Dance for Parkinson’s

Tuesday 19th January 2016

Written by Amanda Fogg
All images copyright Kevin Clifford

Like many children I whirled around the living room whenever there was music and in my teens finally persuaded my parents I absolutely needed to have ballet classes. Weekly classes led to becoming a full time ballet student in Manchester, followed by a short but varied, colourful performing career after which I taught vocational and recreational students. Subsequently I established a village dancing school after moving to Dorset — an idyllic period in my life which was completely fulfilling and enriching. Gradually as I became older (and significantly creaky) I became increasingly aware of the importance of keeping moving and my focus began to shift. At that point my involvement with the community dance world expanded and my work with older people in day care and residential homes developed. Then, in 2001, shortly after returning from a Winston Churchill Fellowship which took me to the USA to visit people and companies involved with dance for older people, I was approached by the Dorchester and Weymouth Parkinson’s group to see if a regular exercise session might benefit its members. This request resonated with me because my mother had had Parkinson’s and was experiencing a steep decline in her physical abilities just as mine were evolving as a full time dance student. She died when I was twenty, having been told by all the health professionals that she herself could do nothing to ameliorate her symptoms. In many respects the prospect of revisiting the impact of Parkinson’s on people’s lives was daunting but also it offered an opportunity to explore whether people could indeed find moving helpful and felt in some ways as though I was doing something in honour of my mother.

At that point I did not call our weekly sessions “dance” but the focus on quality of movement, the use of music and the relationship of elements of our movement sessions to the structural components of the dance class were embedded in everything we did as we moved together and learned from each other.

Several years down the line I googled “Dance for Parkinson’s” and to my amazement information about a class run by dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group came up. Thus in 2007 I spent several weeks in Brooklyn with them and an awareness of the emerging world of Dance for Parkinson’s began. A year later I attended and spoke at an Awareness Day at English National Ballet Studios, which was presented by Toby Beazley, at that time the executive director of Dance Umbrella, showcasing the work of the Mark Morris Dance Group dancers who had developed the company’s Dance for Parkinson’s classes. This event marked the coming together of a handful of people already engaged in this work in the UK (myself, Daphne Cushnie in Cumbria and Maria Benini and Anna Gillespie in Kentish Town), or about to embark upon it (Joanne Duff of Musical Moving and E.N.B.), and it also marked the beginnings of a relationship which continues between those of us present on that day, and David Leventhal, now the Director of the Dance for PD programme in Brooklyn. With Toby’s championship, the support of David Leventhal and the subsequent interest and involvement of Ken Bartlett and People Dancing (formerly the Foundation for Community Dance) we have been able to create an expanding Network of dance practitioners involved in this area of work, with the aim of sharing practice and developing access to classes for people with Parkinson’s across the UK.

All those involved in our Dance for Parkinson’s Network, (in fact all those involved in any form of dance) know from experience the positive benefits dance brings, mentally and physically and although it may sound like a cliché our motivation as class leaders is to first and foremost share the joy and uplift that accompanies the act of dancing. Dance is an activity that creates and spreads happiness. It connects mind, body and spirit and the supreme pleasure it brings is both exalting and humbling.

Participants in the Dance for Parkinson’s class invariably declare that their class is the high-light of their week and in many cases the only non-medicalised activity they are engaged in. Dancing in company connects participants to others socially and artistically, with a sense of exploration, community and fun. Many class members say that the impact of all these aspects of the dance environment spreads beyond the session itself and “keeps the sunny side up”, alleviating isolation and depression. They report that in general and maybe in specific ways too, they “feel better”. Everyone who has Parkinson’s has an individual journey with the progression of the condition but almost all at times report a loss of confidence and motivation in daily life and many withdraw from situations they find challenging and communicate less with other people. In the dance class they often find they can relax because they know others understand what may be happening with them and the sociable and supportive atmosphere combined with opportunities for creativity and self-expression combine to boost self-esteem and a sense of connection. Striving to be the best they can be, without judgement or pressure allows them to celebrate the achievements they and others make and to be accepting of “off” days when medication isn’t working. Invariably people report when they leave class that they feel much better than when they arrived, and the sustained determination to get to class against all the odds is remarkable.

As Olie Westheimer, the director of the Brooklyn Parkinson’s group (and the initiator of the classes run under the auspices of the Mark Morris Dance Group) states in her paper “Why Dance for Parkinson’s?”, the challenges the person with Parkinson’s has to address are precisely the challenges the dancer faces in the dance class. Both are concerned with improving balance and co-ordination, with increasing strength and flexibility, with developing stamina and control. Both work to instil and develop rhythm in their bodies, to achieve flow and quality of movement combined with expression and communicativeness. Both need to be acutely aware of where their bodies are in space and how to move at all times with intent and focus. With so many common aims it is obvious that dance activities have a lot to offer in terms of coping well with the challenges that come with Parkinson’s, over and above the benefits that purely mechanical exercise my convey. The use of music is a key factor in restoring rhythm in the body, in helping to initiate movement and overcome the “freezing” symptom so common in the condition. Spacious, flowing music may help the participants to achieve greater smoothness and fluency of movement. Research has suggested that dance may be as helpful as medication (NB I am not here recommending dance as an alternative treatment) in facilitating movement and addressing symptoms. Above all, because it is such an enjoyable activity people tend to stick with it and because of interactions intrinsic to the class, build friends and support systems that extend beyond the confines of the class itself and feel benefits which sustain them in daily life. All of these elements feed into the general wellbeing of the person with Parkinson’s and their families.

I have found this part of my dance career very fulfilling indeed. It has demonstrated to me the incalculable value of keeping moving and convinced me that for those who discover they love to dance it is an essential component of mental and physical wellbeing. For myself I have truly been humbled and moved by the determination and spirit of class participants and am consequently fully cognisant of the importance of placing them at the centre of the work (listening to them and learning from them) — valuing the reciprocal discoveries we make along the way. It has also provided me with wonderful colleagues who work across different dance genres with this population and who generously share their experience and knowledge in ways which enrich us all. This collaborative model of working is endlessly rewarding.

Googling Dance for Parkinson’s brings up many websites today! These include our own Dance for Parkinson’s Network UK, whose membership includes English National Ballet and Pavilion Dance South West and many individual members; Dance for PD, the Brooklyn programme which has now been adopted in many countries as well as the USA. (And with whom we are fortunate enough to have worked with extensively. The wellbeing tab on People Dancing website (who give support to the UK Network) also has information and articles about Dance for Parkinson’s. There are also many sites concerning research which has been conducted into Dance for Parkinson’s including the collaboration between Roehampton University and English National Ballet’s programme of classes.

It is a privilege and very enriching to be involved in this area of work.

To find out more about the Dance for Parkinson’s Network visit their website.

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