In a sunlit Rosemary District studio looking out onto Central Avenue, more than a dozen people with Parkinson’s disease gather in a circle, slowly take their seats and prepare to dance.
Christopher Hird, education director for The Sarasota Ballet, sits upright in a chair as he walks the class through a couple brief warmup routines set to music—The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and then “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” by Neil Sedaka. As the songs play, the students follow his lead from the ballet port de bras through the positions, arms extending, raising and lowering like semaphores. Warmup concluded, it’s time to get down to the ballet greats. First up: Tchaikovsky.
Begun last fall, Dancing Through Parkinson’s is a partnership between The Sarasota Ballet and the Neuro Challenge Foundation for Parkinson’s. Spearheaded by principal dancer Kate Honea (who rotates teaching duties with Hird and education assistant Sarah Krazit), the program was inspired by a similar initiative started by Brooklyn’s Mark Morris Dance Group.
Exercise is now known to have profound therapeutic benefits for people with Parkinson’s, which can affect balance and motor function and lead to social isolation. Activities like boxing or riding a stationary bike are popular ways to help curb these symptoms, while improving one's overall health.
Dance, it seems, channels those benefits and adds a few more. In following the choreography, Dancing Through Parkinson’s participants work on range of motion, strength and muscle tone, all while practicing deliberate movements and coordination. On top of that, there are the equally beneficial experiences tied to socialization and music.
Throughout the hour, Hird cues up segments from a range of ballets—Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote. In addition to the choreography, he gives context for the pieces and summons the appropriate emotions to tie the movements to the scene: a grand sweep of a cape, say, or the stomping bravado of a matador.
While the choreography is designed to be broadly manageable for Parkinson’s patients—almost all of the class is performed from a seated position, and any standing parts are optional—Hird describes and demonstrates precision and nuance with each sweep of the arm and point of the toe. Even the caregivers in attendance, dancing along, too, strive to imitate his meticulous grace. “You can only make your hand move if your eyes give it permission,” Hird tells the dancers. “Make your fingers speak.”
Dancing Through Parkinson’s is free and takes place at 11:30 a.m. every other Tuesday at The Sarasota Ballet, 1400 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota. Demonstrations of the class will be held, among other programs, at The Parkinson’s Expo, which takes place 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 29, at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Sarasota. The event is free.