Former Mark Morris principal dances for Parkinson’s

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Lybba spent time talking with one of Global Alliance for Arts & Health's inspiring board members David Leventhal of Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) about his role as founding teacher and Program Manager of Dance for Parkinson’s (Dance for PD®). The collaborative program between MMDG and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group offers dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease at Mark Morris Dance Center and The Juilliard School. 

Dance for PD has also been used as a model for classes in more than 75 communities around the world. Master classes are offered through MMDG’s touring outreach program and teacher training to nurture relationships in outside organizations and make classes available to more local communities. 

Lybba: Your work with Dance for PD has had a profoundly positive effect within the Parkinson’s disease community. Could you tell us more about what you do and how you got involved with the Global Alliance for Arts & Health?

David Leventhal: I initially became involved with the Global Alliance for Arts & Health through my work with Dance for Parkinson’s. [In 2010 Dance for PD was awarded the annual Johnson & Johnson/Society for the Arts in Healthcare Partnership to Promote the Arts in Healing. The grant is awarded to organizations developing innovative initiatives that promote healing and preventive health through the use of art. These initiatives work to serve patients, their families and caregivers.] Dance for people with Parkinson’s is not just about how the body moves in a dance, it is also to help those with PD engage with community. 

At first, we didn’t really see what we did as something that would be part of arts in healthcare. First and foremost, we saw the participants of Dance for PD as dance students, not patients. They just happened to be dancers with a common illness. 

Dance for PD did not want to train in and occupy the same environment as traditional healthcare operations. We would stress to trainees that we preferred programs stay out of healthcare facilities. 

The Society for Arts in Healthcare grants validated the community work Dance for PD was doing. In the past 10 years there has been an incredible transformation because of greater awareness of Arts in Healthcare. We didn’t have the kind of neurologists’ referrals as we do now. Ten years ago we were asked, “Where is the evidence?” “Where are the predicted outcomes?”

Our challenge questions from doctors now: What makes dancers qualified to do this work?

Before the SAH grant and another grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, there were only classes in 15 to 18 communities; now there are classes in 100 communities. And training classes have gone from two a year to 14 a year countrywide. A new section of our website has been built out to provide more resources to address the needs of community members, including a video archive of exercises.  We're in the process of releasing a new At Home DVD with program material for those groups outside communities with Dance for PD programs. These videos serve a much larger community. This multimedia outlet reaches rural and international communities, it provides for the patients who have transportation issues or those without access to classes. The video is two-fold: a substitute and an initiator.

Lybba: Are these classes common? Do you collaborate with other companies?

David Leventhal: First question: Are there other companies in town? If not, we will ask local studios to work with us. Programs based on our model have popped up at other established dance companies like the Houston Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre. The English National Ballet (ENB) in London has a very successful program as well, with ENB replicating its program in four other communities. Wherever classes based on our model happen, we want to have a say in how the training is done and how the teacher approaches the work, but we want teachers to make the program their “own thing”. For example, ENB uses the same model but tailors it to fit their ballet repertoire.

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Lybba: Where do you see the most potential now in the field of arts and health?

David Leventhal: Outside of traditional health settings and into community centers, museum galleries, assisted living facilities, etc. It’s about engaging communities in art, not just healthcare with four walls in a clinical setting. This is not a clinical application, and it is not in clinical environment.

Arts organizations are eager to be more engaged in their communities, but don’t always know how (especially outside of younger audiences). More and more we see this engagement happening in the field of public health or special populations, not just because of where healthcare is going, but also because of where the arts are going.

Questioning why art is valuable to society is an American symptom. We do not always see the value in the arts. We want to broaden the audience. Is the audience in the theater? Or is it in these community centers, museums, etc.?

Lybba: The idea of the arts should be justified for art's sake? 

David Leventhal: We all need to think about how to make this case to a larger audience.

People ask, "What is arts in healthcare?" It’s Gabrielle Gifford using music therapy to help her recover from her attack. These “wow stories” make the case for why arts and health is so important. It is these stories that need to be shared.

[One of these “wow stories” was recently sent to Leventhal by a family member of a patient. Through a simple YouTube video the story showed the patient in his nursing home coming alive, singing and dancing when exposed to music through an iPod. The family knew nothing of the arts in healthcare, they just found the experience amazing.]

Lybba: [Regarding work at Dance for PD] Is there potential for reconfiguring movement through constraint? 

David Leventhal: Structured choreography gives people a road map for how to move from point A to point B in a unified way--it's a strategy for knowing what comes next and initiating that movement. Here [at Dance for PD] we look for creative ways to use choreography to get around the boundaries or limits that people with Parkinson's often experience. And then sometimes, we encourage people to improvise, using their own unique movements to make a phrase of movement or a scene. We set up the context (or rules) and let the participants make up their own 'map'. 

Lybba: Can you share with us some of your successes, frustrations, inspiration?

David Leventhal: It’s a great group to work with, they push us to experiment more.

Inspiration: To see the patients overcome some of these challenges. We hear, “It’s the best part of our week!” Our job as teachers is to showcase how much they CAN do, and to keep reminding them of the things they CAN do.

The challenge is to make the class accessible. Some students who have been with us many years.  As the disease progresses, they have a hard time realizing that the class is now harder for them than it used to be. The frustrating aspect of our work is when these disappointments cause students to cut themselves out of the experience altogether. 

I’m inspired by the Global Alliance for Arts & Health conference and the connections made through the event. A benefit of connecting at the conference is hearing challenges and inspirations that other organizations experience. It’s also exciting to see overlaps and collaborative opportunities. 

I’m inspired by cross-disciplinary opportunities (like the potential for partnerships between arts organizations like MoMA and Mark Morris Dance Group that serve community partners like Brooklyn Parkinson Group) and seeing more regional networks created, more cross-pollination.

It’s about maintaining, sustaining, creatively facilitating people’s natural abilities. 

A note from Lybba: The impact of Leventhal’s work is well-articulated by Dance for PD participant, Michael Brookes on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show,the sense of community and shared caring there has been a wonderful revelation.” “We don’t dance well but we dance with passion, and feeling and caring . . . and hope . . . that sometime, someone will find a way to help us get over this . . . cure this disease.” 

Are there programs like Dance For PD in your community? Share in the comments below, and we may feature them in a future post. 

  1. Jeff Kramer

    When the troop was in Milwaukee, WI a few years back I was able to participate. I haven’t stopped dancing yet.

  2. Bruna Mori

    Truly inspirational, Jeff. As a longtime fan of Mark Morris, I hope to someday take a class from David, too, and ‘start’ dancing, again. Thanks so much for sharing (and please do send a pic)!