Dancing for Joy

Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland is a joint initiative managed from Dance Base, Scotland’s National Centre for Dance and Scottish Ballet, delivered in partnership with Parkinson’s UK. Here, class leader Jen Cunningham and dancer Alison Williams share their experiences. 

Jen Cunningham: class leader

At Dance Base in Edinburgh, a group of dancers and musicians gather every Wednesday in a studio for 90 minutes. The dancers dance, the musicians play, and they share the space; moving, responding and connecting as a community, with laughter, playfulness and a lot of joy.

This is a Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland (DfPS) class – run as a partnership between Dance Base and Scottish Ballet – a class designed to specifically address the progressive symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, that is ultimately why everyone is there, but it’s also much more than that.

When leading a session my approach is that the class is a shared experience, a collaboration between everyone in the room. My role is to guide the sessions whilst allowing space for the class to shift and change in response to the collective energy in the studio that day.

That could be a simple heartfelt gesture offered across the space, imagining a golden thread reaching from the crown of the head and up to the sky, or being offered a drum to play alongside the musicians. These simple activities lead to smiles, relaxation and improved movement. The dancers also speak about how the effects of the class can stay with them for the rest of the day. When leaving the class, they feel empowered and in control of their own bodies.

The classes use live music. Sometimes the music leads and sometimes the dancers are the ‘conductors’ – sound cues ignite movement and spark imagination, while movements can influence the musical score. The musicians involved work intuitively with a responsive approach that lends itself beautifully to this class. Dancing to live music is a big draw for a lot of the dancers who come to class; the musicians know the dancers’ favourite songs and will play them as they arrive in the studio, which makes everyone’s day!

So, while Parkinson’s may be the underlying reason why everyone is in the studio together, it does not define the dancers in the room – you rarely even hear the word Parkinson’s – everyone is just there to dance (and to have a cuppa and a biscuit at the end, of course).

The project has grown a lot since it began in 2016 and now offers classes in seven locations across Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Greenock, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness.

In my role as dance artist I offer support and teaching assistance to the DfPS Hub classes running along the East Coast of Scotland. Working as part of the DfPS programme is extremely enriching, on an artistic and personal level and I am excited to be part of the project as it grows and reaches more people living with Parkinson’s.

Dance for Parkinson's Scotland

Alison Williams: dancer

“Happiness is contagious” one of the other dancers said to me in class recently. “I’ve been watching your smile all through the class, and found I’ve been smiling too.”

It doesn’t seem to matter what state of mind I’m in when I step into the DanceBase studio; within moments my smile emerges, and I’m beaming for the next 90 minutes. This has been happening since I first discovered the class four and a bit years ago.

If I analyse it, my smile is a response to a number of things: the sheer joy of moving through space – whether seated or standing – without restriction or self-consciousness to live music, and dancing in a community of people who are also on this strange adventure that is having Parkinson’s, or caring deeply for someone who does.

I know intellectually that the class movements and activities are carefully designed to counteract the progressive effects of this condition – increase my balance, range of movement, proprioception, my confidence; but that isn’t why I keep coming back. It’s the joy of ‘parking the Parkie’ at the studio door, and stepping into class as a dancer, not a person with Parkinson’s.

The physical effects are noticeable: my right/left coordination is significantly improved, and I can do other exercise regimes, for example, gym or walking, without having to stop and think which hand swings with which foot. More remarkable are the mental effects, for example improving my memory by remembering a dance sequence.

But most important for me is the emotional impact. A Parkinson’s dancer is quoted in a research paper by Sara Houston as “feeling lovely” in class. Moving to the story journeys that Christina, one of our teachers, takes us on, I imagine the path in my mind’s eye, and in my heart, and in my body, and I truly feel lovely. And my happiness spills over into my smile.