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The Joy of Movement: Dancing with Parkinson’s

Tuesday, Jan 20, 2015

This dance class focuses on movement and balance, helping those with Parkinson's disease gain coordination and confidence.

There is more to this dance class than footwork and music. The class takes dancing down to its core: the actual act of moving.

"I want the students to move and feel the joy of moving," said Steve Weintraub, a professional dance instructor and self-described "dance guy."

He is specially trained to offer a dance class specifically for people with Parkinson's disease. In conjunction with Doylestown Hospital and The Parkinson Council, a Bala Cynwyd-based nonprofit that invests in research and quality-of-life programs for people with Parkinson's and their families in the region, the class is offered once a week at the Central Bucks Family YMCA in Doylestown.

"I always feel good at the end of class," said Naomi Welikson, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's nine years ago.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects a person's movement. Between 50,000 and 60,000 new cases of Parkinson's disease are diagnosed each year in the United States. Actor Michael J. Fox has raised awareness of the disease and is a well-known advocate for research for a cure.

The disease causes tremors, stiffness or slowing of movement. For about half of the dance class at the Y the students are seated, practicing arm and leg motions with the support of a chair. The rest of the class sees the students on the dance floor, moving in unison under Steve's careful direction.

"I joined the class because I was hoping it would somehow keep the symptoms at bay," said Lincoln Garlick, diagnosed four years ago.

Mary Jane Barr-Silk, a Doylestown Hospital speech therapist, has run the hospital's Parkinson's disease support group for 18 years. The group meets monthly at the Health & Wellness Center in Warrington. It offers education, support, networking and socialization.

Exercise can be an important part of managing the condition and maintaining health.

"People with Parkinson's usually have deficits with mobility, balance and flexibility. Research has shown that exercise has physical, emotional and cognitive benefits, especially with Parkinson's disease," said Barr-Silk.

Dancing is a great form of exercise. Without a local dance class for people with Parkinson's, Barr-Silk set about to bring a class to Doylestown. The Y offered one of their dance studios, and the class enrolled about 15 students. They pay a nominal fee per class, and spouses are invited to join in for free. Steve taught a similar class in Abington in the spring. Whether it's steps from a Macedonian folk dance or the tango, he makes sure everyone is able to join in.

"Steve adapts the dance moves to the level of ability of each student," said Barr-Silk. "No matter what you can or can't do, you can always participate."

The students at a recent session agreed that dancing makes them feel a little more flexible, more confident and helps expand their range of motion. For Dan MacNeil, diagnosed three years ago, balance is a big issue. "The class has really helped," he said.

The class engages the students mentally as well as physically.

"There's a psychological element," said Welikson. "Steve's attitude is very positive. The class is a lot of fun."

At the end of the session, the students form a circle and join hands. Each turned to the person next to them and said simply, "Thank you for dancing."

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