“We are not the Rockettes,” Virginia Belt joked, opening her arms emphatically to the crowd, lifting them over her head, revealing a warm smile as she slowly let her arms circle back to her center. “This is a non-perfection zone and we want you to take care of yourself.” Virginia was addressing a crowd of nearly 100 on Wednesday for an event titled, “Music Connecting Brain and Body”, in the ballroom at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Hillsdale.
Together with Madeleine Denko-Carter, Virginia instructs a dance class every Wednesday afternoon for men and women with Parkinson’s Disease. Yesterday’s class was particularly exciting, as it was part class, part special event with a few notable guests and more participants than usual, plus dozens of family and friends in attendance.
Madeleine began the afternoon providing a short definition of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) found on the Mayo Clinic website, for those of us in the audience unfamiliar with it. It is a “disorder of the nervous system that affects your movement,” she said. Throughout the class, we would learn more details but at the start, this was all we needed to know as she led into an introduction of the class’ mission. She and Virginia are both former professional dancers, with backgrounds in contemporary dance and ballet. They are teachers and choreographers, trained by the founders of the Dance for PD program, founded in New York in 2001 by the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group.
Dance strengthens and stretches muscles, exercises balance and rhythm. It helps with coordination and flexibility. It integrates your senses, heightened to hear, see, and feel. Extensive research by neuroscientists and doctors show that dancing has improved the lives of PD patients by allowing them to practice movement and mitigate some painful physical symptoms. And these classes bring people suffering from PD together, helping with the more masked, difficult to detect, but certainly just as pertinent, symptoms of PD such as depression and isolation.
Then there is the music to which we dance. I’m listening to music right now as I write, for instance. I don’t know what is occurring in my brain exactly but I can feel it’s effects as ideas are firing and I am physically moving to it, feeling more engaged with the space around me. Music sends sound waves into the brain, oscillating and vibrating in such a way that activates certain areas, lifting memories, triggering changes, movement and emotional responses.
Indeed, yesterday’s music achieved this as it was performed live for the class by special guest, Alban Gerhardt, visiting Oregon Symphony Artist in Residence. Alban, a cellist from Berlin, was evidently honored to be there and shared a story with us about a friend of his, an instrumentalist and composer in Germany, who was diagnosed with Parkinsons’ and worked as long as he was able to after the diagnosis. Alban recalled that during the first performances after the diagnosis, he would lose his way in the middle but the other players would stop and wait for him, and then he would start again. Although he can no longer compose as the PD has advanced leaving him unable, Alban recalls his friend telling him that “if it wasn’t for music, he wouldn’t be alive at all.”
Then Alban started to play. His cello was beautiful, the first singular, long chords filled the day-lit room. Following the lead of Virginia and Madeleine seated on the stage behind and above where Alban played from the floor, we all started to move. Arms around the room went up; some swung, some shot up, and some swiftly arced, bringing the hands above the head to meet. Most everyone sat at the edge of their seats, even the students in wheelchairs scooted as forward as they could. Everyone moved at their own pace, doing what they could and what felt right. It was not the precision of an Olympic synchronized swimming team, it was more like playground recess on the first sunny day in spring.
I watched a woman next to me, maybe in her 60’s, white hair matching a white blouse tucked in to khaki pants. She wore glasses with pearl-colored frames, white shoes that looked like ballet slippers, with a little white bow on the front. Resting in her lap, a fire-engine red purse; a flash of color like the one that spread across her face instantly after the first few moves, like two pink brushstrokes under closed eyes. I take it she was a regular to the class, knew the routine as she kept her eyes closed and still mirrored the same moves as Virginia and Madeleine, only slightly off time. We stopped after 10 minutes or so–my arms were tired. I can’t remember the last time I moved them so much in a sitting position.
Matthew Brodsky spoke after the dance. A neuroscientist and associate professor of Neurology at OHSU, the first thing he told us was that he loved music. He plays the guitar. “Music is therapy for everyone,” he said. He gave us an overview of the anatomy of the brain. With a slideshow of diagrams, he pointed out the areas affected by PD. There are trillions of nerve cells and 100 trillion connections. “It’s not just wiring,” he explained. Its parallel dimensions, so many things happening at the same time. I found myself, eyes narrowed and pen ready, wanting to absorb and process everything he said; somehow acquire a full understanding of the complex systems of the brain and neuroscience in a half hour. Additionally, I wanted to remember it all so I could provide it for you here. This is impossible, obviously, but I will tell you what stood out.
Dopamine levels are decreased in PD as nerve cells producing it break down. Dopamine has a role in many brain functions, including ones concerned with movement and behavior related to reward anticipation and pleasure. Dr. Brodsky reiterated the recent and significant shift in PD research as the emphasis on the input to the cortex and basal ganglia (two parts of the brain highly effected) rather than the output. I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this but he made it clear to us that music is studied as an important input and research done by neuroscientists has shown that music light ups areas of the brain, indicating activity, through its tempo, meter and rhythm similar to how those areas light up when they receive dopamine.
“Are we doped?” Virginia asked, getting into position for the next dance lesson. This time the movements were a little wider, grander than the first go as we swooped our arms low to the floor and back up, our feet and legs joining in this time with slow lifts and plies. We flapped our forearms in front of us, imitating the flight of a bird. Virginia and Madeleine appeared like mimes at times, wearing elaborate surprise expressions, silently mouthing directions as they led us through movements with our hands, grabbing at invisible objects hovering in front of us, and then letting those things go in a release motion by opening our hands outwards. We opened imaginary curtains and spread our arms out as far as we could. The only other noise you could hear other than the cello was a concert of jacket and shirt sleeves moving against the static hair and skin of our arms.
After we all bowed elaborately in our seats, Virginia and Madeleine explained more about the class. It incorporates all kinds of dance: tango, waltz, swing, dancing with and without a partner. The class is free and open to people at all stages of PD. Bill Denham was the last guest of the day and read aloud a poem he had written titled “Frozen”. The poem begins:
My love is no Snow Queen,
though we do speak,
with some regularity,
the word frozen
or the words freezing up
to describe her state—
Dr. Brodsky touched upon that symptom in his presentation, freezing up, usually at a door or some kind of impediment like rounding a corner or a piece of furniture. The patient will stop and have difficulty prompting themselves to move forward. Denham writes in his poem that he has seen her in the yard, frozen suddenly, her “shears and trimmings, held out for balance, as if making an offering.” But Denham expresses that the PD “does not touch her heart.” But music has, and the two of them move to it as they sing and dance, cry and continue to live.
Alban expressed his gratitude at the end of class. He loves performing as a means of outreach in different circumstances, for something else and somewhere other than the concert hall. He noted that he loves playing for young kids, “some of whom haven’t ever seen an acoustic instrument, so that they know there are other ways to express themselves. “He mimicked a kid texting with his head down after saying this. Someone in class asked about his cello, and he referred to it endearingly as his “good, old box. Made 300 or 400 years ago in Venice by a beloved cello maker, Matteo Gofriller.” He called it sturdy, good in the cold weather. Reliable. I imagine he has taken very good care of it and watched over it through the years. We all have to take care of the things we value, the people we love in our lives, and ourselves. It’s good when we find ways to do that together.