Dance Classes for Parkinson’s Patients

In the immortal words of Bob Marley, “Forget your troubles and dance”

Instructor Kendra Viviers and Wright Danenbarger Photo courtesy of Catholic Medical Center

Patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which is a progressive and incurable nervous system disorder, can’t escape its debilitating and cruel symptoms. Nevertheless, they can find relief, and even likely delay the progression of the disease, by taking dance classes. But just any dance class won’t do. They need to tap into the program specifically designed to empower patients to explore movement and music in ways that are refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating and creative in a safe environment.

The program is called Dance for PD, and it was founded by the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York City in 2001 as a nonprofit collaborative with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group. It has achieved international acclaim, and its practice has spread to more than 250 other communities and 25 countries. According to the organization’s website, evidence from 38 peer-reviewed scientific studies underpins the effectiveness and benefits of this teaching method. Even better, the program is now available in New Hampshire.

“One of the great things about this program is that we don’t talk about Parkinson’s at all,” says Kendra Viviers, a licensed physical therapy assistant. “Everybody’s got it, so that becomes the baseline. It’s what differentiates this from some exercise classes or another therapy, where we talk about the symptoms and then we work to offset them. Everything I do with our choreography is absolutely for a reason. But I don’t talk about why I’m doing what I’m doing. We just dance,” she adds.

Viviers, who heads the Dance for PD program at Catholic Medical Center’s Wellness Center, underwent the rigorous teacher training at the world-renowned Julliard School for the performing arts in New York.

“What I’m trained to do is to take any type of dance and any type of music and modify it all so it’s appropriate for this particular population,” she says. “There is a great deal of preparation and work for each class. The choreography is a lot of work. It takes hours and hours. There is something to be said for repetition, and something to be said for spontaneity. I might do the same song three weeks in a row, but I’ll progressively add more to it each time. It’s never exactly the same class. Sometimes I might do a song once. It always changes. It’s a lot of work, but well worth it,” says Viviers.

Wright Danenbarger, a retired partner of one of the state’s most prominent law firms, was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Today, he’s a regular at the class, and agrees wholeheartedly with Viviers.

“I attend consistently, and I hate to miss it when I’m traveling. If I’m here in New Hampshire, I make it a point to go to every class,” says Danenbarger.

Those classes are open to anyone with the disease, cost a nominal $5 and are held every Tuesday afternoon.

“Kendra is a very good teacher, and I find the sessions quite therapeutic. I don’t have a lot of the Parkinson’s symptoms yet, but I think this class, along with the other things I do like boxing, helps a lot. I really do. I highly recommend this,” says Danenbarger, who could cut quite a rug in his younger days. “Being a good dancer back then helps a little bit. Some of the steps are a little bit tricky even for me, but every session starts with something easy to do and then it progresses from there with complexity as we go along. There are a lot of what I call fancy hand movements and foot movements.”

Still, no experience is needed. But some patients need a little push.

“The most difficult thing is getting someone here because often people hear dance class and they think, ‘Oh, I’ve never danced. I shouldn’t do that, particularly because I’ve got Parkinson’s and I really can’t go and do that,’” says Viviers. “Or people think this is a social, partnering dance. I know there are people who have not come to class because they don’t fully understand the essence of what the dance class is. But I will say that once they are there, over 90% of the participants will stay with me. I can count on one hand the people who have said, ‘Oh, this is just not for me.’ In general, once they come to class, they stay. They’re very happy because it’s a good social environment and it’s beneficial — and it’s fun,” says Viviers.

About the author: Lynne Snierson is a freelance writer who covered the National Football League and Thoroughbred horse racing during her award-winning career as a sportswriter. The Laconia native, who loves animals and is passionate about their welfare, lives in Salem with her retired champion Shetland Sheepdog Mavis. Snierson has lived in the Granite State since being born here in 1952.

The sessions, which average between four to 14 participants and also welcome spouses, caregivers or friends, cater to patients in all stages of the disease, so Viviers has brought on two assistants, Rebecca Power, a former professional dancer, and Mary Philippy, who also has a strong dance background.

The musical arrangements cut across all genres, from show tunes, ballet tap and jazz to Latin, disco, hula or Irish. Routines are also modified to accommodate those who need to stay seated as others are moving across the floor. The one constant is that routines are never dumbed down.

“People tell me that since coming here they are more confident, and more competent in whatever their activity level is,” says Viviers. “This class increases their balance [and] their motor skills. It often reminds them of the time in their lives before Parkinson’s when they used to dance, or they used to enjoy music more than they do now. It helps them to recover that part of their life that had been lost,” says Viviers, who adds that associated research has found that dancers have a significantly lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease because of their continued use of short-term memory to remember steps.

If anyone assumes therapeutic dance can’t be artistic, Viviers will set them straight.

“It’s surprisingly beautiful. I may have 10 people in the class and we are all doing the same thing, but everyone is doing it just a little differently based upon their level of mobility. It is stunningly beautiful. It’s not the synchronicity of choreographed ballet, but it is no less beautiful to have this individuality of all doing the same movement at the same time. It is just as pleasing aesthetically as seeing a group that is moving more together,” she says.


Where to Go

In 2020 there are 1 million Americans struggling with Parkinson’s disease and about 60,000 more will be diagnosed each year, according the Parkinson’s Foundation website. There are two current Dance for PD programs available in New Hampshire. Here’s where to participate:

Keene

What: Moving with Parkinson’s is 
held the first and third Wednesdays of the month from 10:30-11:45 a.m.
 Drop-ins are welcome, and there’s a
$5 suggested donation with no charge for caregivers.
Where: Cheshire Medical Center
 Southwestern Community Services’ Conference Room, 
63 Community Way, 
Keene
More information: Contact Kathy Michel by phone at (802) 869-3695 or email kathleenmichel3@gmail.com.

Manchester

What: The Parkinson’s Dance Class is held 
Tuesdays
 from 1-2:15 p.m.
The cost is $5 per class, with no charge for caregivers, spouses and friends.
Where: Catholic Medical Center, 
195 McGregor St.,
 Room LL23, 
Manchester
More information: To register please call (603) 626-2626. For more information, contact Kendra Viviers by phone, (603) 641-6700 or email at kendra.viviers@cmc-nh.org.

Categories: Health & Wellness

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