Each summer, thousands of dancers flock to Damrosch Park for Midsummer Night Swing, an eclectic social dance series that features a nightly dance lesson, DJ sets, and live music from leading bands in swing, salsa, ballroom, and more. This year, on Thursday, July 11, we are thrilled to include an adapted dance lesson from 5:30 to 6:00 pm, before the tango lesson from Leonardo Sardella and Mariana Parma's and a live performance by Típica Messiez. Mark Morris Dance Group's Dance for PD® instructors will lead participants in a lesson designed for people with limited mobility, which will include seated variations. Originally designed for people with Parkinson's Disease, the Dance for PD® lesson can be enjoyed by anyone with limited mobility.

Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative condition marked by rigidity, slowness of movement, changes in gait, postural instability, and tremor, among other symptoms. It affects one in 100 people over 60, though some people are diagnosed at a younger age. Approximately one million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson's, with 60,000 additional new cases added each year.

I asked Dance for PD®’s Program Director and Founding Teacher David Leventhal and Programs and Engagement Manager Maria Portman Kelly to share their unique approach to movement and dance, and their understanding of its impact on participants with Parkinson's Disease.

How did Dance for PD® begin?

The Mark Morris Dance Group's Dance for PD® program was born from the idea that people with Parkinson's could benefit from the insight and specific techniques and methods used by dancers to guide their own bodies and minds. Dance for PD® strives to increase coordination, balance, flexibility, and strength through music and movement from a broad range of dance styles.

In 2001, Olie Westheimer, founder and executive director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, approached the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) with the idea for a real dance class for members of her group. Olie felt that people with Parkinson's spent lots of time thinking and talking about Parkinson's, shuttling between doctors' and therapists' offices. She wanted people to do something positive together and she had a hunch that a dance class, taught by professional dancers, was that thing. Dance for PD®'s fundamental premise is for professional teaching artists to integrate movement from modern, ballet, tap, folk and social dancing, and choreographic repertory to engage participants' minds and bodies and create an enjoyable environment for artistic exploration. We see a strong and consistent desire among persons with Parkinson's around the world who've experienced the program to explore movement and regain a sense of confidence and grace in a creative, musical, and social environment outside the traditional parameters of physical therapy and clinical rehabilitation.

What are your core programs?

Here in New York City, we serve more than 500 people with Parkinson's and their families, friends, and care partners each week through Dance for PD® classes in 8 locations—all free of charge and all with live music. We also work to foster and support ongoing classes based on the original MMDG model in 43 states and 22 countries on 6 continents around the world. These classes serve thousands of people with PD and their families. To build this network, we offer comprehensive teacher training and professional development resources to dance instructors and organizations that would like to establish Dance for Parkinson's programs in their communities.

We also work to expand access to people who may not be able to attend a live class in their communities, or who wish to dance more often than a community class allows. In addition to a popular Dance for PD® At Home DVD series that has been distributed around the world, we offer monthly live streams from our flagship Brooklyn class and from our affiliate at Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto. Committed to exploring innovative technology, we're currently piloting Moving Through Glass, a portable dance-based Google Glass App that integrates Mark Morris repertory with the aim of promoting balance, flexibility, and steady gait in users' everyday lives. To understand and evaluate the benefits of our program, we also foster scientific research about dance and Parkinson's, and are currently designing a randomized, controlled study with teams at Columbia University and Washington University in St. Louis.

How does Parkinson's disease impact people's quality of life, beyond their body?

Although it has been traditionally referred to as a movement disorder, and many of the symptoms are related to changes in motor skill, we've come to learn that Parkinson's is a holistic condition that affects all aspects of a person's experience and quality of life. Depression, social exclusion, cognitive impairment, anxiety, lack of facial expression, and fatigue are just some of the other symptoms that affect people with Parkinson's. Interestingly, these non-motor symptoms tend to be poorly managed through traditional medical interventions but can be effectively addressed through dancing. So while many people think that dance primarily addresses physical skills and challenges, it also provides a way for people with Parkinson's to foster social connection, build their expressive capacity, and work on specific cognitive skills related to sequencing, memory, and multitasking.

What unique benefits do people with Parkinson's receive through these classes?

There are 38 peer-reviewed studies on dance and Parkinson's, some based on the Dance for PD® model, others based on Argentine tango, improvisation, and Irish set dancing. This research points to a wide range of benefits related to functional mobility, walking, balance, range of motion, cognitive improvements, changes in mood, confidence, self-efficacy, and quality of life. Dance and exercise both address balance and mobility, but dance addresses those issues by teaching people how to think about them strategically and consciously. Dancers spend their whole lives practicing ways to stay balanced and mobile, and, in a good dance class, the teacher uses imagery, rhythm, and technique cues to pass that information on.

Dance also has a high adherence rate; Because it's often more enjoyable than a straight exercise program, people come back week after week to work on their skills. For me, the cognitive components are particularly compelling because in a dance class, you need to mirror, sequence, improvise, tell stories with your body, and attempt to achieve aesthetic and spatial goals (i.e., where the body needs to be in space at a specific time) in very specific ways. When you compare the cognitive work that happens in a dance class with what happens on a bike or treadmill, you realize the dance class is on a very different level of thought and planning. I've heard comments about how much the class helps people physically but also makes them think hard. Music also plays a critical role in learning and executing movement, and many participants tell us how dancing to music helps them achieve a state of fluidity and mobility that they may not find in other movement forms.

Somehow, over the past century, we've come to understand dance as something that's done only by young people and by certain adults who train to be dancers, rather than as a basic part of our human identity.

How is dance connected to wellness?

Humans have been dancing for thousands of years. It's an essential part of what it means to be human, and how we understand and appreciate our bodies, express ourselves, tell stories, release tension, and create art. Somehow, over the past century, we've come to understand dance as something that's done only by young people and by certain adults who train to be dancers, rather than as a basic part of our human identity. To dance is to engage in a holistic physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and—for some—spiritual experience that provides the benefits of joy, connection to others, physical exertion, coordination, expression, and cognitive stimulation (dance, after all, starts in the brain). Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that dancing may dramatically reduce the occurrence of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. A study on tango found that dancing reduces depression and stress levels. If the type of dancing you do raises your heart rate, it can be a form of aerobic exercise that is appealing, enjoyable, and maintainable. One study found that in individuals with stable chronic heart failure, a type of waltzing improved heart and blood vessel function as much as moderate exercise, and was no doubt more fun. The list goes on, but the key takeaway is that we are born to dance and that our physical, cognitive, emotional, and social wellness actually depends on engaging in dance activities throughout our life span.


Dance is Everyone's Right: Midsummer Night Swing Adapted Dance Lesson
Photo by Amber Star Merkens
Dance for PD® at Mark Morris Dance Center

How has this experience changed your dance/teaching practice?

I think much more about dancers' innate and often unspoken strategies for moving and learning, and I try to tease those out in all of my teaching, not just in the Parkinson's class. I'm much more aware of the cycle of information between mind and body—that, in dance, it's not just the brain telling the body what to do, but the body also informing the brain on a sensory, experiential level. I want to explore what knowledge the physical body—even a body with challenges—develops that can inform cognitive strategies, thought patterns, and emotions.

I'm also reminded, again and again, of the power of music to guide, cajole, and inspire, and I'm much more attuned to how different qualities of music and musical approaches create different responses in a dancer. I'm also much more curious about creatively translating movement for different bodies.

For almost 15 years, as a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, I was immersed in a professional experience in which there was a very defined, specific way to do every movement. Now that I'm not performing, it's interesting for me to figure out how to maintain the essence of a choreographer's vision while making it accessible to someone who may not be able to do exactly the same movements.

How is this Midsummer Night Swing event related to your mission?

Midsummer Night Swing enhances a fundamental objective of our program: that our Dance for PD® participants come to think of themselves as dancers and dance students, not as patients. On a weekly basis, they take class in dance studios, learn actual dance vocabulary and company repertory, and address the same artistic challenges as professional dancers. The Midsummer Night Swing event reinforces this crucial identity shift and provides a safe, comfortable platform for people to enjoy the experience of learning and executing new dance styles with great music at whatever level and speed works for them. I'd like the evening to reinforce the idea that dance is everyone's right and that our community is stronger and more vitally connected when people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds are on the dance floor together.

David Leventhal and Misty Owens will lead an adapted dance lesson on Thursday, July 11, from 5:30 to 6:00 pm. The dance lesson is adapted for participants with limited mobility, and chairs and seated modifications are included. All are welcome to participant in this free lesson, and no registration is needed.

Miranda Hoffner is Assistant Director of Accessibility & Guest Services at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.