Dance therapy for people with Parkinson’s

Dancers with Parkinsons disease get into the swing of things

Dance for PD®, was founded in 2001, offering specialised dance classes to people with Parkinson’s, their families, friends and care partners.

This programmeme is now in more than 150 communities in 27 countries around the world.

Dance for PD classes allow people with Parkinson’s to experience the joys and benefits of dance while creatively addressing symptom-specific concerns related to balance, cognition, motor skill, depression and physical confidence.

The program’s fundamental working principle is that professionally-trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge about balance, sequencing, rhythm and aesthetic awareness is useful to persons with PD.

In class, teaching artists integrate movement from modern, ballet, tap, folk and social dancing to engage participants’ minds and bodies and create an enjoyable, social environment for artistic exploration.

The Dance for PD® approach

The Dance for PD® class is an aesthetic experience that uses the elements of narrative, imagery, music and community to develop artistry and grace while addressing such PD-specific concerns as balance, flexibility, coordination, isolation and depression.

The classes engage the participants’ minds and bodies, and create an enjoyable, social envirodment that emphasises dancing rather than therapy.

Dance for PD® started as an idea, was born as an experiment, and has emerged as an innovative global programme that has brought meaning and purpose back to those living with Parkinson’s.

In 2001, Olie Westheimer, the founder and executive director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group (BPG), approached the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), an internationally-acclaimed modern dance company that had just opened a new dance centre in Brooklyn. Olie proposed the idea of a rigorous, creative dance class for members of her group.

She also knew from her own dance background that professional dancers train their minds and bodies to execute difficult movement with confidence, power and grace. In doing so, they develop cognitive strategies that she thought could be naturally beneficial and enjoyable for people with Parkinson’s.

Simply stated, the class allows participants to explore the range of physical and creative possibilities that are still very much open to them.

The programme has also been an important catalyst in creating active, engaged Parkinson’s communities where there were none. In the act of dancing together, people learn together, talk together, and quality of life is improved.

More than 35 peer reviewed scientific research studies conducted at a number of major university research centres around the world, including Roehampton University, University of Florida, Queensland University of Technology, York University and the University of Freiburg, point to the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson’s.

A number of leading neurologists and movement disorder specialists around the world include Dance for PD® classes among a shortlist of recommended activities for their patients.

Julie Symmonds, a trained ballet and tap teacher now conducts these classes and offers training to dance teachers who want to train in the programme.

Julie has travelled to New York twice to train under the founding director, David Leventhal.

Together with her teaching partner, Carmen Davidson, they have pioneered its spread throughout South Africa and Southern Africa. Dance for Parkinson’s SA® have trained teachers in Gauteng, KZN, Eastern Cape, Western Cape as well as recently training a teacher from Harare, Zimbabwe!

“I love these classes. The music uplifts you and the classes delay your body from the stiffness PD brings. After the class we sit down and talk to each other about our challenges. We do not stop and go home. It helps to chat and sit with others,” said Deidre Barnard Visser, daughter of the late Christian Barnard.

Julie says: “I embarked on this journey nearly four years ago and I was still running a huge ballet and tap studio- who would have thought that four years later I would have sold my studio to pursue Dance for Parkinson’s full time. Every class brings a laugh, we learn to laugh at ourselves and each other while firing up the neural pathways and getting the mind and body to connect.

‘The biggest reward is seeing this special group of people regain a sense of control, self-confidence and purpose.

“The men are often wary and apprehensive, I suspect often bribed too, to attend a class, but once they have attended the first class, they keep coming back.”

For more information, call 082 978 2399, or visit