Dancing keeps Parkinson's patients positive

Bill "Curly" Sanders of Rockville, left, Sandy Lee of Kensington, Anne Davis of the District and Lynada Johnson of Columbia stretch during a dance class for people with Parkinson's disease. (Laurie Dewitt/the Gazette)
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By Jason Tomassini
The Gazette
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lucy Bowen McCauley says her dance class for adults with Parkinson's disease is more about improving her students' attitude than their physical condition.

So when directing a shoulder exercise that requires her 10 students, who are seated to preserve their weakened legs, to make a windmill motion with their arms, it's hard to know whether she's telling them how to complete an exercise or how to cope with the debilitating disease.

"Don't emphasize the down as much as the up," McCauley said last week, leaning forward in her chair at the Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring.

McCauley's students take her dance class largely because they choose to focus on the ups more than the downs when dealing with their illness, which attacks the central nervous system and eliminates control over even the simplest bodily functions.

"When the music starts, I can command my body, rather than it commanding me," said Bethesda resident Mimie Meltzer, who was given a diagnosis of Parkinson's eight years ago.

Nearly 1.5 million people in the United States have Parkinson's, a disease without any direct cause. Its symptoms include body tremors, muscular rigidity and balance problems.

At last week's practice in Silver Spring, the group was ironing out the final details of a performance that can only be described as an "up." The class performed Sunday at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage.

Two years ago, after McCauley went to a private teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., to learn how to teach dance to people with Parkinson's, she began the "Dance for PD" program. She partnered with the Parkinson Foundation of the National Capital Area, a nonprofit group that provides services for people with Parkinson's and their caretakers, and her Arlington County-based dance troupe, Bowen McCauley Dance.

McCauley begins classes with a half-hour of stretching and exercises for her seated dancers. The exercises are simple, but they reveal which of the members have the most severe forms of the disease.

Of the participants, Rockville resident Bill Sanders's arms and legs have the most noticeable shaking, which is the main physical symptom of Parkinson's. Sanders has had Parkinson's for 20 years, although only 15 percent of cases are diagnosed before the patient is 50.

Sanders is, at 54, by far the class's youngest member and among its most spirited.

"I thought I would be able to keep up at first," said Sanders, whose classmates nicknamed him "Curly" because of his long beard and hair. "But I found out if you can't keep up, just try harder."

After the stretching exercises, the class members move to their feet and the dance bar. With one hand on the bar to steady themselves -- "The number one rule is 'no falling!' " McCauley shouts -- the group goes through leg stretches.

At this point, some of the members become fatigued. Nancy Glass, 80, of Wheaton spends the rest of the class seated in a chair against the wall of the studio, because her muscles are just too tired.

"You never know what you are going to feel like" each day, said Glass, who has had Parkinson's for 20 years. "I didn't do very well today, but I've given up trying to be perfect."

When Glass was younger, she taught an exercise class at the YMCA and ran 10K races. Now, she said, she "will be walking along, and all of a sudden my body stops."

Most members of the class attend for the same reasons as Glass does: to regain some semblance of physical activity while living with a disease known for immobilizing its victims.

"I used to be afraid to dance, because I'd fall on my face," D.C. resident Ruth Foster said of living with Parkinson's before she found the class. "I decided I'm going to live or I'm going to die, but I'm not simply going to exist."

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