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Indiana University’s Contemporary Dance program is one of four places offering a dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s patients take to dance floor

David and Weezie Smith mimic movements during Indiana University’s Contemporary Dance program class for people with Parkinson’s disease.

– Not even the bitterest cold of the year could keep members of one of Bloomington’s newest and warmest groups away from class.

The small but committed band of regulars for Dance for Parkinson’s, all affected either directly or indirectly by the disease, converged on their classroom – the dance studio for Windfall Dancers – to push back against the ailment’s creeping physical effects through improvised song and dance.

The original “regular,” Mary-Louise “Weezie” Smith, ascends Windfall’s short staircase and collects herself at the top, beaming. Her energy is infectious.

That energy is a principal reason the group exists.

Smith, diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2003, has spearheaded the effort to bring the burgeoning alternative dance class to Bloomington, first learning about it via a 2010 feature on PBS’ NewsHour.

Refusing to be stopped by the degenerative condition, Smith contacted program manager and founding teacher David Leventhal at his Brooklyn headquarters, where the program had begun in 2001.

Leventhal not only encouraged her to establish a local chapter in Bloomington, but also advised her on how to go about it.

One of her first moves was to contact Elizabeth Shea, head of the Contemporary Dance program at Indiana University and a professor in the department of kinesiology.

“I knew the program sounded fantastic and had also heard it featured on one of the morning shows on television,” Shea said. “Then I received a call last spring from Weezie, who is a professor emeritus at the (Jacobs) School of Music. She said she had Parkinson’s, had read about this wonderful program, and wanted to know if the IU department of kinesiology would offer a class like that here.”

The first obstacle was finding an instructor; while dance experience is not required of the participants, the classes are structured and taught by individuals who have undergone the proper training. Serendipitously, an adjunct faculty member living in Indianapolis, Roberta Wong, had recently completed the certification process and was interested. With that significant hurdle cleared, the next was finding a classroom.

“We knew that we needed space that was appropriate for individuals with Parkinson’s,” Shea said. “It needed a piano, but it also needed to be wheelchair-accessible and had to have easy parking. Spaces at the university were so booked that we had to contact Windfall Dance, which has so far turned out to be the perfect site.”

Last September, with an instructor, a location, a pianist and funding – courtesy of IU and Smth’s tireless effort – all finally secured, the inaugural class began.

“There was some trepidation at first; a few maybe even felt a little self-conscious,” Shea said. “The ice melted quickly, though, as everyone became comfortable and confident. Everyone was in the same boat.”

After spending many hours together over the past four months, sometimes with hands clasped as they go through the routines, members have shed much of their performance anxiety – but none of their enthusiasm.

On this winter morning, Wong summons the dancers to the room’s hallowed inner circle of folding chairs, the space transforming into a venue for interactive memory activity. The instructor throws her arms up, then lets them fall gracefully as they weave to and fro, tracing an invisible double helix. All the while, Wong exhales gently and vocalizes her name, turning it into a soft, reassuring mantra.

With that, the floodgates open; one by one, each person follows her lead, inventing a unique gesture and accompanying it with his or her name. By the time the circle has worked its way back to Wong, each gesture has become part of a greater chain of gestures, a mix of joy and relief for the dancers.

“It is emphasized that Dance for Parkinson’s is not therapy,” says Wong. “It’s more a structured program that has proven to be effective in helping those with Parkinson’s deal with their symptoms, find others they can feel comfortable around and share experiences with, and create a safe place to have fun and take part in a community.”

Smith can attest to its positive effects.

“It’s hard to say what life would be like without (the program), but it’s definitely helped because I think I have more of a sense of rhythm now,” Smith said. “I don’t fall as much. ... This helps with that and lets you express yourself artistically in a way you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

Wong has seen the resilience of the dancers on full display. Once, the group discussed a fellow participant’s change in medication with the same candor they use when speaking of their acceptance of life with the disease as a “new journey.”

“They are a very self- accepting and understanding community,” Wong said. “They appreciate other people to a very high degree and are very grateful. There is a strength in dealing with the everyday challenges that is impressive.”