Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 31
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
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Parkinson’s Patients Move to Music In Classes Held at Princeton Studio

Anne Levin

Only an hour ago, Sidney Helfen’s hand was shaking with the umistakable tremor of Parkinson’s disease. But here he was, strutting the length of a dance studio to the music of “All That Jazz.” Moving with the athleticism of a dancer, the retired dentist from Westfield bowed to his partner, dropping to his knees at one point and then effortlessly rising back up.

Behind him in this studio at the Princeton Dance and Theatre school, Manola Schrier, who also has Parkinson’s, improvised her own bit of choreography. When the Elvis Presley song “All Shook Up” came on, she threw a few hip-swivels into her graceful progression across the floor.

This “Virginia Reel” comes near the close of the weekly class known as Princeton Dance for Parkinson’s, taught by local choreographers Marie Alonzo-Snyder, Linda Mannheim, and Deborah Keller. At this session, the last of the summer, the dancers moved tentatively at first. But by the time they had progressed through some ballet exercises at the barre and launched into their grand finale, they weren’t holding back.

“It’s amazing to watch them,” said Ms. Alonzo-Snyder. “They have rigidity, so we start small. The exercises progress as we go along, and somehow, the body responds. I think they realize by the end of the class how much more they can move. They may need music or choreography or imagery to move, but they’re moving.”

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological condition that usually causes movement difficulty such as tremor, balance problems, and muscle stiffness. It becomes more debilitating over time. While it has been known for some time that exercise helps ease the symptoms and may even slow the progression of the disease, it has only recently been suggested that dance might be the most effective form of exercise for the Parkinson’s patient.

Ms. Alonzo-Snyder’s father has lived with Parkinson’s for many years. When she heard about a program called Dance for PD, taught at the Brooklyn studios of the Mark Morris Dance Group, she was immediately intrigued. Dancers from the Morris troupe have been working with Parkinson’s patients since 2000 in collaboration with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, a chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation.

The program offers master classes in other cities as part of its outreach program. Last January, Ms. Alonzo-Snyder arranged for two dancers from the Morris company to offer a master class at Dance Vision, which is housed at the Princeton Dance and Theatre studios in Forrestal Village. About 35 people showed up. Ms. Alonzo-Snyder, Ms. Mannheim and Ms. Keller then attended a two-day training workshop in Philadelphia.

During the first series of classes this summer, they have won some dedicated followers, some of whom drive an hour to get to the studio. A pianist accompanies most classes, but a taped mix is used on occasion.

“This has been so good for me,” said Ms. Schrier, who lives at the Princeton Windrows community. “I have always liked to dance. Music makes a difference. It invites you to dance. It helps you move. It makes you less rigid. And it’s good for the spirit. Everybody is in the same boat here. I think we have to demystify Parkinson’s, and this helps.”

Dr. Helfen, who attends the class with his wife, looks forward to it each week. “The concept is outstanding,” he said. “It’s quite a motivating, innovative idea, both mentally and physically. And there’s a bonding that happens.”

Participants who have Parkinson’s pay $10 a class, while partners or caregivers who may be accompanying them pay $5. The Parkinson Alliance has given Dance Vision a grant to partially cover expenses. Fall classes will take place on Wednesdays from 1 to 2:15 p.m., starting September 14.

For Ms. Alonzo-Snyder, who has a full schedule of teaching and choreography elsewhere, the Princeton Dance for Parkinson’s students hold special significance.

“I love teaching that class, because it  is not about technique or therapy,” she wrote in an email after the class, “but ways of  bringing back the joy of  movement and hopefully building new or alternative neurological pathways to produce the same body movement. “We focus on imagery, the music, creativity, and being with everyone there as movement motivators.”

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