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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
"We are all dancers": dance and Parkinson's Disease
In the last issue Daphney Cushnie described her work with people with Parkinson's Disease in Cumbria. In this issue Dorset based Dance Practitioner Amanda Fogg describes her recent visit to New York to observe the Mark Morris Dance Group's work with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group
In early summer 2007, hoping to find ways of supporting and refreshing the movement work I do with people with Parkinson's Disease (PD), I typed 'Dance and PD' into Google. Immediately the Brooklyn based, internationally acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group appeared. They have been holding open classes, run by company members David Leventhal and John Heginbotham, and Mark Morris School Faculty member Misty Owens in conjunction with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group for six years, and in the autumn they were planning a weekend of training workshops.
Thus it was my great good fortune that, in October 07, funded by grants from the Arts Council of England, Dance South West and Activate (Dance & Theatre for Dorset, Bournemouth & Poole), and with 'in kind' support from Dorchester and Weymouth Parkinson's Disease Society, I found myself in a large studio at the Mark Morris Dance Centre in Brooklyn, alongside neurologists, dancers, health workers and people with PD, taking part in one of the training weekends as part of a longer research trip.

The philosophy behind the whole initiative originated with Olie Westheimer, President of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group. For some time she had been looking for an activity which could be enjoyed by the group members, both PD sufferers and their carers, and felt very strongly that this activity should be one which enabled the participants to forget, or at least for the duration of the activity, cease to be defined by their condition. When she heard that the Mark Morris Dance Group were to relocate to Brooklyn, and that they were keen to establish links with the local community, she at once went to visit the company manager, Nancy Umanoff, for she instinctively felt that dance, particularly the ways in which dancers work cognitively, creatively, and with imagery, would be particularly appropriate for people with Parkinson's - as well as being sociable and fun. And what she desired most of all was that the participants should be treated as dancers doing a dance class.

Nancy Umanoff was immediately encouraging, and the school Education Director, Eva Nichols, worked with Olie to establish the class. From the original monthly class with sometimes the smallest handful of members, there is now a weekly session with up to 20-30 participants, consisting of people with PD and their partners or carers. And as well as this class run by David, John and Misty, there is also a weekly movement lab operating independently from the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and the Mark Morris Dance Group, but based in one of the company studios, run by Pam Quinn, a dancer of twenty year's experience, who also happens to have PD. In addition there is a weekly singing class (also very helpful for people with PD), run by the wonderful musician, William Wade, who accompanies the company class.

During the weekend of workshops, we  found out more about the structure of the classes run by David, John and Misty. Seated work is followed by supported work at the barre and then movement in the centre of the studio. Much of the work is based on modified company repertoire. There is also a strong tap dance element running through the class, reflecting one of Misty Owens' fields of expertise. Talking of the class generally, David Leventhal stresses, " Parkinson's is so much in the forefront of the participants' lives. This is a chance to put it on the back burner. It's a dance class, we don't look at it like a therapy class."

As well as a recently completed film, Why Dance for PD?, there were discussion sessions, practical sessions and a talk about the Benefits of Dance for PD: mental, physical, emotional, given by Ivan Bodis Wollner, MD, D.SC Director, National Parkinson Foundation Centre of Excellence for Parkinson's Disease, King's County Hospital, SUNY Downstate Medical Centre. He spoke about the plasticity of the brain and how brain scans are revealing that there is the capacity to create new neural pathways in PD (and as is evidenced by the recovery stroke victims may achieve). He believes that the particular cognitive requirements of dance may well contribute to this capacity, and that the work in this field, as developed by the dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Group, may come to be seen as an important experiment exploring this phenomenon.

The training workshops were a wonderful opportunity for me,  which together with the networking opportunities, led me to experience the work of other dancers and movement practitioners in New York, and to attend a Parkinson's Disease Awareness Day in the Bronx, as well as a neurology consultation at King's County Hospital.

The weeks following the training workshops were very full as I attended all the dance sessions at Mark Morris and interviewed the dance class teachers and the participants. Clearly the classes are valued by dancer/teachers, and participants alike.

David and John spoke eloquently about just why they find these classes so rewarding: neither of the dancers knew what to expect in the beginning, and they had a very steep learning curve with respect to the devising and development of the structure and content of the class. Indeed they continue to think of it in terms of a dialogue in which they are constantly responding to the needs of the participants and finding new approaches and ideas to keep the work fresh.

David continues to find the work rewarding also because, more than in any other class, he sees strong parallels between the way professional dancers work and the concentration as manifested by the Parkinson's participants: "The movement vocabulary may be different," he says, "but the sense of focus is the same." It is different from any other teaching he does. "In a class of youngsters there will indeed be about half a dozen who work with dedication, while some of the others may have other things on their minds or have stayed out too long the night before, but all the members of the PD group bring everything they can to the session in terms of sheer will to do their best. They put all they are able into it, and of course the same drive is required of professional dancers."

David also thinks the cognitive involvement is the same. In dance, much of the training strives to make that which is not natural, appear natural and easy. And then, he says, particularly with Mark Morris' choreography, there is always the search for challenge, for doing what isn't obvious or what may have become 'natural' as a result of years of training. Then the dancer's task is to practise until the unnatural challenge in some way becomes natural. For people with PD, movement which may once have been automatic and therefore natural, breaks down and the process of finding it and making it as natural as possible, David believes, is very much akin to what is happening cognitively during the work of a trained dancer as they meet new choreographic challenges.

John Heginbotham says, "We get inspiration from this class all the time." He illustrates this point with a quote from a class participant: "I am going to do this phrase but don't watch because it isn't very pretty!" In fact, John adds, it was beautiful and it was unique.

He continues: "The way PD manifests itself means that everyone's approach to moving is different and obviously PD dancers do not all look the same as they might in a classical ballet company. You get the same movements in thirty different ways. How often do you see that? It's very inspiring." He describes the vulnerability imposed by the condition as lending an honesty to the work, which he finds interesting and often moving.

A further example of why John continues to find the work fascinating contrasts the ways in which many dancers will from time to time check their line or correctness of position in a class mirror. The PD group are generally very busy working on putting the movements together and thus are completely un-self-conscious, which in itself makes their work interesting to watch. Also, because it can be that PD makes changing facial expressions slower or less automatic, John finds that in some ways there is less distraction by the face from what the body itself expresses. Character comes out instead through the body or movement. "It's wonderful," he concludes.

All these observations indicate ways in which the classes with the PD groups have influenced David and John's approach to their own work. David says that, "As hard as dancing is, I think that there are aspects of it that maybe professional dancers take for granted and one of these aspects is flow." He sees 'flow' presenting challenges within the PD group and in this context compares the cognitive work they have to do to try to achieve this quality to the work dancers have to do when presented with new ways of combining movements, and of course this refers back to David's earlier comparisons regarding the cognitive process and dance.

The Dance for PD sessions include many dance styles and Misty Owens identifies tap dance as "an excellent source of re-establishing rhythm back into the bodies of persons with PD." She particularly notes the following improvements in a PD dancer who has been attending the Dance for PD sessions and a general adults' tap class run by Misty for the past three years:

  • Improved coordination and rhythm throughout the body
  • Increased connection to rhythm in walking while music is being played
  • More mobility in the lower extremities: feet, ankles, knees, legs
  • Continued muscle memory recall to perform given material even when PD symptoms are challenging the flow of movement
  • Greater expansion of gait in dancing and walking
  • More ease in transitions of weight shifting both side to side and forward and back
  • Greater strength of movements in feet with sharp, direct movements
  • More adaptability in moving from the understanding of the intricacies of the ankle, foot, knee, leg movements taught in tap.

The participants are invariably elated by their dance experience, and it is clear that the groups find the work rewarding on several levels. They declare the classes have become a vital, integral part oftheir lives, citing physical, psychological and social benefits. Their friendships and support for each other have developed alongside their perceived enhanced fitness, confidence and heightened spirits. When I asked them about their feelings about the dance sessions, phrases included: ..."wonderful to have such expert help"; "...really helpful to have such a healthy, enjoyable activity within a group structure, delivered by experts in their field..."; "continuing benefit..."; "...absolutely beneficial"; "...I need these classes"; "...I always feel better afterwards, no matter how bad I have felt beforehand - physically and mentally and emotionally I feel better"; "...they make me feel alive"; "...I find I enjoy music more now and I love dance". All comments were unfailingly positive and appreciative.

I must also mention here the Movement Labs run independently by Pam Quinn at the Mark Morris Studio. These sessions are highly valued too. They are completely informed by dance, they also benefit from superb musical accompaniment, and as well tackle particular problems associated with PD, aiming to assist the participants in their daily lives in a very practical way. Pam addresses physical problems including tremor, freezing, gait inequalities, balance, festination (involuntary shortening of stride and gait), loss of facial expression etc. So, for example, a session may be concerned with balance (both static and ambulatory), or gait (she uses soccer balls in bags which people kick as they try to bring their lower leg forward for a more natural gait), or exaggeration. Pam is a very gifted teacher and a dancer of twenty years' experience, who herself happens to have PD. She is uniquely able to identify with the needs of the group and, again, all comments from participants were glowing in their praises.

These classes, together with William Wade's singing class, are free for the participants. Singly they contain many benefits, but in combination they complement each other perfectly and are a wonderful 'package'.

As I enjoyed my own experience of the sessions (and make no mistake: I needed to concentrate fully myself to absorb the requirements of the class - there was plenty to think about and remember as layers of movement were developed, and sequences evolved) I was very impressed by the complete focus of the participants and the sheer pleasure they derived from working with such commitment.

Parkinson's Disease is so individual and so variable, and the effects of medication often unpredictable, making it difficult to evaluate the impact of the dance classes in any scientific way here. But I saw people leaving the session feeling far better than when they arrived. Sometimes people improved briefly during a class. Sometimes the improvement seemed to be sustained beyond the class. Some people claimed that the effect could carry over beyond that day. What was undeniably clear was that Olie Westheimer has achieved her aim of enabling people with Parkinson's Disease to feel "normal - just human, like anybody else", and able to enjoy themselves free of the defining nature of the disease.

During 2008 there are plans for the Dance for PD class to share their enjoyment of their work in a performance. David Leventhal comments on this and talks more about the special magic the PD dancers experience through their involvement with the work of the Mark Morris Dance Group. "Our classes mine Mark Morris's active repertory and class participants enjoy learning the dances they've seen the company perform on stage, or seeing the dances they have learned previously. (Both phenomena occur with some, frequently). We feel that this synergy between a professional performing arts group and a PD group is unique and gives the participants with PD a real sense of accomplishment and a profound connection.

They're not just learning dance moves, but also experiencing living art (Mark's choreography) that they can 'own' with their bodies... and they come to be part of a larger, creative community in their city." He adds that the Dance for PD show will include "demonstrations of tapping and Broadway strutting, a performance of a section of one of Mark's dances to Bach, as well as a structured improvisation that builds on the mirroring experiences we frequently facilitate in the class."

Summing up, he concludes, "In our minds the inclusion of Mark's choreography in our dance for PD classes represents the ultimate shedding of 'disease' and the embrace of all things aesthetic. In striving for specific artistic objectives - encapsulated in Mark's idiosyncratic choreography - our PD dancers experience the serious fun that all artists strive for, and embark on a journey that we hope explores the 'cognitive road map' that neurologists like Dr Bodis-Wollner are studying."
Now I am back in the UK and working with my own groups, hoping they too will benefit from my experiences.


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Animated: Spring 2008