Dance class brings joy to those with Parkinson's

David Leventhal, a member of the Mark Morris Dance Company and a founding teacher of Dance for PD, center, made a guest appearance at one of the weekly dance classes at Connecticut College for people with Parkinson's disease.
David Leventhal, a member of the Mark Morris Dance Company and a founding teacher of Dance for PD, center, made a guest appearance at one of the weekly dance classes at Connecticut College for people with Parkinson's disease.

 Billie Lieberman has been attending the New London dance class for people with Parkinson's disease pretty much since it began a year ago. She says, simply, "It's been a gift."

During the weekly sessions at Connecticut College, Lieberman, who is mostly confined to a wheelchair, occasionally even gets up and dances with her health aide.

"It gets movement back in your body," she says.

Yet the physical benefits, as great as they are, might not compare to the emotional and social rewards.

Lieberman happily describes a recent class "a very joyous thing."

And at the end of each session, everyone gathers in a circle and, as the ballad "You Are the Face of God" plays, they move their hands as if slowly passing energy along to each other.

"I cry every time," Lieberman says.

The class was originally brought to Conn by Stan Wertheimer, professor emeritus of mathematics. At the time, he was president and chair of the Connecticut Parkinson's Working Group. CPWG now sponsors the class, and Conn College donates the space.

What goes on there is drawn from Dance for PD, a program begun nearly a decade ago by the acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group.

Dance for PD has since been featured everywhere from the 2005 International Congress for Parkinson's Disease and Related Disorders in Berlin to Neuroscience 2008 in Washington, D.C.

David Leventhal, a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group and a Dance for PD founding teacher, says he knows of 45 dance classes for people with Parkinson's that now take place around the globe.

He stopped into the New London class recently, and he explained afterward that the original idea for Dance for PD was this: It's not a therapy class. It's a dance class. The instructors don't make it about the disease.

The key, he says, is, "What's good for teaching someone how to dance is also very, very useful for someone with a movement disorder. It's just this wonderful synchronicity that dancers have a lot to share with people with Parkinson's - regaining a sense of grace, finding balance, redeveloping rhythmic physicality ... feeling free again to express yourself through movements."

Parkinson's disease, which is caused by a loss of dopamine-producing brain cells, results in muscle rigidity, a slowing of movement and tremors.

Rachel Balaban, the dance coordinator for Connecticut Parkinson's Working Group who leads the class in New London, says that another significant aspect of the disease for people with Parkinson's can be depression.

"They are so defined by their illness," she says. But in this class, "for at least an hour and 15 minutes a week, they aren't. They are being told what they CAN do, as opposed to what they can't do."

The class isn't just for people who have Parkinson's - some of whom are in wheelchairs, some of whose symptoms are barely noticeable; it's also for their spouses and caregivers.

On a recent Wednesday, everyone begins class sitting in chairs, making big, deliberate arm movements. They create sweeping motions in front of them. They reach and stretch toward the ceiling. They lift their arms into a variation of ballet's fifth position.

(Leventhal says the class is structured to start in chairs to build both a sense of community and a sense of safety, taking away any worries about balance.)

Later in the class, they stand and bring steps into the equation. On this particular day, Leventhal leads them in a sassy Sharks-and-Jets homage, complete with finger snaps, set to music from "West Side Story."

After the dancing is over, everyone gathers to sample birthday cake to mark three birthdays, and they chat and laugh and socialize.

"Parkinson's can be very isolating. People don't want to go out, they have trouble getting out," Leventhal says. "This class brings them together once a week as a group to do something fun together."

Fun it is. In past classes, they have mimed playing band instruments along to "76 Trombones" and, in honor of Ringo Starr's birthday, have performed a little hand jive to "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

While the class may not be about the disease, the motions are created with it in mind. When folks told Balaban they were having difficulty putting their arms through their sleeves, she created something functional that would help - reaching across their body, in a bow-and-arrow movement - and musicalizing it all for the class.

Wertheimer, who had the idea of starting this Dance for PD program at Conn and was diagnosed with Parkinson's 21 years ago, says that the class helps him because he loves rhythm and dance; in fact, he used to be a Westerly morris dancer.

"Rhythm is supposed to be important for people with Parkinson's. Just the idea of concentrating on a rhythm is beneficial," he says.

Leventhal says that, while the scientific community is skeptical of things they haven't yet proved, those involved with Dance for PD believe that it does help participants both physically and cognitively.

With dance, he says, "It's the mind, body, spirit all working together to initiate movement. That's what works about this class. People in the class have told us they are able to do things in a dance class that in ordinary life are very difficult for them. Whether that is the fact that they're thinking of it as dance and not as a task, or there's music involved, or they're doing it as part of a synchronized group - whatever the initiating factor is, it seems to work."

On a more personal level, participant Lieberman says, "The class is such a wonderful group of people. I look forward to it with great joy. It's the highlight of my week."

Rachel Balaban leads her weekly dance class for patients with Parkinson's disease at Connecticut College.
Rachel Balaban leads her weekly dance class for patients with Parkinson's disease at Connecticut College.

Class details:

This dance class for people with Parkinson's and their caregivers is held from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m. Wednesdays at the Crozier-Williams Student Center at Connecticut College in New London. It's free. For information, call instructor Rachel Balaban at (401) 261-7062.

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