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Dance Program for Those With Parkinson’s Disease Comes to DC

September 22, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
Dance for PD (Photo by Amber Star Merkens)

WASHINGTON — Dance for PD, an international dance program which teaches individuals with Parkinson’s disease how to dance, will soon provide in-person classes in the Washington, D.C. area. 

“When we opened up the dance center, we wanted it to be a community place, where anyone could come in and take classes,” said David Leventhal, program director of Dance for PD and member of the Mark Morris Dance Group. 

A visionary named Olie Westheimer approached the Mark Morris Dance Group in 2001 with a hunch that a dance class taught by professional dancers would be really beneficial for members of her Parkinson’s support group.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease associated with progression of motor dysfunction within the first 5 years of diagnosis.

As a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, Leventhal, John Heginbotham and Misty Owens began to develop a curriculum that formed the basis for weekly classes for people with Parkinson’s disease out of the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn.

The School at the Mark Morris Dance Center

In 2007 the program was opened up to other dance teachers to train in the curriculum and extend the benefits of the program to their own communities. 

Through a network of partners and affiliates, Dance for PD now offers community classes in over 25 countries and in multiple languages, with the curriculum and studio sites continually growing through dance teachers around the world.

“We are not asking people to do what we do in NYC. We want them to find their own music and artistic sources that are a part of their culture,” said Leventhal.

A typical in-person class will have about 15-30 individuals generally between the ages of 40-90 performing dance movements while seated for about 40 minutes and standing for 20 minutes. 

Leventhal uses metaphor and imagery to guide the participants in a dance session rather than giving anatomical descriptions for movement.

“Instead of lifting your arm, the image would be to think of your arms as wings and float your wings, and that changes how you feel about the movement,” said Leventhal. 

Leventhal said imagery is able to provide a detour around the motor challenges and limitations that might be experienced by someone with Parkison’s disease and help bring the full power of the imagination to support the movements being performed. 

During a virtual class on Monday, Leventhal instructed participants to imagine themselves playing the piano. Their movements were accompanied by energetic, expressive music with a clear rhythm structure. Although some classes use live music, teaching artists also use selections from one of the five albums created specifically for the Dance for PD experience.

After the session, Leventhal said he received a message from a participant that imagining playing a piano helped him move past the challenge of his hand dystonia, which causes cramping of muscles.

“People with Parkinson’s disease often cannot rely on automatic patterns and motor skills, and they need to relearn and use different parts of their brain to learn what they are doing, and that’s what dancers do,” said Leventhal.

Leventhal said that especially during the pandemic the program offered those with Parkinson’s disease a way to socialize and feel a sense of belonging and connection to their bodies, and to move with freedom without having to explain some of things they are experiencing in their own Parkinson’s journey.

“The pandemic has only furthered our goals of increased access. Now that we realize online programming is viable and is a good second parallel path to the in-studio program, we can provide inspiring and beneficial dance experiences to anyone in the world watching and living with Parkinson’s disease,” said Leventhal. 

The Dance for PD program is also being offered in clinical settings, as over 40 peer reviewed studies emerged in the past 20 years that offer evidence of how dance can provide benefits to those living with Parkison’s. 

Julie Worden leading a Dance for PD class at The Juilliard School_Photo by Ellis Gaskell

One study published in July in Brain Sciences demonstrates a clear correlation between dance movement and the slowing of disease progression.

“When we started doctors were very hesitant to have anything to do with dance, as there wasn’t research on it when we first started. To them, dance didn’t sound clinical enough, it was too much fun. But of course, 20 years later, we know how serious those benefits are and we get regular inquiries from neurologists who are eager to start the dance for PD programs and refer patients to us,” said Leventhal. 

Leventhal said that the programs receive funding through a combination of individual contributions, and local foundation and government support, which underwrites free classes in New York, D.C., and other cities. HMOs like Kaiser Permanente also started to underwrite Dance for Parkinson’s programming for their members at San Francisco Ballet, pointing to a possible future funding model.

Lucy Bowen is one of the early trainees and pioneers of expanding the program through her dance group called the Bowen Mccauley Dance Company. 

Bowen and partners set-up three new locations for in-person classes that will be offered starting this October at the Kennedy Center, Maryland Youth Ballet, and George Mason School of Dance in Fairfax.  

“It was important to me that people living with Parkinson’s continue to have easy access across the entire D.C. Metro area. To partner with these three iconic institutions in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia is an absolute dream and will ensure that the program lives on into the next generation,” said Bowen.

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