The Power of Dance: An Interview with David Leventhal, founder of Dance for PD

 David Leventhal teaches members of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group at the Mark Morris Dance Center. 

David Leventhal teaches members of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group at the Mark Morris Dance Center. 

Interviewed by Diana Levine, Photos by Rosalie O'Connor

I spent the first 8 years of my career living and working in New York City. When my Mom came to visit from Boston, one of our favorite things to do was to drop into a Dance for PD® class at Juilliard or at The Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn. Dance for PD® was one of my first experiences being in a large group of people who were all going through a similar journey as our family. At every single class, there was such a strong feeling of joy, togetherness, and community, and it's something I truly hope everyone in the PD community gets to experience at some point. I am so grateful that David Leventhal, the founder of Dance for PD, took the time to talk to Photo Shoot for a Cure about how he came to found the class, how it's changing lives, and what's next for the program.

What is Dance for PD?

Born from the idea that people with Parkinson’s could benefit from the insight and specific techniques and methods used by dancers to guide their own bodies and minds, Dance for PD® strives to increase coordination, balance, flexibility, and strength through music and movement from a broad range of dance styles. In classes led by professionally-trained dancers and musicians, participants experience the grace, fluidity, and power of dance in a social, joyful, and supportive environment. Dance for PD's fundamental working principle is that professionally-trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge about balance, sequencing, rhythm and aesthetic awareness is useful to persons with PD. In class, teaching artists integrate movement from modern, ballet, tap, folk and social dancing, and choreographic repertory to engage participants' minds and bodies and create an enjoyable, social environment that nurtures artistic exploration. Dance for PD was conceived in 2001 as a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) and Brooklyn Parkinson Group, and is now administered by MMDG. Through our innovative community classes, acclaimed international teacher training program, and high quality media resources, the Dance for PD program in New York serves as a model for a network of affiliated programs in more than 120 communities in 43 states and 16 countries around the globe. Dance for PD also leverages technology—live streaming, a popular instructional At Home DVD series, and an experimental App for Google Glass—to make the program more available to its diverse and expanding network of constituents around the globe.

What motivated you to start the Dance for PD program?

In 2001, Olie Westheimer, the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, approached the Mark Morris Dance Group with the idea for a real dance class for members of her group. Olie felt that people with Parkinson's spent lots of time thinking and talking about Parkinson's, shuttling between doctors' and therapists' offices. She wanted people to do something positive together and she had a hunch that a dance class, taught by professional dancers, was that thing. Olie and the teachers work together to maintain the artistic spirit of the program, which is, as it was on the first day, accompanied by live music. The idea is for professional teaching artists to integrate movement from modern, ballet, tap, folk and social dancing, and choreographic repertory to engage participants’ minds and bodies and create an enjoyable environment for artistic exploration. Because Dance for PD focuses on the aesthetic movement of dance rather than acting as therapy, participants in class are encouraged to approach movement like dancers rather than as patients. I think Olie's hunch was exactly right, and now I see a strong and consistent desire among persons with Parkinson's around the world who've experienced the class to explore movement and regain a sense of confidence and grace in a creative, musical, and social environment outside the traditional parameters of physical therapy and clinical rehabilitation. I taught the very first class, and worked with my colleagues John Heginbotham and Misty Owens to develop an approach and curriculum. Olie and members of BPG were instrumental in providing feedback about what worked and didn't worked, and that sense of community collaboration has been a consistent thread through the program's development, wherever Dance for PD has taken route.

Did you have any personal connections to Parkinson's before starting the program?

No. My interest in working with people with Parkinson's stemmed from an interest in teaching--I was very interested in opportunities to teach people other than professional dancers or pre-professional dance students. The thought of teaching people with movement challenges was intriguing--and it ended up being more satisfying and compelling than any other teaching I do. Interestingly, when we started, Olie didn't want us to know much about Parkinson's aside from some basic safety information. She didn't want the class geared towards symptoms--she wanted the focus to be on the artistic process and on learning the art and craft of dancing.

What is the connection between dance, exercise, and Parkinson's? In addition to physical benefits, does dance benefit the cognitive aspects of PD?

Dance and exercise both address balance and mobility, but dance addresses those issues by teaching people how to think about them strategically and consciously. Dancers spend their whole lives practicing ways to stay balanced and mobile, and in a good dance class, the teacher uses imagery, rhythm and technique cues to pass that information on. Dance also has a high adherence rate--because it's often more enjoyable than a straight exercise program, people come back week after week to work on their skills. That's why increasing numbers of people with Parkinson's around the world recognize dance as an activity that addresses physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs very effectively, and does so in a fun and creative environment. For me, the cognitive components are particularly compelling because in a dance class, you need to mirror, sequence, improvise, tell stories with your body, and attempt to achieve aesthetic and spatial goals (ie, where the body needs to be in space at a specific time) in very specific ways. When you compare the cognitive work that happens in a dance class with what happens on a bike or treadmill, you realize the dance class is on a very different level of thought and planning. I've heard comments about how much the class helps people physically but also makes them think hard. Music also plays a critical role in learning and executing movement, and many participants ell us how dancing to music helps them achieve a state of fluidity and mobility that they may not find in other movement forms.

We've attended your classes in New York, and there was such a strong sense of community among the dancers. In addition to the health benefits of your classes, has the program become a community for people with Parkinson's?

In many ways, the social benefits are as important as the physical benefits. Dance has a natural way of bringing people together, breaking down inhibitions and barriers, and creating a sense of exchange and collaboration, even between strangers. We also emphasize the communal elements of the experience--starting and ending class in a circle, creating group line, circle and partnered dances, providing time before and after class for people to relax and talk. What we find, everywhere in the world that Dance for PD classes get established, is that a connected community starts to form, and that sense of community grows stronger and stronger so that it overflows the walls of the dance studio and continues out into peoples' lives--they meet after class, outside of class, go to events together. The dance class and the activities in class act as a strong social glue that percolates into other areas of their lives.

How many participants did you have when you first started the class? How many participants do you have now?

We started with eight participants in Brooklyn in October 2001. In Brooklyn, every week, we now have 40-50 participants--and our classes in Manhattan (we have classes in seven locations throughout New York City) are all at capacity, between 25-50 depending on the space. Internationally, we estimate that thousands of people are now participating in weekly classes based on the Brooklyn model.

Have any of your participants' stories stood out to you?

We hear inspiring stories large and small all the time. One man used the tap steps he learned in the Brooklyn class to help him connect with the floor when he got out of bed in the middle of the night. One woman recently told us that she was able to enjoy herself at a wedding because she danced all night--and she was able to do that because she developed confidence and stamina in our class. Sometimes, a smile speaks volumes. A couple in Louisville told me that they enjoyed themselves more in the Dance for PD class than they had in the last five years. One of our Brooklyn students tells us that his doctor knows when he hasn't been in class, because certain symptoms are worse. One of our teachers shared a story about a woman who arrived each week with her back and shoulders skewed and frozen. She spoke about her back and shoulder pain and that she had been doing exercises prescribed by her physical therapist. In dance class she did the exercises very seriously, often instead of what the rest of the class was trying to do. In the more open improvisational phrases she always did the physical therapy exercises. As the weeks went by she began to watch the teacher more and try out the different movements the class was exploring. She stopped doing the PT exercises and she began to smile with the dancing. For the first time the teacher saw flow and expression and extension. At some point she tearfully came up to the teacher to say that her shoulder and back were remarkably better, that her PT was surprised at the improvement and advised her to “keep going to dance class!”. Every couple of weeks she tells her teacher again, with great emotion, how she credits the dancing with her improved mobility and comfort. I love that story.

Is there always live music accompaniment in Dance for PD classes?

In New York, and in several other cities like Seattle, London, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Houston, classes always have live musical accompaniment. However, there are many locations where teachers don't have the musical resources that larger cities have, and rely on inspiring, well-chosen recorded music. And when I go out and teach demo classes on the road, I often have to rely on recorded music. But here in New York, we are lucky to work with incredible musicians who are our partners. It makes such a difference to have another artist in the room, contributing ideas and creative input.

How many cities have Dance for PD programs? Do you have plans to expand them further?

The program is in more than 125 communities in 16 countries around the world. We are interested in further expansion, but only if it can be done sustainability in a way that the programs that get established are led by knowledgeable, compassionate, well-trained teaching artists and are set up using a collaborative model that ensures financial stability and reliability (we don't want a program that gets set up one year and then can't support itself the next year). We also want to focus our resources on deepening existing relationships to provide richer programming (performance opportunities, for example) and providing professional development opportunities for our network of teachers.

How did the movie Capturing Grace come about? What has the response to the movie been like?

Dave Iverson, who directed Capturing Grace, was working on a documentary for Frontline called My Father, My Brother, and Me, which explored the scientific, medical and political dimensions of Parkinson's through a very personal lens--Dave, his brother and dad all had been given a Parkinson's diagnosis. As part of that film, Dave visited and shot part of a Dance for PD class my colleague John Heginbotham and I were teaching in Oakland. And during that filming session, Dave was inspired by what he saw. He mentioned that he'd love to focus on Dance for PD more deeply on his next project, but I didn't know he was actually serious until he called me six months later and sent me a proposal for the film that became Capturing Grace. It was a great honor to work with Dave and his team on the film over a period of three years. Dave is an eloquent, compassionate and enormously gifted storyteller, and his integrity, passion and empathy for the Brooklyn Parkinson's dancers is evident through every frame of the film. Even so, I think the overwhelmingly positive response from audiences and critics and the string of awards the film received took us both by surprise. Dave and I have both used the film to stimulate important conversations about the value of dance and the arts in helping people live well with Parkinson's, and thanks to Dave's directorial choices, Capturing Grace makes the case for the importance of care in addition to cure when we're looking at resource allocations within the Parkinson's community.

Do you have DVDs or online courses that people can take from home?

Our At Home DVD series features three DVDs--each DVD has a complete Dance for PD class that can be done in the comfort of your own home. The format of the DVDs allows people to learn material directly from a Dance for PD founding teacher, and then practice that material with the teacher and members of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group. We want people to feel, as much as they can, that they are joining us in the studio. Each DVD also has a 'through class' as a separate set of tracks--so once you've learned and practiced each activity, you can just put the DVD on and do the class straight through without having to listen to the explanations. In partnership with Canada's National Ballet School (NBS), we've also started broadcasting a free monthly live stream from the Brooklyn and Toronto classes. These streamed classes are then archived and available through the Global Hub maintained by NBS, and they provide another way for people to engage with us at home.

Did you attend The World Parkinson Congress this past September in Portland? What were some highlights of the conference?

The Congress was a transformative opportunity to connect with a broad cross-section of the Parkinson's community. For me, the highlights were primarily in the movement-oriented and artistic areas--the breadth of activities in the Renewal Room and the terrific performance and film festivals. The Congress is such a unique opportunity for people with Parkinson's, doctors, researchers and those of us providing programs and services to the community to convene, exchange and learn from each other. I was also very honored and humbled to be one of three recipients of the WPC Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Parkinson Community. Eli Pollard, the executive director of the World Parkinson Coalition, which produces the Congress, deserves enormous praise and gratitude for her vision and abilities.

For more information, please visit www.danceforpd.org or call 1-800-957-1046. For information about Capturing Grace, please visit www.capturinggracefilm.com. For information about Moving Through Glass, an experimental dance-based app developed by the Dance for PD team in collaboration with SS+K, please visit www.movingthroughglass.org.


Thank you so much to David Leventhal for taking the time to talk about Dance for PD! We loved our experiences joining his class in New York, and look forward to visiting the Boston Dance for PD class sometime soon!

Photo Shoot for a Cure is a series of fundraising photo shoots benefiting The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. The series is produced by photographer Diana Levine, inspired by her Mom who was diagnosed with PD 11 years ago. To date, Photo Shoot for a Cure has raised over $9.000 for Parkinson's Research. We have shoots coming up in Boston, New York City and beyond. To stay up to date, join our mailing list, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Instagram