are using different cultural styles that are fun for their groups.”

Another benefit of the program is that the dance classes help to de-stigmatize the disease. “It’s fun and social and it change people’s minds about what kinds of opportunities are available to people with Parkinson’s,” says Leventhal.

This statement by a participant really sums it up:

“When I first heard of this group, I was so touched and surprised that anyone would think of something so magnificent and drastic as trying to teach all of us slowpokes to dance. What a marvel! I had pretty much settled into my life as a wallflower. If there is anything that sidelines you and exacerbates your sense of constriction and inhibition, it is Parkinson’s. If there is anything that calls for expression, demonstration, drama, movement, expression, and liveliness it is dance. I’m awash with sheer gratitude that they thought of us and made this magic happen. I can’t tell you what a treasure it is, how much it means to me that someone should even suspect us of sequestering ballerinas in our hidden hearts. But they do exist, and how kind of you to ask us to dance. It truly means so much.”

To learn more about Dance for PD, find a class, or support the program, see danceforparkinsons.org.