The Gift of Dance: Dance for Parkinson’s
By Dorothy Ross
“Are you going to dance?” piped the budding ballerina in the pink tutu. She was staring at my Capezios and shaking her head. “Grandmas don’t take dancing lessons,” she said.
I couldn’t blame the little girl for being skeptical. I never dreamed I’d take up dancing in my seventies, but neither did I imagine I’d be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. My doctor said dancing was especially good for people with PD because it stretched the muscles, improved balance, and was neurologically soothing.
When Pamela started the Dance for Parkinson’s program at the Trokanski studio, I was one of the first to register. The Davis classes are modeled after the Dance for PD system developed by the Mark Morris Dance Company of Brooklyn, New York. Pamela and her co-instructors, Bobbie Bolden and Ruth Rosenberg, have trained with the Mark Morris dancers.
A glance at a typical class (if there is any such thing) reveals a group of willing but not so able dancers, mostly quite mature women. We begin each session seated in a circle, doing a modified version of the yoga Salute to the Sun postures. After demonstrating the procedure, Pamela invites us to either remain seated or stand, as our bodies require on any given day. Her mantra is, “Listen to your body.”
For the next 75 minutes, we bend and sway, kick and bounce. Our smorgasbord of dances includes ballet, tap, hula, and improv. We even do a pretty snappy version of A Chorus Line –modified, always modified. I never took ballet as a kid, so I felt silly attempting the deep knee bend known as the plié. Watching myself in the mirrors lining the walls, I laughed. What else could I do?
Anyone who’s ever had a class with Pamela is familiar with her other mantra, “Everything’s Better with Music.” Most of the music we dance to is from Pamela’s vast CD collection, but she sometimes drums us into action, inviting us to identify distinctive rhythms and improvise shapes and steps, either individually or in cooperation with a partner.
When I’m dancing, enjoying myself and admiring the smiling faces of the other dancers, I’m no longer conscious of the mirrored walls. Besides being great fun, the dancing is also a thorough workout. Our instructors choreograph the dances to challenge our sluggish muscles, keeping in mind the limitations imposed by Parkinson’s.
Our class has practiced specially adapted dances from the repertoires of the Mark Morris Company and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Sixteen of us attended a recent Alvin Ailey performance at the Mondavi Center. We were thrilled to see those talented young people going through the same motions on stage. I kept poking my husband and telling him, “We do that!” Sure, our version is slower and we skip the most difficult sections, but we practice and perform many of the same steps.
What are the gifts of dance? Music, movement, and laughter are all parts, but the most important element is friendship. My dance buddies occupy a special place in my heart. We’ve all taken the risk of feeling foolish performing unfamiliar dances. We recognize in each other the determination to do what we can to stay well and be happy. Dance helps.
My family and friends know that Tuesday afternoon is reserved for dance class. I’d have to be sick or out of town to miss a session of Dance for Parkinson’s. It’s one of the great joys of my life.
About Dance for Parkinson’s in Davis & Sacramento:
The Dance for Parkinson’s program is affiliated with the Mark Morris Dance Group and offered through the auspices of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis, in partnership with the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre. Ongoing classes started in Davis in February of 2011, and the program expanded to Sacramento in March of 2012. The Sacramento classes are supported by a generous grant from the Kelly Foundation with facility space donated by Pamela Trokanski Dance Workshop and Eskaton Monroe Lodge. For more information about how you can help support dance classes for people with Parkinson’s, please visit the support page on the PTDT website.
About Dorothy Ross:
Dorothy Ross and Bill, her husband of more than 50 years, raised their three children in Davis. Dorothy worked as a writer and editor in the UC Davis College of Agriculture. As a volunteer, she facilitated youth tennis events, managed the Yolo Hospice Thrift Store, and served on the boards of several non-profits. Her current efforts are directed at the local Parkinson’s Disease support group–when she’s not occupied with her five grandchildren.