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People With Parkinson’s Disease Go With the Flow at Dance Class

Sunday, September 29, 2013
White River Junction — A few years after her Parkinson’s disease was diagnosed, Gay Palazzo, of Lebanon, took up line dancing.

The disease makes it hard to move at her normal pace, she said. “Everything is slower. You feel like you’re going as fast as everyone else, but you’re not.” But when she’s dancing, movement “just seems to flow easier.”

“Sometimes your legs are slow and you have to try not to trip,” said Palazzo, who serves on the board of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association. “But other than that, I can dance and really feel comfortable.”

Palazzo was one of 20 people with Parkinson’s disease, their caregivers and dance teachers who turned out for a recent dance class designed to counter the problems that commonly plague people with the disease — balance and coordination issues, stiff muscles, isolation, and depression.

The experience was “absolutely wonderful,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re not alone, like you’re in it together.”

The free class at White River Ballet Academy featured a taste of tap, a bit of ballet, and a smidgen of what instructor Sam Black called “fake flamenco.” Strike a “flamenco-y pose,” Black urged the class. “Something with some sass to it. Think of Seville, oranges, the breeze.”

And they did, hands on hips thrust to the side, hands in the air, chins jutting upward, and then added punctuation — finger snaps and hand claps.

Moving to recorded piano music, they created their own dance, “Ode to Fall,” evoking the season with spoken words and movements, their hands mimicking fluttering leaves. Reaching upward they “wrote” their names on the ceiling, forming the letters with broad sweeps of their arms and legs.

And, toward the end of class, they each received a heartfelt, if imaginary, gift.

Standing or sitting in a circle, dancers took turns giving the “gift” to the person next to them. Tim Desclos bounced an invisible ball, then tossed it into an invisible basket before passing it to his wife, Victoria Tane, who caught it, midair. As the “gift” traveled the circle, each person transformed it. In one woman’s hands, it became a painting, brushed with wide strokes onto a roomy canvas. Later, it became real, when a man held out his hands, pulled his wife toward him and delivered a kiss.

The class was coordinated by the Hopkins Center for the Arts and the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Mark Morris Dance Group, as part of a residency at Dartmouth College. Now taught across the United States and in eight other countries, Dance for PD is a collaboration between the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and the dance group.

“The short-term goal is to do more (physical movement) when you leave,” Black said. Ideally, participants will “move a little more confidently afterward.”

Instructor Lesley Garrison said that, for people with Parkinson’s, the classes are “shocking.”

“People are really surprised that they can move more than they think they can,” she said.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that often leads to tremors, soft or slurred speech, balance problems and stiff muscles. It’s caused by the death of neurons that produce dopamine, a chemical that allows smooth, coordinated physical movements.

For people with Parkinson’s, ordinary movements, such as getting dressed or getting out of bed, can be a struggle, said Diane Church, of the Parkinson’s Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which co-sponsored the class. They have to break motions down into separate movements and think through each step, said Church, the center’s coordinator. “Things just do not happen spontaneously.”

But dancing can free them up to make spontaneous movements that might otherwise prove difficult.

“Sometimes people with Parkinson’s have ‘freezing.’ Their mind is saying, ‘Move,’ and their muscles won’t do it,” she said. “Having rhythm and music really unlocks people.”

The center, which serves New Hampshire and parts of Vermont, also provides information and referrals to people with Parkinson’s and their caregivers. But Church worries about its future. In September, she received word that the American Parkinson Disease Association would not renew the grant that previously funded the half-time coordinator position. “I just can’t imagine all these people without a resource,” Church said.

The center is looking into alternative ways to pay the coordinator salary, she said. In the meantime, it will be funded by DHMC through June 2014, the end of the fiscal year.

Kathy Whitford, vice president of communications at the American Parkinson Disease Association, said the organization is still feeling the effects of the national economic downturn.

“We had to look at where we could help the most people with the resources that we had,” she said. “It was nothing to do with the quality of work.”

A grant to pay the coordinator’s salary at the association’s information and referral center in Maine was also not renewed. The association is looking for other funding sources, possibly from its state chapters or host institutions, to cover coordinator salaries, and the grants may be renewed in future years, Whitford said.

In addition to improving participants’ physical capabilities, the classes also aim to tap into their emotions. “Psychologically, you have more of an artistic approach,” said Black, emphasizing the point that it’s a dance class, not an exercise class. “I think that helps the emotional side.”

That proved true in at least a few cases.

Tane, a jewelry artist from Nashua, N.H., whose Parkinson’s was diagnosed several years ago, has always loved to dance.

“When I’m at the gym on a treadmill, I dance. I just love to move,” said Tane, who recently created a line of jewelry to support Parkinson’s research.

She was a little skeptical before class, wondering how the teachers would manage to engage people with different abilities, she said. But by the end of the 90-minute session, she was a believer.

“What (the dance group) has done is find the common theme of movement in every human being,” Tane said. “It helped us establish our own voice, our own sense of movement, regardless of the fact that we have this affliction.”

At one point during the class, she found herself in tears. “This hit my soul,” she told Church afterward.

Palazzo, who is relatively new to dancing, especially liked the improvisational exercises and the warm-up, which included long flowing movements borrowed from yoga.

“It just felt really good,” she said. “The freeness of movement and the non-judgemental (atmosphere). It just felt like you were by yourself and doing what you wanted to do.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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