Bellingham dance class helps people with Parkinson's, MS try to move more freely

2/20/2011

The National Parkinson Foundation advises people with Parkinson's to exercise in order to maintain a sense of well-being, balance and movement in this article from The Bellingham Herald. Read the full article below.


Bellingham dance class helps people with Parkinson's, MS try to move more freely

In the ballroom of the YWCA, 10 people sat in a circle and waited for choreographer Pam Kuntz to direct them in their next dance moves.

"Big expansive ... and small in," Kuntz said while sitting in a chair. She demonstrated by reaching up with her arms and stretching out with her legs, before curling into herself.

Sitting in their chairs, the students followed her movements in the dance class created for people with Parkinson's disease, multiple scleroris and other movement and neurological disorders.

It's the second time Kuntz has offered the nine-week course, which she started with Bellingham resident Rick Hermann, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1998.

Kuntz, 40, teaches modern-dance techniques and creative dance skills from sitting and standing positions. The classes last an hour.

In one exercise on a recent Thursday, Kuntz instructed students to move parts of their bodies in circles.

"Try tougher spots, ribs," she said while demonstrating. "Your ear, that's hilarious, try your ear, jaw."

Live guitar music accompanied her and the students, who included Hermann.

"They help me because they're fun, and they're challenging. Pam does a great job. I appreciate that she doesn't dumb it down, she's teaching a dance class," said Hermann, 59.

Doing the movements helps relieve his symptoms, he said, although he still has problems with balance.

"It does help," he said. "I tend to forget about my Parkinson's symptoms."

INSPIRATION

A storyteller and choreographer interested in the lives of people in her community, Kuntz has launched dance/theater productions that delve into motherhood, aging, health issues, and women's images of their bodies.

Among those shows was "In the Context of Life," in which Hermann told his story about having Parkinson's.

Kuntz noticed that when she gave Hermann an idea to explore - imagining a piece of music that he liked and showing that music with his arms was one of the first - he gained more control over his body, and she could see the joy in his face.

Such explorations are known as dance studies.

"It was one of the most beautiful dance studies I had ever seen. He was captivating," Kuntz said.

After some research, they launched the classes. Kuntz continues reading and learning about Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis every week "so I can better understand."

About 15 to 20 people attend the classes regularly.

"I knew I was going to be inspired by them, but not to the degree that I have been. Their dancing is so beautiful," said Kuntz, who also is the founder and artistic director of Kuntz and Co.

Many people believe years of training are needed to express an idea in movement well, she added. That's not the case.

"You need to be, and the dancers in this class are clear examples of this, you need to be curious and connected and invested," explained Kuntz, who is also a senior instructor on the dance faculty at Western Washington University.

"That kind of commitment to movement is beautiful, no matter what level of training you have," she said.

FREEDOM

To the students, the classes offer a chance at control and a path to expression.

"It makes me feel like I'm doing this, I'm doing it now. I know that I still have Parkinson's disease, but the fact that I can do movement that is dance..." Hermann said as he attempted to explain how dance makes him feel.

Mike Mikkelsen was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1993. Since then, he has lost a lot of control over his muscles, he said, and that affects his balance and his ability to speak.

But he looks forward to Kuntz's classes.

"It feels halfway normal," the 78-year-old Bellingham resident said. "It's a real freedom."

Anne, his wife, added: "It's just another tool in the arsenal for Mike to feel like he's in control of his body, even for a short time."

Anne takes the classes as well because they are open to caregivers and family members.

Bellingham resident Karen Cook, who was diagnosed about seven years ago, said she doesn't have the motor problems that others with Parkinson's do - thanks to the way her doctor has medicated her.

Her disease shows itself in what she called "head symptoms," such as extreme anxiety.

"I get very rattled. I can't handle stress," the 73-year-old said.

It's also nearly impossible for her to follow new directions, anything from dances steps to how to program a digital camera.

And, yet, she said that "Pam's class for me is just a godsend."

"It makes me feel wonderful because I feel like I'm building new neuronal pathways," Cook explained. "I feel like I'm repairing some part of my brain."

There's something about being in a class with others with Parkinson's - with varying levels of grace and motor control - and knowing they're all struggling that keeps her going, Cook said.

Cook also finds inspiration in watching Kuntz move, saying that she enjoys the rhythmic walking they do near the end of the classes.

"I love watching her. I know my walking is stiff and awkward, but I have that model in front of me," Cook said. "By God, I'm going to get there."

ABOUT THE DISEASES

Parkinson's disease occurs when the brain stops producing dopamine, a chemical that makes it possible for the body and its muscles to move smoothly.

Major symptoms include slow movement, tremors, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and talking.

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system, which is the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.

It disrupts the nerve signals that are sent out to the rest of the body. Symptoms include difficulty with walking or swallowing, numbness in the arms or legs, as well as vision loss.

Exercise is vital for people with Parkinson's to maintain a sense of well-being, balance and movement, according to the National Parkinson Foundation.

Exercise also helps manage many symptoms of multiple sclerosis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Learn more about both diseases by going online to parkinson.org and nationalmssociety.org.

--Kie Relyea

© 2011 The Bellingham Herald

Print