The website of the Mark Morris Dance Group offers a dizzying array of drop-down options, a necessary reflection of the many things the organization does apart from performing dance concerts. One of the most urgently important of these is Dance for PD, an incentive the group co-founded in 2001 with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and has since subsumed under its sole aegis.
Parkinson’s disease has become far more manifest in recent years. “That turns out to be true in just about any population,” Morris said. “All the time I encounter people who say they have this grandparent or uncle or husband who has PD, and lots of times it isn’t diagnosed right away. In some cultures, specifically China and Korea, it’s embarrassing to have it, so it’s hidden.” This past summer, a wide-ranging new study called the Parkinson’s Prevalence Project estimated that more than a million Americans over age forty-five will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s by 2020, and that the number will rise to 1.24 million by 2030.
“The disease tends to relate to aging,” said David Leventhal, who runs the Dance for PD program for MMDG. “As we live longer, we see more cases. Per capita, it is the fastest growing neurological condition. It outpaces Alzheimer’s, though there are far more Alzheimer’s patients — 6 million, as opposed to one to one-and-a-half million with Parkinson’s.” But considered by the rate of increase, Parkinson’s is number one — a glimpse of the future.
Leventhal has been involved with the program since the outset because of a fluke. The MMDG dancer who had agreed to lead the initial session had a family emergency, and Leventhal, who also danced with the company, agreed to fill in. He was hooked, and he has taught continuously ever since.
From the beginning, the program was viewed as an arts program rather than a form of medical therapy. “In those early days,” he said, “we didn’t get a lot of support from the community or foundations, and the medical professionals were skeptical about any kind of arts-space intervention.” The dancers forged ahead “in splendid isolation from clinical knowledge,” treating the Parkinson’s participants simply like dancers and not like patients. To this day, he said, “We don’t talk about the disease in class. We don’t address it head-on. Dance is really perfectly matched with this neurological condition.” In the 17 years since its founding, the program’s benefits have become clear, not just to participants and their families but also to the medical establishment. Today about 70 percent of participants come to Dance for PD through physician referrals, even though the program has never presented itself as treatment per se and views itself as strictly an arts program.
“It’s a huge range of symptoms and problems that these people have,” Morris said, “from freezing up to motor problems, just trying to get over the threshold of a door, or twitches, or spasms, and unpredictability and instability. What we offer them is not a magic spell, but if people aren’t being counted or studied or recorded, there’s a freedom of action and grace that just comes from moving to music without other expectations. We build in a fluidity of action that people respond to, not from following instructions but rather from tasks that are then dancified. People take class in a chair or a wheelchair or [with] a walker or fully standing and moving freely or holding a barre, so it’s adaptable to people of every ability.”
From that initial class, the program has grown into an international force. “Dance for PD is now operating in 44 states,” Leventhal said, “so there is more growth to go. And programs based on our model are operating in 25 countries, some being more closely affiliated with us than others. Pretty much everybody teaching has attended our training workshops in Brooklyn — or elsewhere, since in 2010, we started offering training also in other cities. We have 10 major training workshops every year now — four in Brooklyn, six in other places. Three teachers are part of Dance for PD in New Mexico. One trained in Brooklyn, one in Denver, one in Toronto.”
People with Parkinson’s often attend with their spouses, partners, or caregivers, and everybody participates. “This gives the Parkinson’s people more support,” said Leventhal, “and dancing helps each individual see the other in a positive light. It can be frustrating to navigate Parkinson’s disease, and this helps a couple experience something together, or to remember and reset the sense of connection that used to come more easily.”
Leventhal cites what he calls the four pillars of dance that inform the activities in the organization’s classes. There is the physical aspect, which involves motor skills and movement strategies; that is especially pertinent for people who have lost “automaticity,” since dance involves choreographing particular motor components and repeating them until they become natural. There are expressive and cognitive aspects, like concentration, thought, planning, decision-making, learning, and remembering. There is the theatrical aspect, which involves projecting movement and expressing ideas and feelings. “And the social element is huge,” he said. “This is an opportunity for people to belong to groups, to connect through movement and music, to contribute to that shared experience no matter what their level of ability.”
Teachers may bring aspects of their own dance backgrounds to the experience. When Leventhal teaches, he naturally employs some elements that specifically relate to his work as a MMDG member, although he transitioned away from performing in 2010 and 2011. “I always include some Mark Morris repertory when I run training workshops for other teachers,” he said. “Gestural storytelling and imagery figure prominently in his work, drawn from his involvement with some Asian dance styles. For people who are challenged with Parkinson’s, that emphasis on gestural work is critical: moving arms, hands, fingers. Teachers may bring those aspects to the experience from whatever their area of dance expertise may be — say, flamenco or hula — but the important thing is that they apply the same sense of rigor and musicality in leading the class.”
Morris sometimes participates in classes himself. “Of course, I’m just weeping immediately. Not in the sense of feeling sorry for anyone, but it’s really moving. First of all, nobody is different from anybody else; and secondly, everybody is different from everybody else. It’s a very personal thing, a warm environment, very gracious and inclusive. And it’s wonderful.” ◀
Information about Dance for PD in New Mexico can be found at danceforparkinsons.org, under “Contact Us” or “Find a Class.”