Durham County

How dance is helping people with Parkinson’s heal

Patty Meehan started dancing about 10 years ago – around age 50, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“It loosens you up,” she said. “Most people with Parkinson’s are very stiff.”

Parkinson's disease is a disorder of the nervous system. Nearly 1 million people in the United States are living with it, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Its symptoms include tremors, stiffness and impaired balance.

Last weekend Meehan attended a dance class for people with Parkinson’s, called Dance for PD, at the American Dance Festival.

She sat on a folding chair alongside about 10 other women with Parkinson’s, arms above her head, swaying from side to side with soft, instrumental music playing in the background.

Dance for PD started in Brooklyn as a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and has expanded to more than 120 communities, including Durham.

ADF recieved a grant for $21,500 to offer free classes as part of their Parkinson’s Movement Initiative. The classes – which ran throughout July – end Sunday, and will resume Sept. 10.

“The grant is for a full year, so it’s going to go through next June, which is really exciting,” said Julia Pleasants, ADF’s studio manager. “We’re excited to have feedback from the community to see where we can take this.”

‘No wrongs’

Dance for PD welcomes people with Parkinson’s, their family, friends and caretakers to all classes. The program aims to improve balance, cognition, motor skills, depression and physical confidence.

Meehan started the program in 2007 in Michigan, before she moved to Roxboro in 2015.

She knew a lot about Parkinson’s because her mother had it for nearly 30 years, but it took her about a year to accept her own 2005 diagnosis.

She said dance made the difference for her and encourages others to participate.

“We had a couple last week that came in, and she was thinking it was going to be dance, and he’s got PD,” she said.

“I said, you know, it’s nothing hard. There are no wrongs, and if you don’t leave here with a smile on your face, I’m buying you dinner,” Meehan said. “He had a smile on his face, so I told him he owes me.”

Making it fun

Lindsay Voorhees, an occupational therapist, and Susan Saenger, a dance therapist, teach the dance classes at ADF’s Samuel Scripps Studio on Broad Street.

Voorhees said her main goal for the class is to have fun.

“I know that’s not necessarily the first thing people think about,” she said. “They’re like, ‘oh let’s help people with Parkinson’s move better,’ and that is a goal, but when you go into anything with that specific, very utilitarian goal, it makes it less fun.”

The class features a variety of music: From happy to contemplative, fast to slow, Voorhees said there’s something for everyone.

She said people with Parkinson’s benefit from the camraderie the classes build.

“People are coming and seeing their friends, people in their community, and we’re kind of building community here too,” she said. “Isolation is a real thing, whether it’s social isolation or physically not leaving home a bunch.”

Voorhees said there’s no research on movement therapy and Parkinson’s, but she sees its benefits from week to week.

“Their bodies work against them so much of the time and feels like they’re imprisoned sometimes,” she said. “So to hear people’s subjective experiences, it’s less about what I see and more about what people are feeling when they’re moving.

“It's so powerful and makes it worth it even if I’m walking around, and I can’t feel what they’re feeling,” she said.

Saenger said during one class, she had someone who had to leave early but couldn’t because she felt like her feet were stuck to the ground, a common symptom of Parkinson’s.

“We had been doing a marching exercise earlier in the class,” Saenger said. “So I told her to march out of class, and I started humming ‘76 Trombones’ or something like that, and she just marched out the door.”

As last Sunday’s 75-minute class drew to a close, the women stood in a circle. As another song played softly, they went around the circle, nodding their heads at each other. Many of them couldn’t hide their smiles.

Meehan said she could be having a bad day, but she always pushes herself to go to class.

“There’s something in the air, I don’t know – when I left here I was happy, and the rest of my day was fine,” she said. “So it’s like a drug, but you don’t have to take a pill. You just have to come here and see Lindsay and Susan."

ADF also offers Pilates for PD classes taught by Meg Poe, owner of Poe Wellness Solutions, as part of the initiative. Fall classes will begin Sept. 10. For more information, go to http://bit.ly/2uyk3dQ or call ADF at 919-797-2871.

Ana Irizarry: 317-213-3553

Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement, according to the Mayo Clinic. It develops gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. The disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement.

In the early stages of Parkinson's disease, your face may show little or no expression, or your arms may not swing when you walk. Your speech may become soft or slurred. Symptoms worsen as the condition progresses over time.

Nearly 1 million people in the United States are living with Parkinson’s disease, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. The cause is unknown, and although there is no cure, there are treatment options such as medication and surgery to manage its symptoms.