Dance for PD: A Leap of Progress for Parkinson's Patients

When Cyndy Gilbertson takes a step, her foot slowly rises and inches out, her whole body focused on the challenge. But when she dances, she glides across a room, looking almost effortless.

“It’s like learning a new language that frees us,” she says. “I sometimes cannot walk, but I can dance.”

Gilbertson is a participant in Mark Morris Dance Group’s Dance for PD, a program that has provided life-changing experiences for thousands of people with Parkinson’s disease (PD).

More than 35 peer-reviewed studies support the ability of dance-based programs like Dance for PD to dramatically enhance quality of life for people with PD by improving motor skills – including ability to walk, and reduction in tremor – and creating social bonds that combat isolation, boost mood and reduce depression.

 “Parkinson’s is a condition that takes away a sense of control and ownership over your body, your actions and your life,” says program director David Leventhal.

“Through dance, people regain a sense of accomplishment and that gives them a sense of confidence that allows them to try other things in their lives.”

Arts Drive Health

With NYSCA support, Dance for PD has provided dance instruction to its New York City community for nearly 20 years, and has expanded into a network of 300 partners in 25 countries. As participants learn choreography based in ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance, and improvisation, they discover new ways their bodies move to live music.

The program is one of over 100 supported through the NYSCA’s Special Arts Services program that demonstrate how arts drive individual and community health, and can be especially critical to improving outcomes for vulnerable and underserved populations. NYSCA also provides general support to MMDG through its Dance Program and rehearsal space subsidies, enabling the company to offer around 4,000 low cost ($10/hour or less) rehearsal hours to around 300 dance artists/companies each year. 

Mark Morris Dance for PD
Teaching artist David Leventhal leads a Dance for PD class at the Mark Morris Dance Center. (Photo by Eddie Marritz)

In addition, in 2018, NYSCA provided capital funding support for Mark Morris Dance Group’s studio expansion, part of MMDG’s multi-year Mark Morris: Above and Beyond initiative supporting expanded operations for programs engaging 85,000 people each year as well as legacy planning. NYSCA’s funding helped create two new studios and auxiliary spaces including a new studio dedicated to Dance for PD activities that opened this month. In addition to standard Dance for PD classes, the studio will be home to a movement lab taught by Pamela Quinn, a dancer who is living with Parkinson’s and has firsthand knowledge of how using dance can solve movement problems. Advanced classes will also be available, as will master classes in collaboration with local organizations such as BAM.

“The new space will allow us to more than double the number of classes we offer for Dance for PD, support new programs, and provide smaller classes creating a more intimate experience, more individualized attention and a safer environment,” says Leventhal.

How Dance for PD Works

In New York and beyond, the medical community has embraced Dance for PD – in New York City, 70 percent of participants come through physician referrals.

 “There’s one hypothesis that Parkinson’s primarily affects the part of the brain responsible for automatic movement,” says Leventhal. “If you can introduce tasks or activities that are based on a thoughtful, conscious approach, you may be creating alternative pathways to movement that don’t rely on automatic pattern recall.”

Mark Morris Dance for PD
Dance for PD classes, like this one at the Mark Morris Dance Center, utilize a range of dance styles, carefully crafted choreography and live music to foster an exuberant and supportive experience. (Photo by Eddie Marritz)

Musical cues and imagery also create a road map – where internal rhythms may be missing, a beat provides support – and, importantly, Leventhal adds, a sense of fun and engagement.

“When people are living with Parkinson’s, a lot of their lives are medicalized to a degree. They’re confined by a pill schedule, going to doctors and therapists,” Leventhal says. “There’s really great benefit to having an hour a week when they’re treated as dancers, creative individuals and members of a community. It can open up myriad learning possibilities.”

“The sense of joy you get from doing this work informs how you embed it in your system,” he adds.

Expanding Opportunities

Dancers in the program also have opportunities to perform, as shown in the award-winning 2014 documentary about the program Capturing Grace, directed by David Iverson, which shows the transformative experiences of participants like Gilbertson.

 “One of the reasons we wanted to do performance projects with our group was that we found people loved the sense of being seen for who they were and doing something special and expressive with their bodies,” Leventhal says.

“People [with Parkinson’s can] feel invisible, or they’re aware of others’ stares,” says Leventhal. “In this class they’re witnessed and their movement is enjoyed.”

Dance for PD instruction is available to all via DVD and streaming classes. New classes are uploaded to the Dance for PD website monthly, and as many as 1,000 people log on to each class. The program has also embarked on a pilot partnership with Peconic Landing, a Continuing Care Retirement Community on Long Island, to develop a streaming program specifically for CCRC residents.

Leventhal, a former company dancer with Mark Morris Dance Group, has been a part of Dance for PD since its inception, and looks forward to continuing to broaden and deepen the impact of the program.

 “Dance for PD started as an experiment, and what we’ve discovered is that the arts create unique solutions to health challenges," he says.

"Over nearly 20 years, we’ve reached more than 10,000 people and have been blown away by the way this program has become a lifeline for participants,” Leventhal adds. “As we move forward our goal is to create systemic change for individuals with Parkinson’s, giving all an opportunity to regain freedom of movement, find relief from symptoms and lead fuller, more satisfying lives.”

Banner image: Teaching artist Pat Hall leads a Dance for PD class at the Mark Morris Dance Center. (Photo by Amber Star Merkens)