by Judith Sachs:

When I began teaching Dance for Parkinsons 7 years ago, my hope was that the grace and joy of dance would translate to daily life. The couples in my classes would come home and hold hands and have a cup of coffee.

That was not the case. Over time, as one partner became more movement-limited, the other became more frustrated and communication lessened.

As a matter of fact, in many cases, whatever was going on between these long-married individuals became manifest in class. She would yell at him, “Move your R foot, not your left! Why can’t you follow the teacher’s directions?”

I watched them together, waiting before class as though for a doctor’s appointment. They were together, but apart. Very little touching in most cases (not all), and anxious about the prospect of having to do something unfamiliar and possibly physically challenging.

I wanted them to touch as dancers do—closely, intimately. I thought about a tango, where, when looking at a moving couple, you can barely tell one set of limbs apart from the other.

True dance partnering includes:

  • The feeling of movement as an esthetic whole
  • Communication is tactile, verbal, emotional and social
  • Music is the motivator and sculptor
  • Imagination leads to storytelling, drama, imagery, humor
  • Partners get to know each other differently

With the support of Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, I designed a partner program, CLOSE CONTACT for COUPLES with PARKINSONS, to teach long-time partners to communicate differently. Over a 6-week workshop, they facilitate movement in new ways by surprising each other with cueing from breath and weight. My goal for them was that movement would grow to feel good together, like an embrace.

In an exercise with tandem walking, they learn and recall steps and improve spatial awareness and timing. They hold each other around the waist and do a “three-legged” dance, moving interior legs at the same time.

Laughter is a vital part of the work. I have them blow up balloons and move them between their bodies without using their hands. The cushion of the balloon makes a safe space before touching body to body.

In learning to help a partner out of a chair, I emphasize no pulling or yanking or gripping hands allowed. Rather, I have them hug, then rock together and count “1,2,3” out loud with the coordinated lift on 3.

People with Parkinsons fall frequently, so I teach them how to use a chair and a partner to get up. However, in order to learn to get up, they have to get brave and learn to get down.

Parkinsons makes the most common of activities – getting out of bed – a chore. Often, people wear silk pajamas or have satin sheets; and a bed rail to pull themselves to the other side. I demonstrate the impetus of arms and legs moving in space as I lie on the mat to show the rollover.

When I demonstrate what it’s like to get out of bed by lying on the floor and rolling, I am previewing what it might be like for them at home. They can use their imagination and recall, or they can, over a 6-week period, take the plunge and attempt the floor themselves.

Talking to each other while moving allows the person with PD agency and power of decision-making. They first work on assisting each other with a roll out of bed standing against the wall as a safe substitute for the floor.

Entrainment (where each person in line holds the waist of the person before him or her) allows the group to draw you along. And following via touch, without looking down at your feet, means you are using your body as part of a group body – you are less responsible for initiating movement yourself, which is often difficult for people with PD.

Over the 6 weeks of my first cohort in Cherry Hill, NJ, I watched this group of 10 grow into a supportive team made up of 5 very loving couples, most of whom had been together for 4 or 5 decades. The CLOSE CONTACT partnering was a surprise to them all and helped give them beginner’s mind about their relationships.

It’s easy to lose the ability to communicate … now they can start over with a new set of tools. I am enthralled with the possibilities of teaching this type of communication, which involves so much human interaction. May it continue!