(Re)Learning The Moves: Bringing Dance for PD to Youville

In 2001, dance was not thought of as an ideal activity for someone with Parkinson’s disease.  Even so, Olie Westheimer, Executive Director for the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group, was curious about the possibility of including dance as a therapy. She reasoned that the mind-body coordination developed in dance classes might benefit people with Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological illness characterized byKatie Blanchard, David Leventhal and Yanira Motto at the Dance for PD Teacher Training Workshop in Gainesville, Florida.  impaired motor skills. She reached out to the Mark Morris Dance Group, and a new program was born: Dance for PD.

Once a week, members of the dance troupe would lead specialized dance classes tailored for people with Parkinson’s. One of the founding Dance for PD instructors was David Leventhal, who saw people reconnecting with their bodies in profound ways. There was something about the music, the movements and the visualizations that allowed them to move freely once again.  Leventhal became so taken with Dance for PD that he ultimately abandoned a successful dancing career to work full time as the Dance for PD program director.

Leventhal has since introduced Dance for PD to cities throughout the United States and overseas by offering participatory workshops designed to introduce the basic concepts of the program.  Katie Blanchard, Youville’s Director of Programs, and Yanira Motto, a programs assistant, met Leventhal and other Dance for PD instructors in Gainesville, Florida when they attended a three-day workshop in early June. 

As “active auditors,” they observed a Dance for PD class and witnessed its transformative effects on people with Parkinson’s. “Everyone who participated in the class loved it,” says Yanira. “There was one man who looked very uncoordinated when he came in – he shuffled his steps and leaned sideways as he walked. But when the music started he was able to execute the steps. He was swinging his arms, snapping his fingers, and able to do everything.”

Why Dance Works

Using music and visualization, dance engages a part of the brain that may be the key to re-establishing communication between mind and body: the creative imagination. During a recent in-service presentation at Youville House, Nancy Mazonson, Director of the Parkinson’s Family Support Program at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, described the phenomenon to Youville staff: 

“When you ask someone with Parkinson’s to do something in a literal way, like “raise your hand above your head” they may not be able to do it.  But if you ask them to “pick the apple off the tree,” and demonstrate, suddenly they are raising their hand higher than ever. Imaginative visualization makes a difference.”

Youville has vamped up its focus on Parkinson’s lately. A monthly  support group has been established for residents and members of the Cambridge community living with Parkinson’s. The group has proven popular and is well attended each month. Katie believes that a Dance for PD program at Youville would provide the perfect counterpart to the support group.

 “The support group gives people a chance to be more introspective about coping with Parkinson’s.  In support groups, people reflect on their illness and share insights with one another. A dance class is almost the opposite – dance enables people to forget all about their illness.”

The Programs staff is considering their options and reaching out to dance instructors in the area. One idea would be for a more holistic dance program – one not exclusively for those with Parkinson’s, but open to anyone who wants to dance. “Many of the people we met in Florida don’t see Dance for PD as ‘Parkinson’s therapy,’” says Katie. “They see dance classes as their time to move, to be free. For them, dance is just a fulfilling activity in itself, and I think it could be that way for many of our residents.”