Local dance companies partner to help folks cope with Parkinson’s disease

WTOP's Jason Fraley covers Parkinson's dance classes (Part 1)

Dancing is certainly a creative outlet, but it can also be a healing one.

The Virginia-based Bowen McCauley Dance Company is partnering with the Maryland Youth Ballet to continue free dance classes for folks living with Parkinson’s disease.

“Parkinson’s affects people very differently: some stiffen, their face freezes, some get dyskinesia, balance issues, some you’d have not a clue they have Parkinson’s besides a tremor in their hand,” Artistic Director Lucy Bowen McCauley told WTOP.

Once the dancing begins, their symptoms melt away for a brief time.

“There’s a real transformation,” Bowen McCauley said.

“The challenges they face with the disease fade away. … It’s not a cure, but the class, the music, having to remember movement, being in a room with professional dancers, doing creative things, being graceful transforms people. … People who had trouble walking walk in beautiful rhythm.”

Partners and caretakers are invited to join in the dancing.

“The class is an hour and 15 minutes,” Bowen McCauley said. “We start with chairs in a circle. … We warm up to music, creative movements, stretching and flow, then we stand up and do what we call ‘across the floor.’ Walkers and wheelchairs are accommodated.”

The program originated with the Mark Morris Dance Group, which BMDC joined in 2008. Since then, the company has served over 800 people with Parkinson’s ages 40 to 85.

“People have made friendships,” Bowen McCauley said. “They go for happy hour after class, they start driving each other to class, so there are many social benefits as well. Parkinson’s can be very isolating. People come out of their shell.”

In-person classes will return in the fall with the option to do them over Zoom as well.

“Before COVID happened we had eight locations running, so sometimes we’d have people participate in two to three classes a week,” Bowen McCauley said. “After the pandemic, we did have to shift the classes to Zoom. We offer three each week.”

In addition to the Parkinson’s program, the dance company continues regular performances by its stable of professional dancers, including one 15-year veteran.

BMDC will next perform a livestream at the Kennedy Center this Wednesday at 7 p.m. The program features “Dances of the Yogurt Maker,” “Trois Rêves” and “Far Behind.”

“We’re going to do a live virtual performance from the Terrace Theater,” Bowen McCaluey said. “We perform at Kennedy Center at least once a year if not twice a year. We have a 20-year relationship with the Kennedy Center. … We are allowed to have a small audience of people with us in the theater … which the dancers are excited about.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley covers Parkinson's dance classes (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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