Turns and Twirls for People with Parkinson’s Disease
One of my childhood nicknames, Two Left Feet, was all-too accurate. My stout, clumsy body didn’t fit into a family of agile baseball players. Over time I trimmed down and reached average height. But I never acquired the quick reactions required for team sports. Instead, I developed the methodical gait of a distance runner, an oarsman, a dancer. My penchant for poise over speed led me to yoga, and when I became a yoga teacher I took particular interest in people with movement challenges. Folks with weak backs, sciatica, and Parkinson’s. Thus I came upon Urbanity Dance’s community class for Parkinson’s patients.
Angelina arrives ten minutes early, spots my new face, and hustles over to introduce herself. She volunteers her age, phone number, and email address. “Ask me anything you want,” she says before I have a chance to say a word. Angelina moves as quickly as she speaks; her arms and legs twitching with every word.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder that affects movement when the muscle-triggering cells in our brain degenerate due to insufficient amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Uncontrolled tremors are Parkinson’s most familiar sign, but the disease can also produce stiffness, slowing movement, changes in speech, and erratic gait. There is no cure. Medications help people control Parkinson’s, while exercise has proven effective in alleviating symptoms and extending mobility. Physical activities that incorporate pattern and sequence, like Tai Chi, yoga, zumba, and dance, are particularly effective.
From my seat across the circle of five dancers I notice that even when Angelina stops talking, she doesn’t stop moving. Her left thigh swivels from her hip, her shin pivots at her knee, and her foot traces a broad arc across the floor. Before Angelina’s left foot reaches her right, it ricochets back to where it began while her right leg and foot mirror the movement. I try to discern a rhythm in her windshield wiper motion, but random twitches and sudden jumps defy pattern.
Class begins as the teacher, Betsi, invites us to envision Spain. Her arms trace a flamenco rhythm. Right swoop and snap, left swoop and snap. She adds a staccato foot shift and tap, right then left, and encourages us all to follow. We repeat the 32-beat seated sequence—twice—while the keyboard player picks out a zesty melody. By the third repetition, the circle reflects the pattern.
Engaging dance to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms began over a decade ago when the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group teamed with Mark Morris Dance Group. Dance for PD has grown to over 100 cities in nine countries. The focus is dance as a pathway to greater mobility, not therapy derived from dance. Participants are dancers, not patients. Teachers are dancers, not therapists. Classes take place in studios, not clinics.
Betsi begins a series of languid arm movements; elegant arcs reach out and up, in and down. Within moments we coalesce into unified motion. I notice Angelina’s feet are quiet. Not still, yet calm. I wonder how the rhythm, pattern, music and reverie contribute to her ease. It would be difficult to construct a scientific study to prove the long-term benefit of this momentary lapse from frenzy, but simple observation reveals that in this moment, Angelina assuages constant uncontrolled movement.
After an hour of chair dancing we stand up, grip the back of our chairs and execute bigger moves based in traditional ballet. Then Betsi calls for a Virginia reel. Angelina claims me as her partner. Her face is determined: dosey-does and hooked arms require a lot of concentration. But when we circle in the correct direction, her resolve melts to a smile.
Betsi signals the musician to improvise. Angelina shouts, “Let’s dance!” Takes my hands in hers. The keyboardist fingers a swing beat. She throttles up the pressure in her hand. Angelina’s the kind of woman who likes to lead. But I’m wary of her stability, so I take control. A solid Lindy step: side; side; back step. She mirrors my pattern. I raise my right arm and guide her through an underarm turn with my left. Keep everything close, trace my left hand along her right arm and grab her right-hand firm. She pushes against my strong lead; this girl has dominated many a wedding dance floor. But I am determined on keeping her upright. I guide Christina through another turn, then another. She spins on a perfect axis, her feet land where they need to be. I stop worrying about having to protect her from falling. We just dance.