Parkinson’s Project participants at the Hubbard Street Dance Center. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
by Nancy Maes
After Dale Schlafer developed Parkinson’s disease nine years ago, he could no longer play his regular tennis games or go on his usual bike rides and long walks. But that hasn’t prevented him from experiencing the pleasures and benefits of keeping active. For the past six years, he’s been attending the Parkinson’s Project, free weekly dance classes offered by the world-renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The class was created to slow the progress of the degenerative neurological disease, whose symptoms include tremors, slowed movement, rigid muscles and problems with balance, depression and anxiety.
“This isn’t an exercise class; it’s a dance class where you use your muscles and your body in ways you might never have done before,” says the 76-year-old Schlafer. “I was a terrible ballroom dancer, but the class makes me feel like a dancer.”
Sarah Cullen Fuller, who danced professionally with Hubbard Street for seven years, founded the class in 2007 in collaboration with Rush University Medical Center. Ever since she was a child, she’s been interested in the ways people with physical challenges move because her father had a spinal cord injury. She was inspired to create the class by an article about the benefits of tango classes for people with Parkinson’s and a dance program for people with the disease developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York.
Students in the Parkinson’s Project, which is part of Hubbard Street’s Adaptive Dance Program that also includes classes for youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorder, range in age from their 40s to their 80s. Some have just a slight tremor, while others are in wheelchairs. They are all encouraged to bring a family member, a friend or a caregiver to be a part of the class.
Fuller begins each class with the BrainDance, a series of warm-up exercises that recreate the movement patterns that humans experience during the first year of life. These exercises have been developed to connect the brain and the body. Accompanied by the sounds of a musician playing a variety of percussion instruments, Fuller teaches the students some of the techniques of classical ballet.
“The movements strengthen muscles and help with their coordination, flexibility and balance,” Fuller says. “Research indicates that movement is easier for people with Parkinson’s when it’s done to music.”
Fuller also teaches them the freer, more expressive movements of modern dance. “The difference between an exercise class and the dance class is that there is artistry involved with what we do,” she says.
Schlafer, who has a tremor in his arm and jaw, has problems with his balance and moves slowly, says the dance class has a positive effect on his physical well-being. “You’re kind of slow and hesitant when you come to class, and at the end of the class you’re moving much more smoothly and powerfully,” he says. “I always have an enhanced feeling for another two to three days after the class because I’ve done some things with my body that I haven’t thought to do before.”
Fuller also leaves time for improvisation. She says, “Improv is a means of expression for the students and gives them an opportunity to explore what the movements mean to them personally.”
“Improvisation is fun because we work with another person or a group of people and imagine a situation, create the choreography and create little works of art,” says Schlafer, a retired lawyer. “We rely on each other and bond with each other.” In fact, members of the class do more than dance together. Fuller says they share information about Parkinson’s with each other and go to seminars and social events together. “It’s become a community for us,” he says.
Hubbard Street’s Parkinson’s Project
Thursdays, 2 p.m.-3:15 p.m., March 19-May 28
Saturday April 18 and May 16, 2 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Hubbard Street Dance Center, 1147 W. Jackson Blvd.
The free drop-in class is open enrollment all year long: firstname.lastname@example.org; 312.850.9744 ext. 194 to register.