People with Parkinson’s find a new way to 'shake their groove thangs'

People with Parkinson’s find a new way to 'shake their groove thangs'
Photo by Jill Russell Hulings

“Now, just like in ‘West Side Story,' quick, point to someone across the room,” dance instructor David Leventhal said.

FIngers go pointing and loud, rhythmic drumming music picks up. The light-filled studio erupts in laughter. More hand gestures and then the drumming begins to slow. When the music finally comes to an end, nearly 50 dance students applaud.

Today, dance and medical professionals joined forces to kick off Dance for PD, an interactive treatment workshop designed to improve mobility for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. To some, dance might not seem like a feasible therapy option for people suffering from this physically debilitating disease. But, Leventhal disagrees.

“Art, theater and dance are really good at bringing out expression, a sense of community and memory,” he said. “Just like dancers, people with Parkinson’s have to be creative, problem-solve and strategize around their world.”

During the morning seminar at the Garfield Community Center, dance instructors combined a variety of dance moves – Flamingo, ballet, tribal – aimed at challenging students’ flexibility, mobility and strength. During the inaugural class, most participants were physical and occupational therapists and students, social workers, and other health professionals interested in learning more about dance as a form of therapy for their patients.

Leventhal, former principal dancer for Mark Morris Dance Group from 1997-2011 and Program Manager for Dance for PD in New York City, told workshop participants that sometimes the prescribed exercise regimen for people with Parkinson’s disease can be strenuous and can lead to burn out.

“It’s hard to get people to adhere to an exercise program,” he said. “Dance is something people come back to every week.”

That’s because dance offers much more than physical stimulation. It provides people, who become increasingly immobile as the disease progresses, a means of social interaction and sense of community.

“This sense of community is an important way to support PD patients,” Leventhal said. “We give each other feedback in class as a way to form a real sense of community.”

This year, the eight-week program offers classes in Kirkland (Peter Kirk Community Center), Seattle (Garfield Community Center) and Des Moines (Des Moines Senior Center). Classes are free of charge and are led by professional dancers. The classes will address PD-specific concerns such as balance, flexibility, coordination, isolation and depression. No dance experience is required.

To register for the Seattle and Des Moines classes, visit Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation.

Classes are offered in a partnership between Seattle Theater Group, Spectrum Dance Theatre, Evergreen Health, and Northwest Parkinson's Foundation.