Dance for PD

When Dance for PD began in Brooklyn in 2001, we had no idea it would ever grow beyond the Mark Morris Dance Center. The dance studio, and the community in which it was situated, seemed like a unique laboratory for developing a completely new concept in the Parkinson’s world—a dance class, specially crafted for people with PD by professional dancers and presented under the umbrella of a world-renowned dance company. We were unsure whether such a radical concept would have broader appeal. “It’s perfect for our community,” said Olie Westheimer, the founder of Brooklyn Parkinson Group, our original community partner, and the visionary behind Dance for PD. “I’m not sure it would work anywhere else.”

Our illusions about Dance for PD being a distinctly Brooklyn phenomenon have since been soundly dispelled. Over the past 15 years, programs based on the original Brooklyn model have sprouted up in 145 communities in 22 countries around the world. In Pune, India, people with Parkinson’s learn Kathak and Bollywood in a class that, due to popular demand, takes place three times a week. In London, dancers learn excerpts from the English National Ballet’s repertoire. In Canberra, the Dance for Parkinson’s group recently participated in a choreography project celebrating Australia’s sporting history. In other words, people with Parkinson’s around the world love dancing as much as our Brooklyn participants do, and the flexibility of our model has allowed programs to blossom if the growing environment is right.

So why, on hour 12 of my 14-hour flight from New York to Shanghai, was panic setting in? I’d been planning the first Dance for PD training workshop in China for more than a year, and was working with a passionate and dedicated team at an organization called Inspirees, which is pioneering the availability of training courses for dance and creative arts therapy in China. I also had experience on my side, having led nearly 75 teacher training workshops during my tenure as Dance for PD’s Program Director.

As I sat in the eerie twilight created by indeterminate time zones, I realized that two issues were nagging at me. One was cultural sensitivity—I wanted to share what we consider to be a successful approach and methodology without imposing Western dance constructs on a society with a deep awareness and sense of pride in its own artistic and cultural heritage. The other was a fear of redundancy. Chinese elders have a long-established tradition of engaging in daily movement activities like Tai Chi and Qi Gong. Furthermore, as I learned in my pre-trip research, square dancing, in which middle-aged and retired people (mostly women) meet in public parks or urban squares to execute set dance routines, is popular with more than 100 million devotees around the country. When movement and dance were already so embedded in the culture of living and aging, would Dance for PD even be necessary?

Two days later, I was leading a Dance for PD class in the carpeted conference room at Zhongshan Hospital for 25 people with Parkinson’s and their families (we always include a community class as part of our training program). I was exhausted. Compounding the jetlag, I’d stayed up far too late trying to create a playlist that juxtaposed Beethoven, West Side Story, and Maori chants with several popular Chinese songs from the 1940s. But I was also elated. In the first fifteen minutes of class, I noticed the looks of joy, wonder and excitement around the room that seemed remarkably similar to what I’d seen in Brooklyn in 2001. It was as if participants had entered a magnificent banquet hall after days of hunger—they voraciously tried every movement activity, lit up and laughed at the Chinese tracks I included, and took on the personae of Sharks and Jets with conviction and panache.

In our post-class discussion—meticulously translated by a member of the Inspirees team—I learned the source of this joy. “There is nothing like this for us here,” one member of the class told me. “You gave us a great sense of happiness and dignity, and I learned a lot about how to think about movement,” another participant told me. I asked the group what kinds of programs there were for people with Parkinson’s to stay active and to connect with each other. Nothing, I was told. What about square dancing, I asked? We don’t feel comfortable going out and dancing in public, they said. “When’s the next class?” a woman asked before she left. “I think this would really help my Parkinson’s.”

I didn’t have an answer yet. Things are moving, but they are moving slowly. The trainees in Shanghai were focused and skilled, but they want to do things right and proceed with care. We will be working with them over the next 18 months to provide additional training and professional development opportunities.

But I did know that Dance for PD, in its first foray into China, had landed on its feet. Like participants in Brooklyn, London, Pune and Canberra, the Shanghai group immediately appreciated the sense of connection and trust that the class fostered. They loved the fact that the session was creative, accessible and fun, and that we welcomed them as dancers rather than as patients. And they were grateful to have a chance to let symptoms take a back seat to expression, rhythm and grace.

Whether moving to the classic Chinese folk song Mo Li Hua, a hula ballad by Gabby Pahinui, or Leonard Bernstein’s Cool, the dancers immediately understood the essence of dance’s gifts, joys and benefits—no translation needed. Through dancing, they had experienced a journey that was deeply personal and reassuringly universal.


David Leventhal is the Program Director and founding teacher, Dance for PD® and member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Brooklyn, NY. He was the recipient of the 2016 WPC Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Parkinson Community. He presented in the Renewal Room in 2013 and 2016 and in the Hot Topics session at WPC 2016.

Register to watch him receive the WPC Award on the second day of WPC 2016 here.

Twitter: @danceforpd

Ideas and opinions expressed in this post reflect that of the authors solely. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of the World Parkinson Coalition®