By Erin McKay
Each week, students from across the country come together online for Dance for PD® at LINES, a fun, accessible movement experience, offered free to individuals with Parkinson’s Disease and their loved ones. Together, they explore creativity and build community through dance.
“It’s powerful to take something that I love so much and open it up in a new way to people who don’t necessarily know that dance is for them,” says teaching artist Marika Brussel.
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement (parkinson.org). Dance for PD® offers individuals with Parkinson’s a space “to experience the joys and benefits of dance while creatively addressing symptom-specific concerns related to balance, cognition, motor skill, depression, and physical confidence. The classes engage the participants’ minds and bodies, and create an enjoyable, social environment that emphasizes dancing rather than therapy” (danceforparkinsons.org).
Teaching Artist Erin Carper witnesses something moving in the room when the Parkinson’s community joins together. “You can feel the students being uplifted as they build connections with one another. Parkinson’s Disease can really isolate someone, not only from the sheer difficulty of living with the disease but also from the challenge of navigating things like timing meals around taking medication. The ability to just be in a room where all of that is lifted away for an hour and 15 minutes, that is transformative.”
“The Dance for PD classes have been essential for both of us,” students Bill and Victoria Bruckner attest. “We have been able to maintain our physical abilities, muscle tone, flexibility, and health by participating in these weekly classes! The two teachers, Marika Brussel and Erin Carper, and the accompanying musician, Ben Juodvalkis, are amazing and wonderful!”
A strong believer in the healing power of art, accompanist Ben describes being immersed in movement and music as returning home. “When art, of any kind, is really working, then you get centered,” says Ben. “You get brought into your own time, in your own state. The abstractions seem to vanish. You’re not so outside of yourself, your body, or your context anymore. Somehow, music and movement bring you home; that can be very elusive, so it’s a powerful experience when it works.”
And it’s working for the Dance for PD® at LINES students. “I’ve definitely seen a remarkable change in people from when they enter the space to when they leave it,” Erin recalls. “It could be as simple as seeing a little bit more brightness in their energy or as dramatic as somebody coming in with an assisted walker or cane and walking out carrying it instead of using it.”
“The students just become a little more like themselves throughout the class,” Ben reflects. “It’s hard to get any more genuine than that.”
Video by Jamie Lyons set to piano music. Dance for PD® at LINES class footage from 2019. Classes are currently virtual.
In 2020, Dance for PD® at LINES transitioned online. The move to Zoom came with its challenges and benefits. “One of the advantages right from the beginning,” Marika notes, “is that we got participants from all over the country and that’s been really wonderful to meet new people. Getting to the studio can also be very challenging, so the virtual program lends to greater accessibility.” One of the difficulties has been creating a sense of community in the digital space.
“Zoom for me personally,” says Erin, “has felt like a limitation. I wrestle with how to keep engagement up.” A friend recently gave her a few ideas that have made a difference though. “Erica Rose Jeffrey (Director & Lead Teacher of Dance for Parkinson’s Australia and Dance for PD® at LINES mentor) shared a couple of exercises that I’ve implemented into class. One example is a mirroring exercise. Katie Roy, who hosts the Zoom classes, helped me individually spotlight each participant as our accompanist chose a different track of music for them to improvise to. As they danced, we’d mirror them, trying to match their tempo and quality of movement. I had my screen set to gallery view and in seeing everyone respond to one another, it felt like we were starting to bridge together again. That felt good, and I’m encouraged to try out more ideas.”
Even though separate spaces create an inherent divide, brightness is still coming through the screen. “Sometimes people will come into class online looking tired,” Marika shares, “but by the end they are much more energetic and expressive. One of the things Parkinson’s can do is make you less able to show expression in your face, but often, by the end of class, I see it coming through in their movement.”
“It was a fun, relaxing, grounding, and mindful experience,” shares a student. “I felt physically and mentally better after…”
Dance for PD® classes are tailored for varying abilities. Sessions begin seated followed by a series of movements standing at the barre (or chair). Students can choose to stay seated or stand, depending on their level of comfortability . As class continues on, participants can decide to stay at the barre or begin moving across the floor.
“Since working in this population,” says Erin, “I have seen people with Parkinson’s take more risks, more often, than any professional dancer I’ve ever come in contact with. They are fearless. They just step right into it and go. What comes out of it is so compelling because it stems from this deep place of authenticity. There’s no baggage around, Is this going to be right? Am I going to look okay? Is this interesting? The movement is really coming from them.”
“Something you kind of have to get used to when you’re teaching Dance for PD® at LINES,” says Marika, “is that people are going to stumble. It’s a part of what often happens. But the resilience that the students show, to get up from it and keep going, is really inspiring. I know how frustrated I get with myself when things don’t go the way I expect or want. But they can stumble, get up, smile, and say, ‘It’s okay,’ and want to keep dancing.”
The students in Dance for PD® at LINES beautifully embody Alonzo King’s philosophy that the art is within the artist. They also show up to class with a courage that compels.
“It’s almost like a lesson in humanity,” says Erin, “It’s humbling to be a witness to someone on this journey, knowing that their mind is usually incredibly sharp and their presence is really there even as their body and their functionality is changing all around them. I’ve had an understanding all along that dance is our birthright as human beings, and my curiosity drives me to ask how we can break down the assumptions that only those who look a certain way, move a certain way, or are a certain way, should have access.”
Dance for PD® at LINES provides a space where questions like this can be explored and new modes of movement can be experimented with. “I think the program helps students approach all of their daily movements as dance,” says Marika. “That mindshift can make certain things feel better in their bodies and make more things possible, and that’s really a joy to see. The more that people show up, the safer they feel to not only take risks in movement but also in conversation. They talk about what is happening in their bodies, things they’ve tried, and things they are curious about. It’s not a support group, but it is a supportive group.”
“To someone with Parkinson’s, I would say you are welcome,” Erin insists. “All of you is welcome. I’ve had students come up to me and say that they weren’t sure they’d be able to come again because the class was really hard. And I told them to come anyway. Come, sit in the studio or your home, and listen to Ben play music. That’s enough, you just being here is enough. You don’t have to be or act a certain way. Any way that you want to show up, you’re welcome.”
Dance for PD® at LINES classes are hosted over Zoom every Thursday from 12:30-1:45pm PT through LINES Dance Center. Students can sign up to join Dance for PD® at LINES classes online at linesballet.org/dance-for-pd. The program is free to attend and fully funded by support from our community at Alonzo King LINES Ballet. In celebration of Parkinson’s Awareness Month, we invite readers to give a gift to our Dance for PD® fund, to make accessible, authentic programming available to more individuals with Parkinson’s Disease and their loved ones.
Banner Photography: Jamie Lyons