Using Mirrors

Cyndy solo

Several teachers have asked about how we feel about using mirrors. Do they help or hinder classes? One teacher was told she should cover the mirror in the room.

In general we don’t use the mirrors but we don’t cover them either. We simply ignore them. Once in a while, we do use them as a learning tool (it makes it easier, at times, to teach in front of a mirror so that people can see the teacher’s back and front sides) but we don’t generally talk about the mirror or orient to it. I don’t see any reason to cover it though–that sends a strange signal in its own way, unless you’re hosting a class in Gaga, which requires that the mirrors be closed. Better, I think, to have the studio look the same way it does for other dancers and to integrate use of the mirror as a very limited, once-in-a-while tool.

As a teacher, I use the mirror quite a bit for safety–as a way of seeing people from behind to gauge how stable they are, and to perhaps pick up on something that’s happening in the room (or about to happen) that might create a complication or safety issue.

Big Pharma in the studio

Clinical research

One of our teachers was contacted by a pharmaceutical company about coming to class to recruit people for a clinical trial. Her instinct was to decline but she was also conscious of wanting to be a positive part of the PD community and facilitating connections where she could.

I think her instincts are exactly right. A polite decline is the way to go. What we offer in Dance for PD classes is a welcome oasis away from the clinical aspects of Parkinson’s, and I think it is in our best interest to keep it that way. It would be one thing if a pharmaceutical company wanted to underwrite the program, with no strings attached, or if a medical researcher was recruiting participants for a study about dance. But while there is certainly a great need to find subjects for clinical trials in Parkinson’s-related research, I believe the best service we teachers/administrators can provide people with PD is to create a space that is all and only about the art and joy of dancing.

What I usually do with this kind of request is to forward them to Olie Westheimer, the executive director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, so that she can let members of the support group know about these opportunities. If you are in contact with a support group leader in your area, that might be the best way to go.

—David Leventhal

5 tips for pleasing everyone

Louise and Judy compressed

David writes:
For many of us, our Dance for Parkinson’s classes began as small, intimate sessions for a handful of participants. Although the wide range of Parkinson’s symptoms and manifestations may be present, the tight-knit quality of those pilot classes somehow makes the diversity of abilities seem manageable. More importantly, from a dance perspective, everyone is a beginner in the class.

After the first year, however, things start to change. New people join the class (a new cohort of beginners); new challenges arise. The diversity of abilities and levels of mobility starts to increase, and we have more bodies to teach and monitor for safety. As our network matures, with some classes outside of Brooklyn reaching their nine-year anniversary next year, we are all faced with a major challenge: how do we keep our classes accessible, enjoyable and successful for a wide range of students at different levels of ability, energy, impairment, cognitive skills, and experience. Some of our veteran students have lots of experience—they know the moves—but 10 years on, they struggle more with basic motor functions. New students don’t know the steps, but they want a more rigorous class. “I want to push myself,” one young-onset student told me. “I’ve read the research on the possible neuroprotective effects of physical activity, and I want to harness what I can now.”

Pleasing everyone: it’s a lot of pressure for us teachers to handle. Here are some suggestions for ways we can keep everyone swimming happily forward at a pace that’s right for them. You probably have some of your own, so please feel free to post via Chatter or by email to share with others.

1. Find and cherish assistants and volunteers who are comfortable translating material for a wide range of abilities. We have individuals in our class who have considerable cognitive and motor challenges and who have a volunteer dance with them, one-on-one for the entire class. While this is not something we can reliably guarantee every week, when it is available, it creates a wonderfully inclusive dynamic in the class.

2. Rethink your own teaching priorities. As our classes progress, we as teachers naturally want to create exercises that are ever more creative, challenging and different than what we’ve done before. This is the natural progression that’s been wired into us as teaching artists. And it’s a good instinct for other populations. But it’s a progression that runs counter to the charting of a neurodegenerative condition. It can also lead to participants becoming discouraged and frustrated–and not coming back. I’m convinced there’s a corollary between the speed and complexity teachers introduce in class and attrition. I’d encourage us to use our creative powers to figure out ways to shed new light on more basic, simpler material. Think about your experience going into a beginning technique class now, as a more advanced dancer. Do you roll your eyes and get bored? Probably not—you might just welcome it as an opportunity to think deeper about what you’re doing, to add breath, to add imagery, and to enjoy a sense of mastery. Simpler material, sparklingly beautiful shorter phrases are much more welcome for a wide range of participants than a complicated, longer phrase. Repetition is another essential element–within each class itself, as well as repeated material that gets reintroduced over the course of weeks or months. Done well, through evolving sophistication, artistry, nuance and understanding, simpler material repeated through imaginative permutations can provide a sense of mastery, and that’s a powerful gift.

3. Layer your exercises. You know the scenario—eight members of your class want to push themselves, the other eight have considerable challenges. By creating two groups, with different material, you can establish a class dynamic in which everyone contributes. Maybe there’s a quicker, multi-part percussive hand dance that has a specific rhythm. You could offer three options: doing the full choreography, doing just one or two moves from the choreography (the stacking part, for example), or clapping out the rhythm. It helps, of course, to have someone else in the room to help lead the different groups. If you’re alone, you may want to start your rhythmic clapping group first, to get them in the flow of things, before bringing in the group doing the full phrase. This concept of counterpoint is a key element in choreographic structure—why not apply it to a class with multiple abilities?

4. Keep seated people centrally located. Once the class moves to the center and starts traveling across the floor, there’s an understandable temptation to move seated people to the outskirts on the sides the room. Here, they take on a less participatory position (even though they may be doing the movements), and the dynamic can transition to that of performers (standing folks) and audience members (seated folks). In Brooklyn, we made a decision as a teaching team to keep seated people in a circle in the middle of the studio for the ‘center’ portion of class. The standing dancers travel around them, past them, and through them, while the seated dancers do everything in their chairs and feel they’re at the center of the action. A seated teacher or assistant demonstrates the movement for the group, completing the strong sense of support and community they create among themselves. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. What about Pass the Pulse? After first regrouping the entire class in two concentric circles, we take a moment to transform into an interconnected ‘pretzel heart’ shape like this to finish:

Reverence with seated dancers chart

5. Consider adding a special class for young onset, newly diagnosed participants who are still working. We fought this for a long time, because we didn’t want to create levels that would require us to make decisions about who stayed in which class. But we heard so many requests for a class that would be available for those who are still working full time that we made a decision to pilot a ‘Dance for PD Plus’ this fall. A generous individual contribution made it possible to add this class to our budget. Although ostensibly geared toward working people with PD, we also predict that the level of mobility will be higher and that people would like a more rigorous and challenging pace. So the class will take place standing and will focus on mastering a predetermined set of key themes and skills during the 11-week semester. Participants will keep track of their progress through a simple skill checklist and a more extensive self-reflective journaling process that allows them to contemplate and analyze themes we raise in class. The class will meet twice a week and will be limited to 12 participants. I’ll look forward to posting a separate blog about this class later in the fall.

More ideas? Please share them!

Preventing falls

Photos 140 Amber

David writes:
I receive a number of emails from teachers and coordinators in the network who are concerned about the potential for falls in class. While falls are a serious matter, there are a number of ways teachers and coordinators can help mitigate fall risk during class with the understanding that some people living with Parkinson’s fall a lot, regardless of the environment or activity.

Modeling is a great way to reduce the potential for falls. No, this doesn’t involve fashion or runways. It means that at any time during the class, there is always one person demonstrating dance activities from a chair. We always do this in our flagship classes as a matter of course because we have several individuals who do remain seated during the ‘standing’ portion of class and they need a guide. But as Philadelphia-based Dance for Parkinson’s teacher Keila Cordova reminds us, it’s a valuable tool even if no one is doing the class seated at that moment. That’s because it reminds those who may start feeling unsteady that it’s okay to sit and that they are able to continue fully with the class when they return to the chairs. By always modeling seated translations of material, you’re providing a valuable guide and encouragement for people to work at their own level.

It’s also beneficial to remind people verbally throughout the class that they should feel free to translate material in any way that feels right, and that anything that’s done standing or traveling can be done beautifully in a chair. It’s valuable for people to hear that information week to week (and then to see one of the teachers actually manifesting that).

In terms of safety, one of the most helpful factors in our class is volunteers. We have 3-4 in each class, and they play a vital support role. I’m convinced that one reason we have so few incidents is that we have so many hands on deck, and people really watch out for each other. (Please be sure to check out our Volunteer Handbook in the Dance for PD Member Toolkit).

One more thing: teachers need to be able to break out of their ‘teaching as performance’ mode, which happens when you get excited, and step into the role of a support, individual guide, and assistant at various times in the class, and without much warning. And watch out for fancy content. By working on simpler (but still stimulating) material, and repeating it week to week to develop confidence and mastery, you’ll make beginning/intermediate students of all levels feel welcome, safe and in control.

Working with a frustrated student

David Leventhal writes:
A teacher in our network recently wrote to me about a situation in one of her classes. One of her students falls regularly, outside of class, and is experiencing some dementia. In class, the student regularly gets frustrated and agitated, particularly when she wants to move across the floor but doesn’t have the balance control to do so, and she has started crying quite uncontrollably in class. “You can feel the tension and anxiety rise for all of them,” wrote the teacher. “Is there a way that I can handle this so that everyone else is not uncomfortable?”

This is certainly a challenging situation, but I did have a few ideas (and, as always, welcome yours). Here’s what I wrote:

Aside from your teaching partners, do you have any volunteers to assist in class? Younger dancers? Retired people from the community who like dance and who want to help out? This sounds like a perfect situation for a volunteer. Assign that volunteer to accompany this student for the entire class and be her dancing partner. This will make the class special and accessible for her. She’ll be focused on working with the volunteer (who, by the way, can help translate the material for her to make it more accessible) rather than on feeling frustrated.

If that’s not a realistic solution, you might want to approach the woman’s husband. I’d gently ask him to make a stronger effort to assist her and dance with her during the class. Her frustrations are really difficult for you to see, and they are affecting other people in the class. Ask if he would be willing to help out more. But if he is resistant, ask if there is someone else in their family or circle who can come to class and help her out so that he can enjoy the class. Tell him you know how important it is for him also to have time for himself, so if they had a friend come, that person would be doing a wonderful service to both the husband and wife.

Unless the situation continues to be disruptive, I would try to avoid asking her to stop coming to class. It just goes against what we believe about these classes–they they are often the one and only way that people can still feel human and connected. But of course you need to use your judgment. If one person in the class makes it very difficult for everyone else, and none of the solutions above seem to work, you may need to go that route.

One more thought: for the people who remain seated, is there someone who remains with them and dances with them/demonstrates for them? It would be good to facilitate this in your class if it’s not already happening. Often, it’s not enough just to show and then go back to the mobile group without anyone staying with the seated group. If you don’t have the volunteer resources to have one volunteer dance only with this student, you at least want to try to have an assistant who can do the second part of class seated and form a group that works together to translate material for those who remain in chairs.

Have you encountered a similar situation? Please share your experience with us via Chatter or by emailing me for inclusion in this blog.