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"...by dancing with people living with Parkinson's, we come to understand ourselves better"
Date posted: 26 July 2017
Dance practitioner Miriam Early has always loved what she does yet admits to going a bit sulky whenever it came to any serious self-analysis of her craft. But that’s now changed… and she’s discovered a beauty she never thought she’d find.
Miriam Early, Scottish Ballet. Photo by Christina Riley
As a teacher, I am learning to be self-reflective. It’s an ongoing process. I love to ‘magpie’ and ‘treasure hunt’ and be inspired by this fascinating and varied industry and the artists and creators within it. Yet any questioning of myself and my practice I find much harder. But I try, because I know I must. I know that good teachers reflect and learn from themselves, as well as others.
 
But there has been an odd development in this reluctant inner-battle since I began experiencing dance for Parkinson’s. I can feel myself reflecting more and more, maybe not so much directly on my practice but on myself as a person. Teaching any class demands that you use a varied toolkit: count time, use imagery, use every single inch of your vocal range, adapt, improvise, scan the room. Not only this, we must assess the effectiveness of these tools and how this varies for different individuals and occasions.

So far so good. But beyond this, a dance for Parkinson’s class demands a different kind of toolkit. Empathise, allow time, encourage joy, encourage sadness, allow space to breathe, allow space to express frustration, grow, make mistakes, encourage mistakes, learn from mistakes, be honest, laugh, cry. Yes, cry. Don’t pretend everything’s ok. Just cry. Above all, try to create an environment where the people you are dancing with can be themselves.
 
There is an atmosphere of vulnerability in a dance for Parkinson’s class that can be overwhelming. People come to dance, but the journey there – both physically and  figuratively – is a hard one and demands acknowledgment. I feel like I am learning to acknowledge it by being vulnerable and honest myself. I am learning to accept my own limits as a teacher, to genuinely laugh when I miscount the beats in a bar, to be unafraid of myself and my body and the way I dance (no small feat when working and existing in a ballet company), to accept my emotions and be honest about how I feel at the end of a class (I am exceptionally lucky to have the support of my colleagues on this journey and so, so aware that this is not the case for every teacher).

And here is the strange thing. My experience is not uncommon among dance for Parkinson’s teachers and artists. I have spoken to many people who are on a similar journey and there is a definite feeling that, by dancing with people living with Parkinson’s, we come to understand ourselves better. Through this, we explore our practice more honestly… ultimately growing as teachers, dancers and people. Some have said to me that this is because both Parkinson’s and dance lie ‘in the body’. They are both very much physical experiences.

The reason I love dance is because, to me, it is the most truthful form of communication. It is personal and physical and, through the body, is bound tightly to identity and expression. So too, then, is Parkinson’s. I use dance to rediscover who I am and reconnect with the world around me, and I aspire to offer this beautiful tool to those who need and want it. But somehow these dancers who are living with Parkinson’s are offering it back to me, with their honesty helping me to understand dance in a new way – and discover beauty in myself that I never thought I would find. 

This is a journey I am only just beginning. I continue to struggle and learn and grow, and I am excited to do so. The dance industry and the Parkinson’s community are both supportive, nourishing places and I am surrounded by those with more experience and a deeper understanding. Yet there is a particular richness in the space which both inhabit. This has taken me by surprise… and I feel humbled to be part of it.
 
Miriam Early
Education Officer
Scottish Ballet


Banner photo courtesy of South Lanarkshire Council
Portrait photo by Christina Riley