Ballerinas

BALLET AS A

  RESPITE FROM PARKINSON'S  

San Francisco Ballet 2019 Season Program (March/April) 

By Lynn Mundell 

 

Four days a week, Richard, 72, takes an express bus from his home in San Francisco’s Richmond district to his downtown job as a bank teller. There, he’s on his feet for five hours. Richard’s routine would be impressive for any senior. But especially so for someone now three years into a Parkinson's Disease diagnosis. Then there are his Saturdays—taking a dance movement class at San Francisco Ballet School sponsored by Kaiser Permanente. 

 

Ballet Is Beneficial 

 

Parkinson’s Disease affects the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine. Symptoms include changes in speech and gait, fatigue, and balance issues—all symptoms Richard suffers—as well as muscle rigidity and tremors. Approximately half a million Americans have the disease. There is no cure, but treatments can help relieve symptoms. That is what motivated the SF Ballet School Director Patrick Armand. His mother was the director of Marseille’s national ballet school. She received a very early diagnosis of the disease that eventually included dementia. Armand watched his mother’s long, painful decline, and it made an imprint. “There is something I can do now for those with Parkinson’s that I couldn’t do then for her,” he says. “Ballet can be concretely beneficial. It’s a fantastic way for people to keep moving an hour where they can just get away from everything and concentrate on their bodies.” 

 

“Certain types of exercise and certain types of dance slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms,” adds Meaghan Lynch, MD, a Kaiser Permanente physical medicine and rehabilitation physician and former ballet dancer. “Ballet—with its musicality, broad expansive movements, and poise—really lends itself to helping balance, gait stability, and mobility in these individuals.” 

 

Dr. Lynch and Rima Ash, MD, a movement disorder neurologist, collaborated on the class structure with Cecelia Beam, a longtime San Francisco Ballet employee and dance instructor. Beam modelled the class after those developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group and Brooklyn Parkinson Group, and brought in her own love of folkloric dance. 

 

Richard was prepared to not like the class. He was already enjoying “rock steady” boxing elsewhere. But he changed his mind quickly. “By the time the very first class was ending, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to be back here next week. There's something different about this.’” 

 

Let’s Dance Nutcracker

 

In a large, sunny studio at San Francisco Ballet School in December, a pianist plays as we lift our arms and move our legs, emulating Beam’s slow and graceful movements. She is a wonderful, patient teacher who has said she finds leading this class “hugely gratifying.” 

 

A visitor is readily welcomed and soon we are sliding and high-stepping our feet. We count and add in arm movements. Some participants hold on to the ballet barre. There are dances with partners, with leaders to follow, and a snaking dance for all. 

 

About 30 people today imitate Beam, some from the safety of their seats, if the disease is advanced, or helped by family members, caregivers, or volunteers. While the dancing often prompts laughter, it is also clearly intended to loosen limbs, stretch bodies, and promote balance. Since Parkinson’s can weaken the voice, everyone joins in singing a Shaker folk song. We do a seated version of the Russian dance from Nutcracker, folding our arms in front of our chests and tapping our toes out in front and to the side. 

 

Across the room, retired psychiatrist Reza, 80, smiles joyfully. His days are full—playing with his 3-year-old granddaughter, reading in multiple languages while learning French, writing a blog, and going to boxing with Richard, but he rarely misses the class that he said leaves him relaxed yet not tired. “I have Parkinson’s, but I am not handicapped.” 

 

Rebecca is a veteran journalist in her 60s who attends class for both the exercise and her many friendships. She describes dance as having “a transcendent quality” that takes her somewhere else—reasons why she keeps coming. “If this class was every day, I would take it every day.” 

 

Kaiser Permanente supports San Francisco Ballet in bringing regular dance-inspired movement classes to people with Parkinson’s Disease. For more information or to join a class: sfballet.org/community