Arts & Events

Dance for Parkinson’s Disease Comes to the Bay Area

By Jaime Robles Special to the Planet
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:20:00 PM

In a studio with mirrored walls and ballet barres, dancers are learning a series of steps from “Gorgeous tragedy,” a solo variation from Mark Morris’ L’allegro, il penseroso, ed il moderato. They cup their hands as if they were holding water and throw their arms backward, tossing that water over their shoulder; at the same time, they kick a foot outward. They bring their arms and hands together before their face, part their hands, and lean forward, arms dropped toward the floor and dangling, with the smallest suggestion of a pendulum swinging. The dancers finish the combination of movement by tracing a serpentine curve with their fingers in the air in front of them. 

What may appear strange about the class is that everyone is seated in chairs. And there’s something else different about these dancers: although half of them are dance teachers from different parts of the East Bay, the other half are sufferers of the neurological disease called Parkinson’s. 

A degenerative disease of the brain, Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a movement disorder characterized by muscle rigidity, tremor and a slowing of physical movement. It has been known for some time that exercise helps ease the symptoms and may even slow the progression of the disease, but it has only recently been suggested that dance might be the most effective form of exercise for the Parkinson’s patient.  


How Dance for PD came about 

Eight years ago the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) began an unusual collaboration at the Dance Group’s studio in Brooklyn, when members of the company, David Leventhal and John Heginbotham, began giving classes on a weekly basis to people affected by Parkinson’s.  

The collaboration was proposed by Olie Westheimer, the founder and director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, a chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation.  

Westheimer’s lifetime interest in dance had led her to the MMDG studio. “Olie didn’t want us to know anything about Parkinson’s before we started teaching class,” Leventhal says. The idea was that dancers are experts at movement and that they have a similar relationship to movement that PD patients do, which is to be “totally mindful” of how they move, and “to bring consciousness to movement.” 

What is taught in class has developed continuously over the years as a process of feedback between the dancers teaching and the PD participants. Before class begins, Leventhal cautions everyone to move only as much as is comfortable. “You are your own very best choreographer,” he explains.  

The movements taught are generally simple, but their accomplishment is subtle. Heginbotham instructs the students on the dynamics of a single movement of the arm, or a shift between kinds of movement: “The first movement is like you’re in a beer hall. You are wearing lederhosen. And the second movement should be as much like ballet as you can make it. So it’s from beer hall to ballet.” 

Unlike beginning dance classes that often emphasize the repetition of codified movement, the Dance for PD classes ask for creativity and individual expression as well. “I think it’s time,” says Heginbotham, “for our Name Game.” Leventhal explains, “This is a choreographic identification. You are going to give us a little phrase that is your identifying movement.” One after another each dancer improvises a series of steps they feel is reflective of themselves while the other dancers mirror the action and the pianist improvises, flowing melodically between classical music, jazz and show tunes, slow and fast rhythms. 


Here at last 

MMDG’s dancers first began their Dance for PD in the Bay Area several years ago, through Susan Weber, the assistant artistic director at Berkeley Ballet Theater. A former dancer with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in New York, Weber is currently Mark Morris’ assistant on projects at San Francisco Ballet and often teaches company class for Morris’ dancers. Weber provided the connection between Leventhal and Heginbotham and the Berkeley Ballet Theater, which is now the main organizer of Dance for PD in the Bay Area.  

Last year, with the support of Cal Performances, Berkeley Ballet Theater applied for and received funding from the Chancellor’s Community Partnership fund, which they are seeking to renew in order to further develop the program. 

The classes have been so inspiring that the PD dancers attending founded their own organization, PDActive, an advocacy group of Berkeley/Oakland-based people impacted by Parkinson’s disease whose mission is to strengthen the local PD community. Dance classes are a main focus of their activities, and the organization acts as advisor to the Berkeley Ballet Theater, helping to develop movement programs, publicize the program and raise funds. Currently, classes are held three times a month at a Berkeley Ballet Theater studio in the Julia Morgan Theater building. And a Thursday semi-monthly class is also given at Oakland’s Danspace at 473 Hudson St. 

In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes that music gives Parkinson’s sufferers exactly “what they lack, which is tempo and rhythm and organized time.” He might have added that dancing to music infuses their lives with energy and joy. 


Dance for PD in the East BAy 

Information about Berkeley Ballet  

Theater’s Dance for PD program can be found at 

PDActive can be reached at To reserve a spot in a class, call 510-479-6119 or email at  

A video about the Dance for PD class can be found at the MMDG website at: