IN A SUNLIT dance studio, a pianist plays a flurry of arpeggios. Men and women sitting on metal folding chairs slowly bend and stretch.
One man’s hands tremble; a woman’s legs remain rigidly bent. As one woman moves her hands, her feet involuntarily go along. These dance students have Parkinson’s disease.
By the end of this class, they will have waltzed, stretched and marched, relaxed deeply and laughed loudly.
“It is more damn fun,” said Joan Hodgkin, 75, a tall champagne blonde who drove herself to this class at Oakland’s Danspace — something many with Parkinson’s patients cannot do. The class was a gift from the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group, while it was in the East Bay to dance “The Hard Nut.”
In New York, class meets weekly. It had its genesis with Olie Westheimer, who founded and directs the Brooklyn Parkinson Group. A former dancer, Westheimer approached Morris about a therapeutic dance program. It seemed a natural for Morris. The edgy choreographer engages public school students in a dance and poetry project and conducts an after-school program. He agreed immediately.
A central nervous system disorder, Parkinson’s often impairs the sufferer’s motor skills and speech. The therapy cannot reverse the course of the illness, but it can help ease its effects, said teacher and Morris company dancer David Leventhal.
“Parkinson’s is such an individual disease,” Hodgkin mused. “What is hard for one isn’t hard for the other. It is nerve wracking because you never know how it will affect you.”
But one thing tends to hold true for many people afflicted with the degenerative disease: Movement to music helps them fare better, an observation of celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks among others. Sacks talks about the power of music in his new “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” (Knopf, 2007). Music therapy for people with Parkinson’s triggered his interest in the subject, he said in a recent AARP interview.
Parkinson’s sufferers struggle to coordinate speech and movement, but music, while it lasts, “gives them precisely what they lack, which is tempo and rhythm and organized time.”
Sacks “talks about becoming ‘unmusicked,'” Leventhal said. “Parkinson’s disease is the premier example of that. (Music) is a neurological glue that holds us together.”
On a recent day in Oakland, Leventhal teamed up with company dancer John Heginbotham who sported outsized pink nails (He was Mrs. Stahlbaum in that evening’s performance). The men led the students through stretches and progressive relaxation exercises. One by one, the students called out their names accompanied by a signature personal gesture.
Carol Brian, a tiny, silver-haired woman with purple bangs, opened her arms wide. Lee Shapiro, a slim man in wire glasses, jeans and gray fleece jacket leapt up and lifted a knee in the air. The group duplicated each move, laughing heartily. Fun matters here.
Leventhal said fun spurs production of dopamine, a chemical messenger between nerve cells that enables smooth, coordinated movement. People with Parkinson’s have abnormally low dopamine levels. A videotaped dance class won rave reviews at the International Congress on Parkinson’s Disease in Berlin in 2005.
“People are having fun and chemically that is very important,” one participant commented.
In Oakland, a photographer asked the group’s permission to shoot from inside their circle.
“Sure, as long as you wear this nose,” said a man brandishing a bright red rubber clown’s nose. The group howled as he tucked it back into his pocket.
While seated, the students rolled up onto the balls of their feet. They kicked, pointed and flexed.
“This wakes up those nerves and can help you balance,” Leventhal said.
Toward the end of the class, the students stood. A man who had sat squarely now listed to one side. Another bent forward. Some struggled for balance as they took a step. They bent deeply and swung from side to side as pianist Lucy Hudson played “The Waltz of the Flowers.”
“You really want to be down low, like speed skating,” Higenbotham told them. “Make little fists that are like pendulums.”
They joined hands for a circle dance as Hudson played “Never On Sunday.” At the end, they sent a pulse around the circle with a squeeze of hands.
By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Student Martin Baron describes himself as “one of the stiffest people in the world.” The class makes him feel “more musical, more loose,” he said.
“I love it,” said Brian, 60, a jeweler who has had Parkinson’s for 10 years, the past eight months of which have brought exhaustion, stiffness and memory problems.
“I get really teary and emotional. It’s so upbeat … the music and the people. Everyone knows what everyone has.”
A debilitating illness, Parkinson’s can restrict a person’s human contacts to doctors and therapists.
“This counteracts that isolation,” Leventhal said. “It builds community.”
Like the company’s dancers, the students seek to move with focus, intention and commitment, Leventhal said.
“They want structure,” he said. “They want form. That’s the only way they can initiate movement.”