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Keeping birds' nests out of our hair - the gift of dance volunteers
Date posted: 12 September 2017
A conference panel speaker, Dr Alison Williams, who is currently working with the University of Edinburgh, teamed up with a fellow member of her dance for Parkinson’s class, Julia Melton, to blog for us in praise of volunteers...
Alison Williams and Julia Melton at the Edinburgh dance for Parkinson's class
When we walk into the dance class each week, as people with Parkinson’s we feel at home and welcomed, and all the fuss and palaver of getting there – especially in Edinburgh in August in the Festival – just melts away. For a blissful hour and a half, we are, as David Leventhal says, dancers, not people with Parkinson’s. For that time we feel safe, and much of that feeling is the gift of the dance volunteers.

There is a Chinese proverb that says: "The birds of worry and anxiety fly around our heads all the time but we do not have to let them make nests in our hair." The dance volunteers are our bird-scarers.

Anxiety is a powerful and crippling Parkinson’s symptom that so easily can get in the way of being a dancer. We can become anxious for other people: What if he doesn’t manage to sit down again safely? We can become anxious for ourselves – what if I freeze? What if I over-balance? Anxiety can open the door and let the unwanted visitor sneak back in from where we left it in the park-the-Parky space.
The dance volunteers bring their energy and enthusiasm, their skills and their sense of fun. They help with the water and the teas and coffees: and they do so much more. They make sure that we don’t feel anxious for ourselves or our fellow-dancers. They free us up to enjoy the class, to learn, to be fully present in each moment, in each movement, in each emotion.  The volunteers make it possible for us to dance and feel lovely. We can’t dance and feel lovely with birds’ nests of worry and anxiety in our hair.

So why do the volunteers come to the dance classes? It turns out, for much the same reasons we do: “When I walk into the dance class I feel relaxed and appreciated, and the stresses and challenges of my job just melt away”; “The class is such a positive environment, inspiring and motivating me, full of smiles and friendliness.” Add to that a personal history of dance practice (ballet, tap, latin, and much more) and a deep interest in its therapeutic benefits: our Edinburgh volunteers include a co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing; a physiotherapist; a speech therapist; and one who has done initial training in dance movement psychotherapy.  And, as one volunteer says: “It is so good to see the benefits to the Dance participants – and to feel the benefits to me as well – it is very satisfying.” 

But a central motivation for many of the volunteers is that, “Parkinson’s has touched my friends and my family”. A feeling that working with people with Parkinson’s “is how I do something positive – I help here [in the class] and it beams out all over the world”.  A sense of giving the most precious thing they have – their time.

Volunteering in a dance for Parkinson’s class is a skill – do too little and someone might be physically hurt; do too much and you diminish the very person you are trying the help (“Ask” we say, “always ask”). The volunteers sometimes say they don’t feel as if they are doing much. We tell them, the less they appear to be doing, the more they are doing. Joining in the class, placing themselves strategically; they always seem to be in the right place just as someone looks like they might need help.
The volunteers gift us their precious time, they add extra fun and energy, bring their passion and deep interest; and – so very important – they scare the anxiety-birds away. 

Alison Williams & Julia Melton
September 2017

Alison Williams (pictured right) describes herself as “a late-onset academic”, having got her Doctorate at 66, just after her Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2012. Alison has been dancing for the last two and a half years, saying it keeps her in touch with herself and her Parkinson’s community – “Dancing is central to my emotional and spiritual wellbeing, as well as my physical health,” she says.

Julia Melton started dancing six months after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago. While Julia has picked up a number of new Parkinson's activities in the last few years, she says dancing is the thing she enjoys most.

If you'd like to find a dance for Parkinson’s class near you, click here.