JACKI LYDEN, host:
Our segment, Science Out of the Box, often takes us into the laboratory. But for the rest of our time today, we'll take sides of us into the world of dance.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: Meet the internationally celebrated choreographer and dancer, Mark Morris. For the past seven years, his studio has held a special class for people with Parkinson's disease. Instructors and students dance together in an airy, light-filled building in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The mystery is that Parkinson's inhibits movement.
Mr. MARK MORRIS (Dance Choreographer): People come in barely sort of shuffling along, if I may tell the truth. And the class frees people. You know, it's not a miracle, and I don't know the science. I know that music, rhythm, repetition, encouragement makes everybody dance. And then you don't even know that you're moving. You're dancing now. It was a trick. If it's a trick, I don't mind.
Unidentified Woman: Six, seven, and eight. Scooping one, two. Stretching long through to the spine. Keep the length as you lower the hands. Energy in the palms as you shoot, lifting...
LYDEN: On Wednesdays, the studio fills with older, less perfect bodies moving through space. Here, for an hour-and-a-quarter, 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 people who've come for years find their bodies have more control, more understanding of movement, muscle memory of a learned pattern.
Ms. MISTY OWENS (Dancer): It's that moment of bringing all of 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 just the explosive mixture that makes this a wonderful opportunity.
Unidentified Woman: Opposite side, lift.
LYDEN: There's a dancer who stands out in this group, a tall man in a sleeveless shirt. His upper torso dives backwards and forwards in constant jerky circles, but he possesses, the teacher says, a delicacy of quality. Robert Simpson was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2005, and he was a dancer in his pre-Parkinson's life.
Mr. ROBERT SIMPSON: I just love to fly across the floor if I could because I think I want to fly as much as I can while I can still do that. I mean, I just love the feeling of it.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: Again, up. And rest. Excellent. Thank you.
LYDEN: We asked the students to sit with us for a moment and tell us about the first time they thought something might be wrong.
Mr. CARL NEISMAN: My wife and I - our kitchen is our gathering place, and I propped my arm on a chair and talking to her as she turns. And one day, she reached over and grabbed my hand. She said, do you know your hand is shaking like that?
Mr. SIMPSON: I was driving the car, and my left hand started to wiggle.
Ms. LENORE GORDON: I began to have a kind of clawing in my hand. I didn't understand why I had clawing in my hand and my arms stopped swinging.
Mr. TONY WEN: I could barely move. My friend had to like - move me in bed. I mean, I couldn't function, and I didn't know why.
Mr. REGGIE BUTTS: So that's when I decided to go to the doctor and the result came back that I had Parkinson's.
LYDEN: What was your job back then?
Mr. BUTTS: I was a trucker.
Mr. SIMPSON: I danced in New York.
Mr. NEISMAN: I'm a lawyer. I was a litigator, and it was a disaster for my career.
LYDEN: You just heard from Carl Neisman(ph), Robert Simpson(ph), Tony Wen(ph), Lenore Gordon(ph), and Reggie Butts(ph). Dancers refer to pliees 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.
To see where these symptoms come from, let's step outside the class and into the brain. When a person has Parkinson's disease, a certain kind of nerve cell in their 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. I might tell my hand to reach for my coffee mug. Then I wait to see if and when it goes anywhere near it.
Dr. EVE MARDER (Former President, Society of Neuroscience): 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.
LYDEN: Dr. Eve Marder is past president of the Society for Neuroscience.
Dr. MARDER: For example, a Parkinson's patient may be able to catch a ball if it's thrown at them, whereas they may not be able to decide to throw the ball.
LYDEN: There's no scientific proof that dance helps the symptoms of Parkinson's, but Mark Morris was recently invited to address the Society for Neuroscience. And when he described the class as a trick, well, he might be right. 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, movements made by mirroring the teacher or one's peers, the memorized movements of a choreographed routine.
Dr. MARDER: 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.
Mr. DAVID LEVENTHAL (Dancer): When people come in, they're scared of moving because they've been told by doctors and other professionals that they can't move.
LYDEN: David Leventhal has danced with the Mark Morris Group for 12 years and this group for seven. From the first moment, he said, he fell in love with it, a different sort of body engaged in a creative process. The Parkinson's group's ability to move, he says, has improved greatly.
Mr. LEVENTHAL: Somebody in one of these classes once said to me, you don't want to see what I'm doing. I mean, it's just not very pretty. And I said, well, actually, it's the contrary. It's beautiful because it so unique. Nobody else is moving the way you're moving.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MORRIS: Hands on hips.
LYDEN: To clap your hands or tap your toe to the beat, this is part of Mark Morris himself calls the joy of dancing.
Mr. MORRIS: Step, ball change. Sand...
LYDEN: Still, the class is not a cure. As the Parkinson's dancers get up from their chairs to begin moving across the floor, something happened. Lenore Gordon froze, arrested in her movement, akinesia.
Ms. GORDON: So I got frozen, which means sometimes, the medication does not work with the Parkinson's. So I can be doing great and 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 totally unpredictable, which is what kind of is the pain in the butt that brought about Parkinson's. So, it's just so unpredictable.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: Eventually, the episode passes, and Lenore gets up to join her fellow dancers. They've formed a community with each other, a microcosm as diverse as Brooklyn. Take Bobby(ph), Reggie Butts's wife and caregiver, who accompanies him to class.
Ms. BOBBY BUTTS: You forget that you're with a group of people who have an illness. 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.
LYDEN: Or Robert Simpson, who used to dance on stage. Now, his 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.
Mr. SIMPSON: It all kind of just swelled, sort of wonderful feeling from dancing. I felt a little bit like I found home again. So, I just love it. I look forward to it. You know, every week, it's like - I think I look forward to the most - is coming to class and hopefully flying across the floor.
LYDEN: I'd say you were flying.
Mr. SIMPSON: Flying today a little bit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: At the end of the class, the dancers march in an almost royal Renaissance procession, as if presenting lords and ladies at court. Grace, said 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 a quarter, grace and confidence in view in the dance.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.