Rockridge studio helps people cope with Parkinson’s through dance

Warren Brunetti would love to do a flash mob with his fellow dancers in San Francisco’s Union Square—perhaps a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The 72-year-old used to tap dance when he was a teenager, and since he joined a weekly dance class in Oakland, Brunetti realized how much he missed moving to music. Whether it’s working his arms during seated warm-ups or doing an impromptu performance with partners, Brunetti is inspired by dance and, for a time, forgets that he and his classmates are living with Parkinson’s disease.

Brunetti is one of more than a dozen regulars who attend the Dance for Parkinson’s Disease (PD) class every Thursday morning at Danspace, a cozy dance studio in Rockridge. The classes, catered to people living with Parkinson’s, offer participants a joyful reprieve from the severity of their symptoms and a welcoming space to connect with others.

“It’s one of those kind of diseases you think about every day and you worry about,” said Brunetti, who has been attending classes for the past two and a half years. “Am I going to get up one day and I can’t walk straight or am I going to get up one day and my voice kicks out? The dancing kind of takes that away from you and you just go with the moment. It helps you to keep moving.”

Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that has no known cure. Those afflicted often experience tremors, as well as slowness and stiffness of movement, which could make something like dancing difficult. But Dance for PD participants say they feel almost symptom-free while they are in class.

Danspace hosted its first Dance for PD class in 2007, when David Leventhal and John Heginbotham of Brooklyn dance company Mark Morris Dance Group—which often performs in Berkeley—offered to teach a special class at the studio. The Mark Morris group has partnered with the nonprofit Brooklyn Parkinson Group to provide free dance classes in New York since 2001.

Herb Heinz, who attended the first class in Oakland in 2007, was inspired to continue dancing on a regular basis—and later helped implement the weekly Dance for PD classes at Danspace. “The first dance class I took was a real life-changer,” Heinz said. “A lot of people in my class were more advanced in the disease. To see that people could move in some way, with some grace, was life-changing.”

After a well-attended first class in 2007, Claudine Naganuma, the director of Danspace, decided to travel to Brooklyn to train with the Mark Morris instructors and bring Dance for PD techniques back to Oakland. That same year, Heinz founded PD Active, a nonprofit that organizes a variety of programs for people living with Parkinson’s, including yoga classes, support groups and even a “salon”—a social gathering where people share their writing and artwork. The classes at Danspace are funded by donations to PD Active, and Heinz is seeking more funding to ensure that classes can continue, free of charge.

Naganuma is also the founder and director of a modern dance company called dNaga. She is working on a performance piece with the Mark Morris Dance Group, using the audio from interviews with members of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group to drive the movement. The interviews address how long it took people to tell others about their Parkinson’s diagnoses. Naganuma and some of her dNaga dancers will travel to New York to perform on November 11 at the Mark Morris Dance Center.

“There was a lot of masking or hiding it, which causes a lot of isolation,” Naganuma said, referring to the various ways interviewees coped when they were diagnosed with Parkinson’s. “[The piece] explores the notion of having a stronger sense of self and not really paying attention to other people’s judgments or preconceptions.”

Freedom from judgment is one of the things that gives Dance for PD participants the greatest joy.

“When you have a unique experience of life and you find someone else who has that experience who can share it with you, you don’t feel alone,” Heinz said. “And that’s important.”

Dance for PD classes take place every Thursday morning from 10:30 to 11:45 at Danspace. Click here for more information and visit PD Active to learn more about other programs and services available to individuals in Oakland living with Parkinson’s. For information on dNaga’s upcoming performance in Brooklyn, click here.

2 Comments

  1. Kathy

    This brought tears to my eyes! They all looked so happy!

  2. This is fabulous!!! Congratulations to Ms. Naganuma and everyone at Danspace for their good work!

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