Dance like Parkinson’s ain’t watching!

Health & Fitness

Author: Parkinson's Life editorsPublished: 10 April 2015

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Dance for PD® – a unique US-based dance collaboration – has come a long way since its launch in 2001, with its simple yet adaptable model now replicated all over the world. Co-founder Olie Westheimer, who received the Dr Rana International Parkinson’s Community Service Award for the year 2014, explains its numerous benefits and urges Parkinson’s Life readers to get involved in the fun

“Far too often, people with Parkinson’s (PwPs) are defined by their disease and find their lives a cycle of doctors’ appointments and therapy sessions. Even a support group is part of that world and I felt they should be doing something else – something that would define them as people, not patients.”

Olie Westheimer is talking about Dance for PD – a specialised dance class she founded with the highly acclaimed modern dance company Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) in 2001 in Brooklyn, one of New York City’s five boroughs. Not only was it launched to empower PwPs to explore movement and music in stimulating and creative ways, she explains, but it was also designed to give PwPs and their loved ones (who often attend the classes too) the same sense of joy, physical engagement and sense of purpose that trained dancers feel while dancing. Ten years on and those ideals are still going strong and, as a result, the classes are growing in popularity around the world.

The origins of the Dance for PD programme can be traced back to the millenium when Westheimer volunteered to help her husband – Dr Ivan Bodis-Wollner, director of the Clinical Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease at New York’s King’s County Hospital and SUNY Downstate Medical Center – create a support group for his Parkinson’s patients. Westheimer, who had studied dance, was struck by how many PwPs discovered ways to help themselves move. “They were thinking like dancers,” she explains. “I became convinced that they could dance – and would benefit from dance training.”

Westheimer read that the MMDG had recently built and moved into its Brooklyn studios and was looking for ways to become involved in the community. She approached MMDG executive director Nancy Umanoff with her concept and within 90 minutes the dance company agreed to give the experimental class a try with dance teacher Misty Owens and company artists John Heginbotham and David Leventhal leading the class with live musical accompaniment.

Free classes were soon offered to local PwPs and, to help grow the dance programme, the official Brooklyn Parkinson Group (BPG) – of which Westheimer is founder and executive director – was quickly born. What began as a monthly Brooklyn class with a handful of members has since grown so much in popularity that the programme’s model has been replicated in more than 100 communities in 11 countries around the world, including Canada, Germany, India, Israel, Italy and the UK.

Fitness for PD Aerobic routine

Simple yet inspiring

As Dance for PD began to grow, so did BPG. Following requests from participants, it began offering other free community-based arts and exercise programmes with the same goal in mind – to engage PwPs’ minds, bodies and spirits while encouraging them to remain active within the community. Westheimer believes that Dance for PD classes are the inspiration behind BPG’s growth. “I was acutely aware of the considerable unspoken frustration, depression and isolation that existed among so many PwPs,” explains Westheimer. “I saw how difficult it was for PwPs to share an enjoyable activity with family and friends – that bit of normalcy was missing. It transpired that both the MMDG and I wanted to connect with the community – and that is what we did.

“Dance for PD classes are an opportunity to put Parkinson’s aside for a while – they are real dance classes with specific content. The training involves learning how to think and to use all of the senses in order to control movement. In class, symptoms are not mentioned and there are no physical goals to meet, only aesthetic ones. Our classes lead people away from movement limitations towards movement possibilities.”

At the same time, dance incorporates all the components of exercise: strengthening and stretching muscles, increasing flexibility, developing aerobic stamina, promoting balance. “But dance is so much more than that,” continues Westheimer. “It creates social bonds and a sense of emotional and expressive wellbeing. It is meaningful.”

A learning experience

The Dance for PD programme’s recent expansion beyond Brooklyn has been a direct response to numerous individual requests from PwPs, dancers and Parkinson’s organisations who have wanted to develop and teach similar classes based on the MMDG/BPG model. As a result, Dance for PD now offers teacher training workshops and master classes.

“We have learned what works in class and what doesn’t, and we have learned how to take all of the elements used to teach dance and make them accessible to PwPs,” she continues. “With Dance for PD, PwPs have access to all kinds of dance.” Students can learn ballet and modern dance, tap, square dancing and Broadway chorus line routines. They are even able to choreograph their own dance sequences. In addition, some classes focus on social dancing. In the Indian Dance for PD classes, for example, the traditional kathak dance is taught.

“We want to share what we have learned with other dancers, Parkinson’s organisations – anyone interested in learning about Dance for PD,” says Westheimer.

DFPDadolph et al  --tap dancing shuffle step step tap

An inclusive model

In Brooklyn, the Dance for PD classes are open to anyone with Parkinson’s, and Westheimer believes this level of inclusion is a vital component of the programme’s success.

She says that Parkinson’s Europe’s 45 member organisations could also benefit from BPG’s simple, inclusive philosophy. “Everything we do reminds our members that they are still a part of – and connected to – the community, whether it’s a fitness, dance, singing or arts class. We pay more attention to who somebody is rather than what disease they may have.

“When we hear our members tell us, ‘I love it here – it feels like family’ and ‘BPG gave me my life back – I wouldn’t keep going without it’ and ‘We’re all winners – we do stuff, we’re active’: that reminds us why we do what we do. A growing number of BPG members are helping us to grow and we believe our model is transferrable and workable everywhere. So get in touch and become part of the group.”

For more information about Dance for PD or other Brooklyn Parkinson Group programmes, visit: or contact

Read our in-depth interview with Olie Westheimer, who was awarded the Dr Rana International Parkinson’s Community Service Award here

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