Before he had Parkinson's disease, Robert Simpson was a dancer.
Before he had Parkinson's disease, Robert Simpson was a dancer. Kate Davidson/NPR
Members of the Brooklyn Parkinson group meet at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Class begins seated.
Members of the Brooklyn Parkinson group meet at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Class begins seated. Kate Davidson/NPR
Judy Rosenblatt was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2004. This is her third season in the dance class.
Judy Rosenblatt was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2004. This is her third season in the dance class. Kate Davidson/NPR
Instructor Misty Owens says Parkinson's sufferers who've been coming for years find their bodies have more control.
Instructor Misty Owens says Parkinson's sufferers who've been coming for years find their bodies have more control. Kate Davidson/NPR
For the past seven years, the studio of internationally celebrated choreographer and dancer Mark Morris has held a special class for people with Parkinson's disease.
They all dance together in an airy, light-filled building in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn — despite the inhibited movement that marks Parkinson's sufferers.
"People come in barely shuffling along," Morris says, "and the class sort of frees people. It's not a miracle and I don't know the science. I know that music, rhythm, repetition, encouragement makes everybody dance. You don't even know that you're moving."
On Wednesdays, the studio fills with older, less perfect bodies moving through space. Here, for an hour and 15 minutes, wheelchairs and canes are set aside.
Things begin with a loose circle around several instructors from the Mark Morris Dance Group. Misty Owens is an elegant, dark-haired dancer. She says Parkinson's dancers who've been coming for years find their bodies have more control, more understanding of movement — the muscle memory of a learned pattern.
"It's that moment of bringing all that together — not just being a human being with Parkinson's but being a human being in a live, vital, creative class, that I find is the explosive mixture that makes this a wonderful opportunity," Owens says.
There is one dancer who stands out in this group, a tall man in a sleeveless shirt. His upper torso dives backward and forward in constant, jerky circles. But he possesses a delicacy of quality, says one teacher. Robert Simpson was a dancer before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2005.
"I'd just love to fly across the floor if I could," Simpson says, "cause I'm thinking I want to fly as much as I can while I can still do it. I just love the feeling of it."
Learning To Move With Parkinson's
Dancers refer to plies and pirouettes. Parkinson's dancers have another vocabulary to learn — and it's a cruel one. Ataxia: a loss of coordination. Festination: short, shuffling steps. Dyskinesia: involuntary body movements that can involve twisting and turning.
When a person has Parkinson's disease, a certain kind of nerve cell in his or her brain starts to die — the kind of cell that produces the chemical dopamine. Dopamine facilitates movement, so one of the biggest challenges for Parkinson's patients is to voluntarily initiate movement. Reaching out for a coffee mug can produce unpredictable results.
"It's one of the paradoxes in our understanding of Parkinson's that it's the voluntary decision to move which is the most impaired, and it's not the ability to actually perform the action," says Dr. Eve Marder, past president of the Society for Neuroscience.
"For example, a Parkinson's patient may be able to catch a ball if it's thrown at them, but they may not be able to decide to throw the ball," she says.
The idea is that dance takes the voluntary movements that are so difficult for people with Parkinson's and turns them into more instinctive movements. Movements made in reaction to a familiar tune on the piano, for example, or movements made by mirroring the teacher, or the memorized movements of a choreographed routine.
"Thus the Parkinson's patient may find themselves moving much more fluidly and much better than they would if they were alone in a room and just saying, 'Now I want to do those same movements,'" Marder says.
"When people come in, they're scared of moving because they've been told by doctors and professionals that they can't move," says David Leventhal, who has danced with the Mark Morris group for 12 years. "Somebody once said, 'You don't want to see what I'm doing; it's just not very pretty.' And I said, 'It's the contrary. It's beautiful because it's so unique. Nobody else is moving the way you're moving.'"
Still, the class is not a cure. There's not even scientific proof that dance helps the symptoms of Parkinson's. As the dancers get up from their chairs to begin moving across the floor, something happens. Leonore Gordon freezes, arrested in her movement. Akinesia.
"So I got frozen, which means sometimes the medication does not work with the Parkinson's," Gordon explains as she recovers. "So I can be doing great, running around all over the city, all over the place, then all of a sudden I can't move at all. So I couldn't enjoy the tap, which I usually love to do, and I can't do anything right now. I took extra medication a few minutes ago, so I may be able to be completely fine in a few minutes, but it's completely unpredictable, which is kind of the pain in the butt about Parkinson's. It's just so unpredictable."
Eventually the episode passes and Gordon gets up to join her fellow dancers. They've formed a community with each other — a microcosm as diverse as Brooklyn.
"You forget that you are with a group of people who have an illness," says Bobbye Butts, whose husband is in the class. "There's a kind of joy; there's a kind of jubilation. You get the feeling that everybody feels as normal as the next person."
Simpson's hands involuntarily grip the flesh of his arms — the skin on his bare shoulders turns pink from the grasp, but his face glows as he describes what it felt like to enter a studio again.
"It all kind of just swelled. Wonderful feeling from dancing, just felt wonderful. Felt a little bit like I found home again. I just love it," he says. "It's the thing I look forward to most, coming to class and hopefully flying across."
At the end of the class, the dancers march in an almost royal, Renaissance procession, as if they were lords and ladies at court. Grace, says one of the Morris dancers, is a visual representation of a whole set of feelings, confidence being one of the strongest ones. And on this floor, for an hour and 15 minutes, grace and confidence imbue the dance.