Smile Politely

Dance class offers community and creative therapy

The dance studios below Krannert Center for the Performing Arts are home to all kinds of artists, performers, and students week in and week out. But once a month, one of these studios transforms into something different. It becomes a place for therapy, friendship, community, and a break from everyday life where movement can be a constant struggle. Last week I had the opportunity to observe and participate in this very unique class.

Dance for People with Parkinson’s is a creation of the Mark Morris Dance Group. They regularly perform at Krannert and engage with the community while they are here. Several years ago, two of their company members, David Leventhal and John Heginbotham, began leading a workshop for people with Parkinson’s during their weeklong residency. It was quite well-received, so Krannert decided to established a monthly class so folks would be able to attend throughout the year. So in 2009, two Dance at Illinois instructors traveled to California to receive training with the Mark Morris group. The program took root here in C-U. 

My daughter and I showed up to the class a few minutes early, and there were already two people waiting for class to start. I was introduced to Gretchen, a regular attendee. She had sheet music ready for the accompanist (a talented pianist, Beverly Hillmer, provides music for the class)…”Summer Breeze” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, which Beverly later incorporated into the class.

Gretchen had a sharp wit and feisty spirit, and I could tell she didn’t let her diagnosis slow her down in the slightest. She pointed out her Batman socks, which had a great story to go along with them. Gretchen decided that everyone in the class was too depressed, and needed some encouragement. She purchased Batman socks for every class member (many do the class in their stocking feet) because though he’s a superhero, Batman doesn’t have supernatural powers. He relies on his resources to fight crime. As Gretchen explained, that’s what Parkinson’s people have to do every day, rely on their resources to get them through each day. She even created buttons adopting the familiar catchphrase from the original series.

More participants filed in…some with Parkinson’s, some spouses, a younger woman in a motorized chair with her sweet therapy dog. Laura Chiaramonte and Kate Insolia, both instructors with Dance at Illinois, invited the group out to the floor. Much of the class takes place seated, with the two instructors leading exercises and combinations set to music. Each movement has such purpose and intention, and it didn’t take long to see the therapeutic elements to the practice. With enthusiasm, grace, and encouragement, the instructors used rhythm, breath, large movements, and small movements to guide us through using the full extent of our limbs. There was even a section called “brain teasers” which challenged us to use hands and feet going in opposite directions and to remember strings of motions. The class also incorporated “barre work” using simple ballet warm ups, jazz walks across the floor, and a choreography section where additional movements are added each subsequent class. On the surface, you can easily see the physical benefits of each element. But the class goes beyond the physical. It’s a community and a place where people can come together and feel comfortable with themselves and each other. The structure of the class encourages it at every turn. The chairs are set up in a circle, choreography is done facing a partner, and the class ends holding hands in a circle and singing together.

I chatted with the instructors and participants afterward, and heard their thoughts on how they benefit from the class. Here is what they had to say:

“What I like about this class…having come from being in therapy since I was two months old, where someone is saying here’s what you need to do, and you need to do it so many times… is that it’s a very free environment. There’s a lot of choice in what you’re doing. You’re doing something you’re actually enjoying.”

“It’s creative and emotional therapy. I feel like I smile for an hour and half after the class”

“It’s a safe place.”

“I smile the whole class. There’s such joy in getting to dance together and feel good.”

I definitely left with a smile on my face (and also a cucumber, a Batman button, some Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, and an invitation to return). 

Mark Morris speaking to WILL about the program:

A class video featuring the late Kate Kuper, who led the class for several years.

Dance for People with Parkinson’s is a free class and is open to people living with Parkinson’s and their loved ones. Watch the Krannert calendar or Facebook page for future class dates. For more information on the program and it’s benefits, visit the Dance for PD website.

Staff writer

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