Swan Song

by Leslie Mapp

Leslie has been a regular dancer with Danielle’s Dancing with Parkinson’s group in Hackney since 2015. This summer he kindly wrote this personal blog piece highlighting his experience of dancing and the fun of creativity and the imagination!

So there I am, standing in a big, bright room with a dozen other people, being asked to imagine I'm in a much smaller space, somewhere I can reach out and touch the sides – a sentry box perhaps, or a tiny cabin. My job is to paint it. The catch is that someone is in there with me, and their job is to erase all the painting I do – following my gestures and scrubbing out the marks. And we're twisting and turning, stretching and darting, supported by the rhythms of an accompanying piano; me trying to keep one step ahead of my companion's mirroring movements - a dab to the floor becomes a stretch to the ceiling, a sweep up the left side becomes a sweep down the other.

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And we're laughing and laughing, and I'm amazed at how flexible I'm being, how quick and precise in my movements; because, like everyone else here, I'm living with Parkinson's disease, a brain condition disordering movement. I arrived as my normal shuffling self - slow in gait, stiff in muscles, uncertain in thinking, unsteady on my feet; others came in wheelchairs.


Welcome to Dancing with Parkinson's, a specialist session run by Danielle Teale in east London, one of a growing number in Britain, each part of an international movement of community dance classes, tailored for the special needs of people with Parkinson's.


Feeling suddenly out of breath – reminded of my condition - I become self-conscious about my disabilities, but during the painting duet, I was taken out of myself – feeling the pleasures and rewards of moving freely in space. And this release was not just an escape from reality, it was therapy for reality. As I twisted and turned, I was stretching stiff limbs, exercising concentrated thinking, improving balance - abilities I took for granted until they were taken away. If I've learned anything from having Parkinson's it's that ordinary life takes a lot of effort – physical, mental, emotional and social - effort we're unaware of when we're healthy, immersed in all that daily thinking, doing and feeling – all that action.

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Importantly, these dance classes also mend damaged spirits - I feel better for them, as does everyone else; voices are brighter afterwards as we share a cup of tea. The cruelties of Parkinson's are down to the loss of a chemical neurotransmitter called dopamine. The brain stops producing enough, resulting in the characteristic slowness, tremor and general unresponsiveness of people with the disease. As well as controlling movement, dopamine also helps provide the buzz in love, the high in addiction, the everyday pleasure in life. So its loss is devastating - everything becomes bland, colourless, veiled. Which is why the particular combination of music, choreography and infectious enthusiasm that Danielle brings to her classes is so rewarding. If only for those two hours, it produces real, compensatory joy. I feel the benefits for a couple of days, others less so. We'd all I'd like to feel them more often.


So there I am, standing in the big, bright room. I've painted some of the cabin but I'm not much caring about the incompleteness. It doesn't matter, I've done a good job anyway in challenging the on-going debilitations of Parkinson's. Then Danielle calls out, 'Boogie, freestyle', and we're off again on another adventure. Last week we were Pina Bausch and next week we shall probably be swans, but for now... Boogie on; freestyle.

Danielle Teale Dance delivers Dancing with Parkinson’s in partnership with St. Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney. She leads further dancing opportunities across London, Hampshire and Surrey with clinical partners including the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, and St. George’s NHS Foundation Trust. For more information contact Danielle Teale