Sunday Seniors: Dance Class Gets Parkinson’s Sufferers Moving, Laughing

  • A group of more than two dozen people participated in a Dance for PD class held late last month at Open Door Integrative Wellness in White River Junction. (Kay McCabe photographs) —Courtesy photograph

  • A group of more than two dozen people participated in a Dance for PD class held late last month at Open Door Integrative Wellness in White River Junction. (Kay McCabe photographs) —Courtesy photograph

  • A group of more than two dozen people participated in a Dance for PD class held late last month at Open Door Integrative Wellness in White River Junction. (Kay McCabe photographs) Kay McCabe photographs

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 7/7/2018 11:33:02 PM
Modified: 7/7/2018 11:33:03 PM

White River Junction — What do you picture when you think of Parkinson’s disease?

For me — and I’m embarrassed to say this — the first thing that comes to mind are the involuntary tremors that afflict those who suffer from the movement disorder.

What probably doesn’t come to mind is dancing, but after observing a Dance for PD class, strength and gracefulness are two characteristics I will surely attribute to Parkinson’s disease.

Late last month, Open Door Integrative Wellness in White River Junction and Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts teamed up to offer a Dance for PDclass, taught by Mark Morris Dance Group members Sam Black and Lesley Garrison, who were in town for performances of Pepperland.

More than two dozen people gathered to take part in the class at Open Door, which ran for a little more than an hour. Rows of chairs were spread out in a large oval, with Black and Garrison in the center. The lighting was subdued and the light blue walls were complemented by the sunlight streaming through the two large storefront windows.

“This class is designed for everyone to feel good and have fun,” Black said, adding that people could modify the movements to their individual capabilities. Not all of the participants have Parkinson’s disease; many were accompanied by their spouses or other caregivers. 

“We’re the tallest, longest version of ourselves,” Black said as he began to lead a series of stretching exercises.

Dance for PD was founded in 2001 as a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, according to the nonprofit organization’s website. It is now fully run by the dance group.

I sat off to the side, at times joined by Open Door founder and CEO Kate Gamble, who has a special place in her heart for Dance for PD. A physical therapist, Gamble also has extensive experience in dance and has taught Dance for PD classes before. She plans to offer a course this fall.

“The music kind of frees them,” Gamble said. While the program does address such physical needs as balance and motor skills, there are mental benefits as well, which could be clearly seen through the smiles on participants faces.

Black and Garrison would teach the group choreographed routines before placing the moves to music. The songs ranged from selections from Pepperland to classical pieces. Everyone did the same dances, on par with what everyone was comfortable doing.

There was a sense of togetherness that was apparent throughout the whole class. Gamble said that’s part of the point, “not only movement, but the sense of community,” she said.

Mary Ruppert and Ken Parker drove from their home in Lyman, N.H., to attend the class.

“We drove a long way,” Ruppert said.

“And well worth it,” Parker finished, adding that he enjoyed doing all the different moves.

The couple shared that, in addition to Parkinson’s disease, Parker is facing Alzheimer’s disease as well, a “double whammy,” as Ruppert described it. “Its been a long road.”

Programs like Dance for PD offer a bit of a reprieve.

“It’s a certain freedom of movement,” Ruppert said. “Everybody should do it.”

It also gave caregivers an opportunity to experience something new with their partners, instead of being in a traditional role of providing care, which can cause relationships to feel unbalanced. This was a lighter activity that they could enjoy together.

“It’s so great for them,” Gamble said.

During one activity, partners split up to walk around to shake hands and give each other high-fives.

“It’s about meeting that person where they are,” Garrison said.

Think about that for a moment. With a neurodegenerative disorder like Parkinson’s disease, the decline often isn’t swift. It’s prolonged and difficult, with different symptoms affecting different people in different ways. At Dance for PD, people understand each other and their abilities. They provide support that may be difficult to find elsewhere. 

“People with chronic or other illnesses like that need opportunities to get out of the hospital setting,” Gamble said.

That’s not to knock traditional forms of physical therapy, but simply to say that programs like Dance for PD are just as necessary. 

The picture that comes to mind when imagining Parkinson’s disease — and all other neurodegenerative disorders for that matter — needs to change. Instead of paying attention to tremors, we should be cognizant of the individual who is coping with the disorder. 

“We definitely have to change how we approach aging,” Gamble said.

Programs like Dance for PD are a great place to start.

Editor’s note: For more information about Dancing for PD, visit To learn more about Open Door and its upcoming programs, visit or contact Gamble at or 904-626-5284. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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