Dancers sweep across the floor, performing some of the lead roles in some of the Mark Morris Dance Company’s signature pieces, when only moments before they had exhibited shaky, halting movements, the defining symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Many members of the Morris group’s Dance for PD classes are finding a variety of benefits from the weekly classes, including the sense of community and improved cognitive function. Carroll Neesemann, whose disease was diagnosed 11 years ago, says, “I don’t know if it happens to everyone, but I lose my symptoms when I’m there. And the pleasure of the experience is that it’s not a therapy session. They teach us as if we were any students, and that makes me feel good.”
The original idea for Dance for PD classes came from Olie Westheimer, who in 2000 started a support group for Parkinson’s patients and their caregivers at the request of her husband, Dr. Ivan Bodis-Wollner, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Related Disorders Center in Kings County Hospital Center and SUNY Downstate Medical Center. A serious dancer herself growing up, Ms. Westheimer noticed patients were using dancer’s techniques to master or remember movement. Believing therefore, that dance could be used to help patients, she went to speak with Nancy Umanoff, Executive director of the Morris company. The Morris company offered to provide not only a teacher and studio, but a live pianist to accompany the classes, which have become so successful they are now offered in 14 US states and further afield in India, Europe and Israel.
Classes begin in a seated position with simple point-and-flex exercises, and gradually move to standing an original Morris choreography. Teachers have seen class participants stand up straight, walk long, confident strides and swing their arms, all of which are very unusual for Parkinson’s patients. Says Dr. Claire Henchcliffe, a neurologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, “It’s fascinating to see people who may have walked in slowly and sat down slowly and stood up slowly, and then, when the music comes on, they really just get going.”
Repeating movements over and over commits them to muscle memory, where through the phenomenon of mirror neurons, the brain is imprinted. Dance classes are useful to Parkinson’s patients for this reason. However, even more importantly, the dancers develop strength and flexibility while their confidence grows. David Leventhal, an ex-Morris dancer turned Dance for PD teacher states, “movement is everybody’s right, that we’re all entitled to move, we’re all entitled to dance in the most natural, free, joyous way.”