Dance for PD: a short history

Photo 17 John Heginbotham teaches members of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group at the Mark Morris Dance Center.  Photo by Amber Star Merkens.jpg

Dance for PD® started as an idea, was born as an experiment, and has emerged as an innovative global program that has launched in more than 100 communities in 11 countries, impacting thousands of people with Parkinson’s, their families, and carepartners.

In 2001, Olie Westheimer, the Founder and Executive Director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group (BPG), approached the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), an internationally-acclaimed modern dance company that had just opened a new dance center in Brooklyn. Olie proposed the idea of a rigorous, creative dance class for members of her group. She also knew from her own dance background that professional dancers train their minds and bodies to execute difficult movement with confidence, power and grace. In doing so, they develop cognitive strategies that she thought could be naturally beneficial and enjoyable for people with Parkinson’s.

That year, two dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group—John Heginbotham and David Leventhal—along with a professional musician, started leading monthly classes for about six people. A third dancer, Misty Owens joined shortly the teaching team shortly after, and composer and pianist William Wade became the program’s lead musician in 2003. From the beginning, the Brooklyn classes were–as they still are today–offered free of charge in a state-of-art building devoted to dance.

In 2004, MMDG begin leading Dance for PD® classes in cities where the company toured, and developed a training program for dance teachers soon after. Dance for PD®’s founding teachers have offered more than 100 free demo classes and more than 30 teacher training workshops around the world. The original Brooklyn program serves as a model and inspiration for a growing network of Parkinson’s dance classes in 30 U.S. states, and in Mexico, Canada, Australia, England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Holland, Israel, and India. Meanwhile, enrollment in the Brooklyn and Manhattan flagship classes now averages 45-50 participants a week.

Throughout its expansion, the Dance for PD® teaching approach has remained true to the program's original vision and fundamental ideas: that professionally-trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge about balance, sequencing, rhythm and aesthetic awareness is useful to persons with PD; that all classes welcome and include people of all abilities, as well as families, friends and caregivers; and that the class is about the art, technique, and fun of dancing, not about Parkinson’s and not called therapy. Simply stated, the class allows participants to explore the range of physical and creative possibilities that are still very much open to them.

The program has also been an important catalyst in creating active, engaged Parkinson’s communities where there were none. In the act of dancing together, people learn together, talk together, and inspire each other to explore their creative and physical potential through group singing, yoga, and fitness classes that complement their dance training.

As the program continues to grow, its teachers and leaders try to chart a course that is ever respectful and aware of local community needs, interests, and diversity. But whether the classes take place in Brooklyn, Edinburgh, or Pune, India, the fundamentals are the same: dance and music of the highest quality led by teachers and musicians who are sensitive, knowledgeable and passionate. And with its inclusive philosophy that welcomes all, regardless of ability or level of mobility, the program inspires people with Parkinson’s—and those close to them—to experience the grace, fluidity, and joy that dancing brings.

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