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Dance class at Conn College helps those with Parkinson's get moving

New London — Steve Dorfman started attending a dance class for those with Parkinson's disease a few years ago in order to convince a friend with the condition to go.

The friend initially refused, so Dorfman got the music list and tried to conduct a solo class.

"With a class of one with me, you miss out on Rachel (Balaban) and L'Ana (Burton), who are, like, experts," he said. "And you're going to miss out on them, but you're also going to miss out on meeting some of these remarkable people here."

Every Wednesday, Connecticut College opens up one of its dance studios to a class for people with Parkinson's disease and their caregivers.

It is part of Dance for PD, an international movement that uses dance to help people with Parkinson's disease by recognizing similarities in how people move.

“Every movement has meaning,” said Balaban, who teaches the class with Burton in the College Center at Crozier-Williams.

Professional dancers and people with Parkinson’s both have to move consciously and to be aware constantly of how they are doing it, she said.

The classes give people with Parkinson's a way to get moving without visiting a doctor's office.

The Dance for PD movement was started in 2001 by the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn, N.Y., where classes now can attract more than 50 people per session.

David Leventhal, who serves as the program director for Dance for PD, said he was approached by the local support group to create an arts-based dance class, and the program has expanded to more than 100 communities in 14 countries.

Dancing can be beneficial for people with Parkinson’s disease because it develops both physical skills and social interaction, Leventhal said.

The routines used in each class help with balance, coordination and fluidity in movement, but instead of a one-on-one therapy session, participants also get to interact with other people taking the classes, which is essential in maintaining quality of life.

The program started with dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group as teachers, so participants could feel as if they were dance students or part of a professional group rather than just patients with Parkinson’s.

As interest grew, they taught other dancers in other communities to lead similar classes, and Balaban started the class at Connecticut College in 2009, the second class in the state.

The college opens up a dance studio for the class each week, and students in the dance program volunteer from time to time.

Each class is divided into three parts: a seated warm-up, balance work with a chair or ballet barre, and spatial work.

Balaban said every class begins and ends the same way to provide consistency and to keep people involved, and each activity can be done seated so participants of all skills can participate.

Leventhal said teachers are trained to adapt the routines to all movement levels.

Balaban hosted an open house on Oct. 21, which she tries to do every year to raise awareness for the class. About 35 people attended.

This year, Leventhal came in as a guest teacher to lead the class. His routines had participants “sketching through space” with imaginary paintbrushes, eating at a Texas barbecue and telling the story of a historic flood to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”

Dorfman said the teachers, the regular attendees and their caregivers are all immensely dedicated to the program and are positive models in the Parkinson’s community.

“We’d love to see the day when there’s actual, valid, gold-medal research that shows the importance of this dance,” he said.

Since Parkinson’s disease has no known cause or cure, it would be significant if a dance program could be medically fine-tuned and recommended to patients as a complement to other treatments, he said.

After the class, Leventhal hosted a demonstration of Moving Through Glass, which came out of a grant from Google. The program uses Google Glass to guide people with Parkinson’s through four modules that focus on skills such as balance, walking in rhythm, and getting moving again after being “frozen.”

The free classes are held at Connecticut College every Wednesday from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m. in the second floor dance studio of the Crozier-Williams Student Center.

Twitter: @ahutch411


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