world dance for parkinson's day

from best practice to artistry, a reflection on dancing with parkinson's


Globally, dancing as a positive intervention and as a stimulating activity for people with Parkinson's has exploded with popularity over the last 10 years. This can in part be attributed to high quality research in the UK commissioned by English National Ballet and spearheaded by Dr. Sara Houston of University of Roehampton; the establishment of a supportive UK network for professional development and class set up, directed by Kiki Gale and housed under People Dancing; and the ongoing globally inspiring Mark Morris Dance Group programme Dance for PD, led by the commitment, dedication and positivity of David Leventhal in New York (recently awarded the World Parkinson Congress award for distinguished contribution to the Parkinson community).

Dance for Parkinson's has forged a clear niche in the dance and health sector and draws on the skills and understanding of the specificity of Parkinson's, coupled with best practice in teaching in the community, to develop a strand of work that boasts both a clear rationale and a strong evidence base. As Parkinson's is a neurological movement disorder, dance and Parkinson's seem a perfect match - dancers spend years honing the body to bring control and mastery, develop pathways for executing effective movement and expand the possibilities of the body. So in the world of Parkinson's, as the ability to move is gradually stolen from you, dance can expand the potential for movement in conflict with and in spite of the disease.

time for reflection

As an artist working in this field for close to 8 years, I am reflecting at this point due to the overwhelming diversity of practice now in action across the world, and how this differs from 8 years ago when English National Ballet first established their programme. In addition, a collective of organisations have named this the first World Dance for Parkinson's Day, which in time with International Dance Day, demonstrates just how much this field has grown and the influence that dancing with Parkinson's can have on a global scale.

In 2010 there was no peer reviewed research in the UK to demonstrate the benefits of dancing with Parkinson's and there existed only a small network of around 10 practitioners leading classes across the country. Now in 2017, there are classes led by hundreds of independent artists from Edinburgh to Plymouth and everywhere in between, with other large organisations such as Rambert, Scottish Ballet and Pavilion Dance South West leading their own Parkinson's dance programmes. Professional development courses are run by the Dance for Parkinson's Network UK on a regular basis as the demand increases from practitioners wanting to access this knowledge and the skills to lead dance for the Parkinson's community.

The appeal of the work lies in the clear rationale evidenced in the research, and the existing best practice that has been established as a result of this specific investigation into the benefits to the physical, social and emotional lives of people with Parkinson's. There exists a model of practice that is delivered in professional development and gives structure, clarity and confidence to practitioners who want to deliver this work.

As an experienced practitioner I have contributed to that knowledge and regularly deliver CPD courses for English National Ballet, Dance for Health (Rotterdam) and the Dance for Parkinson's Network UK and People Dancing alongside other experienced artists including David Leventhal of Dance for PD. I believe that the specificity and depth of knowledge is one of the factors that has driven the success of Dance for Parkinson's.

Introduction to Dance for Parkinson's CPD workshop with David Leventhal at People Dancing Summer School 206, photography by Rachel Cherry

Introduction to Dance for Parkinson's CPD workshop with David Leventhal at People Dancing Summer School 206, photography by Rachel Cherry

Collectivity and Intimacy research workshop, photography by Sara Hibbert

Collectivity and Intimacy research workshop, photography by Sara Hibbert

However, at this stage in the journey I am looking at another side of my practice. Namely, the value of artistry in dance and health practice, and the perspective I work from, which is that all dancers with Parkinson's are artists with a valuable contribution to make. In addition, these dancers have a leading role in the development of dance artists skills and understanding of movement and the body.

I'm sure other artists and experts in this area of practice would agree wholeheartedly that developing work with people with Parkinson's has brought a dimension to their work that they had never experienced. Intricate understanding of the body; a new appreciation for collectivity and dynamic energy; skills in weaving threads of fantasy, story and metaphor; kinaesthetic empathy in abundance; a renewed and lasting faith in the role that positive attitude can bring to physical capability - the indisputable connection between mind and body. All these things have an inexplicable, heightened presence in the world of Parkinson's, and it is the dancers that I have had the pleasure of working with over the years that have given me these insights and skills. 

My values are built on the principles of integrated practice and I believe in and apply the process of co-creation in all settings. In Dance for Parkinson's, I have seen the co-creation of an entire field of knowledge and skill, driven by the sincerity and open sharing of physical, social and emotional experience by people with Parkinson's with people like myself. 

I am now in the process of practice based research into the role of collectivity and intimacy in dance, including a look at the role of music and silence, the space and the body, sharing of movement in relation to personal and perceptual experience: 

All these considerations have arisen from my practice with people with Parkinson's, and all are valid and interesting considerations, the outcome of which would be applicable and beneficial across all dance contexts. Dancers with Parkinson's are directly contributing to the forward movement of the dance and health sector.

Leading on from this, my niggling concern and preoccupation is ensuring that the delivery of dance with people with Parkinson's continues to be driven by artistic concepts and ideas, and does not become reduced to a physical health or fitness programme due to a lack of artistic inspiration from teachers and the ease with which a framework / template / model of delivery can be picked up in professional development contexts.

So how can we make sure this doesn't happen?

Those that have read my blog before or know me well, will know that I think about the promotion of artistic integrity a lot! I believe this should start from early in a dancer's training. A dancer should consider his or herself as an artist. It is only as an artist that one can distil and deliver an authentic experience from within the art form itself. However this is very difficult to achieve in practice. Instead where the influence could make a difference is in the design of professional development courses. I am delivering many courses this summer term, and it is my goal that the content design contains three strands of practice: 1. Rationale (specificity that is possible due to the existing evidence of the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson's), 2. Best Practice (high quality teaching and leading skills which enable the intention of an exercise or task to be communicated safely, effectively and in a person centred way), 3. Artistry (building a belief and confidence in dance artists creative and artistic ideas development in order for them to take the existing frameworks and models of practice and make them their own).

I believe it is the artistry of dancing that opens up infinite possibilities for movement and can enable the Parkinson's dance sector to remain fresh, innovative and relevant. It is also from creative artistry that best practice flourishes and authentic, accessible and honest practice can be found when the artist really invests in and believes in what they are communicating.

If you agree, or disagree, or would like to discuss these ideas with me, I'd love to hear from you. Please contact me!