Fifteen dancers belted out Broadway tunes on Tuesday as they synchronized steps and handled props of derby hats, feather boas or canes.
At least half the group also were strengthening their mobility and vocals in Happy Dance & More, a summer class for Parkinson’s patients to exercise and work on coordination. The sessions are open to people with the disease along with their caregivers and spouses.
Later this month, the group will perform for family and friends to highlight their work. The once-a-week class, which runs for six weeks, is sponsored by the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation in Spokane.
“For people with Parkinson’s, dance is really important for mobility,” said instructor Donna Douglass, who has a theater background. “I designed the steps so they’re very simple.
“If you look at the challenges that people with Parkinson’s have, physical challenge is a big one. They’ll start out being mobile, especially with early onset Parkinson’s, and eventually that person, depending on how it progresses, will end up in a wheelchair. It’s important to keep moving as much as possible.”
Actor Alan Alda agrees with that sentiment. On Tuesday, the “M*A*S*H” star publicly announced he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s more than three years agoand that he stays active to remain healthier.
On social media, Alda posted a video of himself juggling, with the words, “If you get a diagnosis, keep moving!” In his post, he says he takes boxing lessons three times a week and plays tennis. He told CBS’ “This Morning” the music of John Philip Sousa helps, too. “Marching to march music is good for Parkinson’s,” he said.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominately dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain. Symptoms generally progress slowly over years and include tremors, rigidity, gait issues, loss of voice and impaired balance.
About 1 million people in the U.S. live with the disease, says the Parkinson’s Foundation. Dance-based exercises are thought to help patients strengthen mobility, flexibility and balance.
Cynthia Lambarth is taking the Happy Dance class with her husband, Geoff Praeger, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2006. They’re also both in a Parkinson’s singing group called Tremble Clefs.
Lambarth has noticed that her husband’s voice is much stronger after class exercises, and singing, as opposed to when they take time off.
While coordination is an issue for him, Praeger, 72, said the class helps. He also enjoys the camaraderie and fun. He credited the energy and creativity of Douglass.
“I just heard Alan Alda on my car radio, and he just revealed he has Parkinson’s,” Praeger said. “His message was you have to stay active whatever way you can.
“You have to be creative with that because Parkinson’s is different for each person on each day.”
Al Greenwood, 77, also is in the class. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about five years ago.
“The class makes you use your voice more, so it’s therapy for me,” he said. “It helps with both movement and learning.”
For the past few years, Douglass has volunteered to lead the summer dance session at the Spokane foundation’s office, 1420 E. Sprague Ave. She also plays piano for Tremble Clefs, which takes a summer break but meets the rest of the year on Tuesdays at the foundation’s office.
Before retiring from Washington State University Spokane in 2006, Douglass also founded and directed On Stage!, a performing arts program for people with psychiatric disabilities.
During Happy Dance & More, activities focus on improving vocal skills and motor coordination through exercise and chair dances. Douglass, a music therapist, said the idea for a season-ending performance started last year.
“Last summer, we decided to do a showcase to demonstrate what we learned over the summer,” Douglass said. “I told them that we’ll call it a demonstration, and then someone said, ‘Let’s call it a showcase.’ We’re not focused on performance; we’re focused on the process.
“Last year, we did everything sitting, so it was chair dancing,” Douglass added. “This year I said, ‘We’re getting on our feet.’ It has been a challenge. I come home on Tuesdays wiped out, but I love it.”
A couple of Happy Dance members use wheelchairs or walkers, while most in the class have wider mobility. Spouses participate in the singing and dancing and also will be in the show.
A segment among female cast members involves them doing a simple dance using feathered boas, while they and the cast sing “The Bootleggin’ Blues.” Douglass said she has the group work slowly through all dance routines with emphasis on having fun.
Another routine requires coordinated choreography with canes as members move them hand-to-hand and over the head. They sing and perform to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “On Broadway,” with several of the dancers walking eight steps around the cane and then turning around to repeat eight steps.
At least once, early attempts at the cane dance drew more giggles than steps. Douglass said.
“I wish you could see how hard we were laughing,” she said. “First of all, we’re asking people to do more than one thing at a time. We usually sing. We’re doing a skit in reader’s theater style.
“The point is to show people what they can do if you give them a chance. The fact that they’re doing a cane dance is pretty amazing because most of them have never done this type of dance before on stage.”
In early practices for the show, any routine that doesn’t work well is thrown out, she said. Class members also offer ideas for the final performance.
Douglass said she buys or has kept theatrical props to use for the dance class and show, but she hopes in the future to receive some donations to keep the summer showcase ongoing.
“These people are incredible,” she said. “They just don’t give up their persistence and positive attitude.”
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