July 19, 2023

Two Local Arts Organizations Team Up To Offer Classes for Parkinson’s Community

THE MIRACLE OF MOVEMENT: Participants in a Dance for Parkinson’s class, where the focus on aesthetic movement rather than physical therapy yields remarkable results for people with Parkinson’s Disease. (Photo by Amber Star Merkins)

By Anne Levin

A new partnership of Princeton University Concerts (PUC) and American Repertory Ballet (ARB) will explore the role that dance and music can play in helping people who have Parkinson’s Disease move more freely.

A five-week series of free Dance for PD (Parkinson’s disease) classes starting Monday, July 31 at ARB’s Princeton Ballet School will teach the participants adapted movement from a work by choreographer Mark Morris, to be showcased as part of PUC’s Healing with Music event on Sunday, March 3, 2024, at Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall on the University campus. In conjunction, a screening of the documentary Capturing Grace, which gives an inside look at the Dancing for PD process, will be held at the Princeton Garden Theatre on March 4.

“Healing with Music has always been about continuing the dialogue around the vital role music plays in our lives,” said PUC Outreach Manager Dasha Koltunyuk. “These partnership programs around our Dance for PD Healing with Music program allow this dialogue to extend and continue further than ever before.”

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination. In Dance for PD classes, participants are invited to think about movement possibilities rather than limits. Published research studies highlight how dance can improve mood, cognitive skills, and motor function, and can also slow symptom progression over the long term.

Dance for PD classes, which are for people with Parkinson’s and their caregivers, will be held both in person at the ballet school in Princeton Shopping Center, and via Zoom. Classes are open to all levels of ability. Instructor Rachel Stanislawczyk will teach the participants an excerpt from Morris’ Falling Down Stairs, set to music by Bach, to be played at the March 3 event by cellist Joshua Roman.

It was at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn that Dance for PD got started in 2001. Morris, whose Mark Morris Dance Group has appeared at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre numerous times, was approached by Olie Westheimer, the founder of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, with the idea of a specialized dance class for members of her support group. David Leventhal, a former dancer with Morris’ company, was involved from the beginning. He is now Dance for PD’s program director and founding teacher.

“The program grew from there and the vision remains the same: Dance for PD is founded on the idea that dancers are movement experts whose movement approach, delivered through excellent teaching and compassionate sensitivity, supports a dignified, creative, and life-affirming path for people living with Parkinson’s,” wrote Leventhal, who will appear in a panel discussion at the March 3 event, in an email. “Because Dance for PD focuses on the aesthetic movement of dance rather than acting as therapy, participants in class are encouraged to approach movement like dancers rather than as patients.”

Over the years, results have repeatedly revealed the program’s worth. “One of our Brooklyn students tells us that his doctor knows when he hasn’t been in class, because certain symptoms are worse,” Leventhal said. “One man used the tap steps he learned in the Brooklyn class to help him connect with the floor when he got out of bed in the middle of the night.”

One of Leventhal’s favorite anecdotes is about a woman whose back and shoulder pain improved considerably when she began focusing on the flow of dancing rather than exercises from physical therapy. “Every couple of weeks she tells her teacher again, with great emotion, how she credits the dancing with her improved mobility and comfort,” he said. “I love that story.”

Leventhal is particularly excited about the PUC Healing with Music event next spring. “I think it spotlights how Dance for PD can spark important conversation about the impact of the arts on health and the impact of music, in particular, on the lives of individuals with a neurological condition,” he said. “I think the event also explores the way an internationally known artist like Mark [Morris] and an arts organization like Mark Morris Dance Group can broaden engagement beyond the theater, connecting with communities in innovative and life-enhancing ways.”

The classes at Princeton Ballet School are being held from 2 to 3:15 p.m. July 31, August 7, 14, 21, and 28. At an additional, ongoing program, classes are held Mondays from 4:15 to 5:30 p.m. at the Middletown Arts Center in Middletown Township.

“We are thrilled to partner with Princeton University Concerts,” said ARB Executive Director Julie Diana Hench. “Dance for PD encourages participants not only to ‘think like dancers,’ but also to think like musicians as well. Moving to music unlocks so much, especially for people living with Parkinson’s disease. This partnership with PUC presents a unique, holistic opportunity to expand on ARB’s Dance for Parkinson’s program and offer a collaborative source of exploration, education, and inspiration.”

Tickets for the March 3 event are currently available as part of a subscription package, but single tickets will go on sale online on August 1, and by phone on September 5. Visit concerts.princeton.edu for more information.