After Ulises Giberga ’53 began experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease nearly 10 years ago, a friend recommended that he try out a nearby dance studio. At the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York City, Giberga not only discovered how to move freely with rhythm, but he also found a sense of “strength, hope and optimism.”
In 2001, when the art-based nonprofit Brooklyn Parkinson Group approached professional dancer David Leventhal ’95 about piloting dance classes at his studio for people with Parkinson’s disease, Leventhal jumped at the opportunity. With features such as a high degree of movement specificity, self-expression and multitasking, dance addresses the physical, emotional and cognitive aspects of Parkinson’s disease, Leventhal said.
Parkinson’s disease presents a variety of motor and non-motor symptoms including “slowness of movement, tremor, rigidity and balance issues … (as well as) depression, isolation, social changes, lack of expression in the face, difficulty using the voice and cognitive impairment,” Leventhal said. The number of symptoms that Parkinson’s presents makes it difficult to treat, he added.
While dancing is not a traditional approach to treating Parkinson’s disease, it can offer unique and holistic benefits to participants. Pairing individuals with Parkinson’s with professional dancers seems like a “natural fit” because their every movement is “conscious and deliberate,” said Rachel Balaban, a dancer and lecturer for the University’s Artists and Scientists as Partners program.
In addition to sharing basic dance techniques in ballet, tap and line dances, the classes also focus on teaching self-expression and choreography created by teachers or taken from the Morris Dance Group’s repertoire. The program’s emphasis on the artistic aspect of dance teaches participants “a specific interpretation of a movement and the nuance related to executing that movement,” Leventhal said.
Individuals participating in the program at Leventhal’s studio arrive for 75-minute sessions, which start with seated warm-up movements before shifting to a ballet barre or a position behind their chairs, Leventhal said. People of all levels are welcome to join the class and choose movements that they find comfortable. Participants are also allowed to bring family members or friends for company.
“It makes me feel better and better every time I go to a class,” said Giberga, who has been attending clases for nearly four years.
Dance conveys a sense of togetherness, which can be especially valuable to people diagnosed with a movement disorder that makes it difficult for them to perform routine activities, Leventhal said.
One of Dance for PD’s first teachers, Leventhal also serves as an administrator for the program. Since its creation, Leventhal says he has expanded the program’s reach to over 300 communities in 25 countries and has partnered with the University’s ASaP initiative. Throughout the development of Dance for PD, community service has remained central to its mission, he added.
Through Dance For PD’s partnership with the University, Leventhal often comes to campus to give lectures to students on how to support individuals with Parkinson’s disease, Balaban said. The ASaP curriculum allows students — typically neuroscience concentrators or pre-med students— to explore the intersections of public health issues and art, she added.
Looking to the future, Leventhal said he wants to engage with people from a variety of different socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds. He is particularly interested in serving people in different areas of New York City and individuals who live in assisted living facilities who lack access to “high-quality community dance programs,” he said.