Dance On

I’ve recently returned from several days at the Mark Morris Dance Group studio in Brooklyn, taking technique classes, choreographing, learning new work, and building my skill bank. Thirty of us came together from across the country and Great Britain to share ideas, experiences and questions from our own work as dance teachers with people who have Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is a neurological disease that impacts the production of dopamine in the brain and impairs automatic movement. It’s often recognizable through movement difficulties; tremors, freezing in place, rigidity in carriage and expression. In 2001 a few visionaries who perceived the potential benefits of dancing for people with Parkinson’s disease came together in conversation. Those conversations led to a few dancers at the Mark Morris Dance Group Center starting a weekly class – Dance for PD. The class has developed and grown substantially, as good ideas sometimes do. Like good dance these classes have been tried, tested, revised and revamped into an evolving choreography of classes across the country and world. Those who started the classes in Brooklyn have generously shared their ideas an experiences and now over 600 Parkinson’s dance teachers have been trained worldwide.

As dancers, choreographers, and dance teachers, we have lived and loved the hard work and sheer joy of dancing. It has fueled us and in return we’ve wanted to bring some of that work and joy to those who grapple with the movement difficulties caused by Parkinson’s. During our classes each week we are able to teach and share dance in ways that are about the music, about connection to ourselves and connection to a larger community we make though dancing together. Professionally – trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge is useful to persons with Parkinson’s. Dancers know all about stretching and strengthening muscles, and about balance and rhythm. Dancers know about the power of dance to concentrate mind, body and emotion on movement because they use their thoughts, imagination, eyes, ears and touch to control their bodies every day.

Dancing has all kinds of inherent benefits for all of us, not the least of which is that it can just feel good. When music plays we’re prompted to move. We tap our feet, glide across the floor, slap out a rhythm on our knee. It feels good to stretch a bit, expend some energy, express ourselves, get strong,

Leaving the studio in New York I was thinking about my classes and rehearsals over the years, from dance residencies in schools with five to eighteen year olds, to presenting professional development for teachers and teaching artists, to dancing with my University graduate students, to company classes and rehearsals, I’ve done musical theatre, dance concerts on stage, dance concerts in museums, parks, and classrooms. Whether I’m dancing full-out, quietly choreographing on my own, marking phrases in rehearsal, or dancing around my office warming my body and brain before spending the day writing, it just feels good to dance. Professional dancers feel it – Parkinson’s class dancers feel it – occasionally even high school prom dancers feel it. Dance has power, joy, confusion, delight, insight, flow. No matter what level of energy or expertise is required dancing can help us feel good.

As I walked to the subway, it struck me all over again the great common connection dance provides for all of us. Whether we are tangoing in Buenos Ares, dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet, jumping up at a concert to dance or dancing in Parkinson’s dance class – we dance because it feels good. It is one of the ways we say who we are. Yes, there are all kinds of significant neurological, physical, artistic, and emotional benefits to dancing. Those benefits are some of the reasons we’ve been doing it for as long as humans have been on earth dancing around the ritual fire, celebrating events, and marking occasions. You just can’t beat a beat you can dance to. Go on. Put on some music. Dance a little. You’ll see.

Alison Marshall

Dance for Parkinson’s

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