About us

Why Dance for Parkinson’s Disease

“I am awed by the power of dance to transform and alleviate pain. Despite the steady advance of Parkinson’s, we show up. We move. We laugh. We share our best selves.”
—Patricia Needle, Dance for PD participant, Berkeley, CA (Hear more of Patricia’s perspective here.

“If we can share our love of dance, and we know the benefits of dance and music physically, emotionally and socially – the world becomes much more tolerable and compassionate for all those affected by PD.”
—Ingrid Hurlen, Dance for PD trainee and teacher, Seattle, WA

“In the consultation room, I often get on my soap box and give a little lecture about the important of physical activity, social interaction, mental stimulation…and Dance for PD gives all three of those.”
–Neil Mahant, MD, neurologist and neurophysiologist, Westmead Public Hospital, Westmead Private Hospital, Sydney, Australia

“Dance for Parkinson’s Disease is more than a possible therapy or treatment…it’s a dose of meaningfulness for these patients. It’s a small jewel that gets them working on something that helps them feel connected.”
–Jay Baruch, MD, Alpert Medical School, Brown University, Providence, RI

Program overview

Dance for PD®, founded in 2001, offers specialized dance classes to people with Parkinson’s, their families, friends and care partners in eight locations around New York City and through our network of affiliates in more than 100 communities in 20 countries around the world. Dance for PD classes allow people with Parkinson’s to experience the joys and benefits of dance while creatively addressing symptom-specific concerns related to balance, cognition, motor skill, depression and physical confidence.

The program’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 for artistic exploration.

Originally founded as a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, and now fully administered by the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Dance for PD program provides teacher training, nurtures relationships among other organizations to foster classes around the world, and offers an acclaimed At Home DVD series available for purchase. An advisory board, made up of world-renowned neuroscientists, neurologists, health care professionals and researchers, provides guidance and stewardship.

Dance for PD has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Dance Magazine, The Guardian and hundreds of other publications, as well as on NBS, ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS and NPR. The program has been honored by several awards, including the Parkinson Awareness Award, Alan Bonander Humanitarian Award, the Sapolin Award for Public Service from the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and the William Pearson Tolley Medal for Distinguished Leadership in Life Long Learning.

More than 35 peer reviewed scientific research studies conducted at a number of major university research centers around the world including Roehampton University, University of Florida, Queensland University of Technology, York University and the University of Freiburg point to the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson’s. A number of leading neurologists and movement disorder specialists around the world include Dance for PD classes among a shortlist of recommended activities for their patients.

Core Program Initiatives

  • Sustain and expand current flagship class oppportunities throughout the five boroughs of New York City.
  • Foster collaborative partnerships among Parkinson’s disease, arts, and medical organizations in other cities around the world to support establishment and sustenance of classes based on the Brooklyn model.
  • Train, nurture and certify qualified teachers in the Dance for PD approach and best practices, and sharing information with administrators and PD group coordinators so that they can carry out administrative best practices in support of local Dance for PD programs.
  • Offer engaging community classes and informative conference demonstrations, taught by founding teachers and Mark Morris Dance Group teaching artists, to share the joys and benefits of dancing with communities that haven’t yet been exposed to the program.
  • Create and distribute innovative, user-friendly instructional media products–including an At Home DVD series, Google Glass App, and live streaming capacity–to bring the power of dance and music into peoples’ everyday lives.
  • Develop and maintain online resources that serve to support, enhance, and expand the program’s mission as well as create a virtual network in which information and ideas can flow freely and enhance the working knowledge of practitioners and participants.

To fulfill our mission, we collaborate with key global partners including Dance for Parkinson’s Australia, the Dance for Parkinson’s Partnership UK, Dance for Parkinson’s Network Canada, as well as organizations like Houston Ballet, English National Ballet, GOTRA Ballet (Netherlands), Canada’s National Ballet School, Dance for Health (Netherlands), Dance & Creative Wellness Foundation, Berkeley Ballet Theater, University of Florida, Seattle Theatre Group, Danspace (Oakland), and Queensland Ballet, among others.

The Dance for PD® approach

The Dance for PD® program is built on one fundamental premise: professionally-trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge is useful to persons with PD. Dancers know all about stretching and strengthening muscles, and about balance and rhythm. Dancers know about the power of dance to concentrate mind, body and emotion on movement because they use their thoughts, imagination, eyes, ears and touch to control their bodies every day.

Please see an excerpt from our film Why Dance for Parkinson’s Disease. This film, made possible by a lead grant from the National Parkinson Foundation, recently won first place in the Society for the Arts in Healthcare’s 2010 Film Festival.

Dance for PD® teaching artists integrate movement from modern and theater dance, ballet, folk dance, tap, improvisation, and choreographic repertory. The Dance for PD® class is an aesthetic experience that uses the elements of narrative, imagery, live music and community to develop artistry and grace while addressing such PD-specific concerns as balance, flexibility, coordination, isolation and depression.

The classes engage the participants’ minds and bodies, and create an enjoyable, social environment that emphasizes dancing rather than therapy. Active demonstration by professional dancers inspires participants to recapture grace, while guided improvisation fosters creativity, and experimentation with movement.

“The fundamentals of dancing and dance training—things like balance, movement sequencing, rhythm, spatial and aesthetic awareness, and dynamic coordination—seem to address many of the things people with Parkinson’s want to work on to maintain a sense of confidence and grace in their movements. Although participants from all over the world tell us they find elements of the class therapeutic, the primary goal of our program is for people to enjoy dance for dancing’s sake in a group setting—and to explore the range of physical, artistic and creative possibilities that are still very much open to them.”—David Leventhal, Dance for PD founding teacher, Brooklyn, NY

Program background

Dance for PD® started as an idea, was born as an experiment, and has emerged as an innovative global program that has launched in more than 100 communities in 9 countries, impacting thousands of people with Parkinson’s, their families, and carepartners.

In 2001, Olie Westheimer, the Founder and Executive Director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group (BPG), approached the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), an internationally-acclaimed modern dance company that had just opened a new dance center in Brooklyn. Olie proposed the idea of a rigorous, creative dance class for members of her group. She also knew from her own dance background that professional dancers train their minds and bodies to execute difficult movement with confidence, power and grace. In doing so, they develop cognitive strategies that she thought could be naturally beneficial and enjoyable for people with Parkinson’s.

That year, two dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group—John Heginbotham and David Leventhal—along with a professional musician, started leading monthly classes for about six people. A third dancer, Misty Owens joined shortly the teaching team shortly after, and composer and pianist William Wade became the program’s lead musician in 2003. From the beginning, the Brooklyn classes were–as they still are today–offered free of charge in a state-of-art building devoted to dance.

In 2004, MMDG begin leading Dance for PD® classes in cities where the company toured, and developed a training program for dance teachers soon after. Dance for PD®’s founding teachers have offered more than 100 free demo classes and more than 30 teacher training workshops around the world. The original Brooklyn program serves as a model and inspiration for a growing network of Parkinson’s dance classes in 30 U.S. states, and in Mexico, Canada, Australia, England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Holland, Israel, and India. Meanwhile, enrollment in the Brooklyn and Manhattan flagship classes now averages 45-50 participants a week.

Throughout its expansion, the Dance for PD® teaching approach has remained true to Olie’s vision and fundamental ideas: that professionally-trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge about balance, sequencing, rhythm and aesthetic awareness is useful to persons with PD; that all classes welcome and include people of all abilities, as well as families, friends and caregivers; and that the class is about the art, technique, and fun of dancing, not about Parkinson’s and not called therapy. Simply stated, the class allows participants to explore the range of physical and creative possibilities that are still very much open to them.

The program has also been an important catalyst in creating active, engaged Parkinson’s communities where there were none. In the act of dancing together, people learn together, talk together, and inspire each other to explore their creative and physical potential through group singing, yoga, and fitness classes that complement their dance training.

As the program continues to grow, its teachers and leaders try to chart a course that is ever respectful and aware of local community needs, interests, and diversity. But whether the classes take place in Brooklyn, Edinburgh, or Pune, India, the fundamentals are the same: dance and music of the highest quality led by teachers and musicians who are sensitive, knowledgeable and passionate. And with its inclusive philosophy that welcomes all, regardless of ability or level of mobility, the program inspires people with Parkinson’s—and those close to them—to experience the grace, fluidity, and joy that dancing brings.

Where we’ve been

In addition to offering weekly classes for more than 500 participants in eight locations throughout New York City, MMDG has offered Dance for PD® master classes to communities in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Louisville, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Urbana-Champaign, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Orlando, Denver, Erie, Philadelphia, Toronto, Edinburgh, London, Auckland, Shanghai, and Tel Aviv, among others. Such medical centers as Evergreen Hospital (Seattle), Jewish Hospital/Frazier Rehabilitation Institute (Louisville), Zhongshan Hospital (Shanghai), Carle Hospital (Champaign-Urbana) and Beth Israel Deaconess (Boston) have hosted Dance for PD demonstration classes in their facilities. Such medical centers as Evergreen, Shands (University of Florida), Florida Hospital/Orlando, and Emerson Hospital (MA) regularly offer Dance for PD classes as part of their outreach programming.

MMDG/BPG’s teacher training workshops have led to the replication of Dance for PD® classes in more than 140 communities throughout the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, South Africa, Italy, India, Israel, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

The Dance for PD® method has been presented at the International Congress for Parkinson’s Disease and Related Disorders in Berlin (2005), the World Parkinson Congress in Washington, D.C. (2006), Neuroscience in Washington D.C. (2008), the World Parkinson Congresses in Glasgow (2010), Montreal (2013) and Portland, OR (2016). Dance for PD® has been featured as a model program at the Society for the Arts in Healthcare’s annual conference, highlighted in forums and webinars sponsored by such organizations as Grantmakers in Health and Grantmakers in Aging, and invited to present at the 2013 Culture, Health & Wellbeing International Conference in Bristol, UK; the inaugural year of the Lincoln Center Global Exchange (2014); and the 2016 Edinburgh International Culture Summit, for which it will serve as a Thought Leader for 2018.

The program’s focused initiatives in replicating classes, training teachers, and providing comprehensive support resources for teachers, administrators, medical professionals and participating communities around the world have been made possible by our generous and committed institutional and individual supporters.

To download a two-sided full-color flier about the program, please click here.

For additional press coverage about the program, click here.

Watch Olie Westheimer talk about the development of Dance for PD®.

Watch David Leventhal talk about the benefits of thinking like a dancer.