By Dorothy Ross
Picture this. A dozen dancers in the Green Room of a large Sacramento conference center, awaiting their first public appearance, perched on the edges of their chairs like nervous schoolgirls.
But these dancers weren’t children. They were gray-haired women, and I was one of them. Each of us has had Parkinson’s Disease for at least five years. You might not recognize our symptoms right away, but in time you’d notice a tremor here and a stumble there. We’d been asked to attend an area-wide Parkinson’s conference and give a demonstration of the dance style we’ve been practicing for the past few years.
Like many similar groups around the country, we participate in Dance for Parkinson’s classes. Developed by the Mark Morris Dance Company of Brooklyn, the dance steps and practice routines are designed to work the areas of the body most affected by our condition.
Five years ago, browsing the Internet for PD-related posts, I happened on the announcement of an introductory dance class to be given in Berkeley by the Mark Morris dancers. The class was free and open to anyone with Parkinson’s. I was interested because my doctor had recommended dance as being neurologically soothing. Still, I might not have responded if the class was offered in Davis, but I don’t know anybody in Berkeley, so no one would know if I was terrible. I was hooked that first day. The music and the motion were like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
I continued to attend the Berkeley classes occasionally until, in 2011, the Mark Morris dancers came to Davis to inaugurate a Dance for Parkinson’s program at Pamela Trokanski’s studio, sponsored by the Mondavi Center. I’ve missed very few sessions in the past three years.
We’re accustomed to guests in our classes, mostly visiting family members, whom we enjoy meeting. The dance demo would be very different. We would have an audience of more than 300 people with Parkinson’s and their families. For most of us, this would be the first public dance performance of our lives.
Pamela is a pro, accustomed to performers and their stage fright. She didn’t discuss the demonstration much in the preceding weeks. When asked, she assured us it would be a short session. We would do only a few basic routines that were very familiar to us. She scheduled no rehearsals, and generally kept everything low key. No one was required to participate.
On the day of the event, when we assembled in the Green Room to eat our box lunches and await the starter’s call, we were unusually quiet. No one admitted to being anxious, but our nervous energy was palpable.
Finally, it was time for our entrance. We filed out to the main conference space and onto a portable dance floor. In a silent game of musical chairs we claimed spots in the circle in anticipation of our seated “Salute to the Sun” opening. Surrounded by spectators, we were all a bit tense.
Mondavi’s Ruth Rosenberg introduced us, and Maria Ventura joined Pamela in the center of the circle to show everyone how the moves should be done. Once Pamela began her explanations and instructions, we forgot about the people craning to get a better look. The music started. Our limbs and our breathing followed the familiar beat and Pamela’s mesmerizing voice. “Breathe in for two counts as your arms float up. Breathe out for two as they float back down.”
I glanced at the standing-room-only crowd. Many people were moving along with us, swaying to the music and following Pamela’s count, arms floating in the air. Members of our audience were fascinated with what we’d been taught to do, and they wanted to join the fun.
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.