Dances of compassion

 Piano notes trickle lightly from the new dance studio near the Kennedy apartments, signaling the start of another class in movement, fluidity and most of all, compassion. The energetic voice of professional dancer Terry Grizzell echoes boldly off the walls, instructing his students in therapeutic motions. 

His students are a mixture of about 13 people with Parkinson's Disease and about three volunteer members of Gonzaga's Boundless Student Dance Club. But Grizzell and the club members gather here to demonstrate more than just dance moves.

"We don't know why it works but it seems to let people move more freely," said Cate Paul, who works at the Health and Education Center of the Parkinson's Resource Center in Spokane. 

Parkinson's is a neurodegenerative disease that causes a breakdown in the central nervous system, resulting in damage to motor skills, speech and other functions. Rigidity of the muscles, tremors and slowing or loss of physical movement can all result from Parkinson's Disease.

Saturday Oct. 17 was the third class put together through the partnership of the Parkinson's Research Center and Gonzaga's Dance Department. Yet, this collaboration is also affiliated with an already established relationship between the highly regarded Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group called "Dance for PD."

Dance for PD was started in 2001 and offers dance classes focusing on movement, muscle strengthening and flexibility, balance, rhythm, and connecting the mind and body. 

With choreography that draws from elements of jazz, tap, ballet, modern dance and social dancing, "Dance for PD" has produced results in helping persons with Parkinson's Disease experience heightened movement during their time in class.

Their method has been exhibited at podiums such as the International Congress for Parkinson's Disease and Related Disorders in Berlin, the World Parkinson Congress in Washington D.C. and at Neuroscience 2008 in Washington D.C., Neurology Now, USA Today, The New York Times and Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation have all featured articles illustrating the process.

The program at Gonzaga, which only began in the last month, can claim affiliation with Dance for PD because they agree to follow their guidelines, such as utilizing the choreography developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group, and having only live music during class. The live music combined with the specialized choreography serves as a catalyst, making it easier for participants to make neurological connections in the brain, which result in heightened muscle movement.

Paul holds a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Ministry from Gonzaga. She has been working for the Parkinson's Resource Center for almost a year, and explained the serendipitous nature of how this already established method made its way to campus.Grizzell, who works as a patient care representative in addition to being a professional dancer, e-mailed Paul suggesting to set up the classes. Paul then contacted Suzanne Ostersmith, the Dance Program director, through a colleague and found an ideal space in Gonzaga's new dance studio. 

"It's just fascinating how all of the pieces fell into place," Paul said. "Suddenly we had the instructor, and not only did we have an instructor, but we had an instructor who was trained by the Mark Morris dance group."

For Grizzell, the program is the perfect way to combine his career as a health care professional with his love for dance. 

"I've always wanted to work with a population that would benefit from movement," he said.

With the help of professional pianist Greg Presley, Grizzell led his students in an upbeat, supportive atmosphere. The tall mirrors covering the walls reflected the joy in the students' movement, which featured combinations of snapping and walking with changes in weight distributions. During a low-to-the ground strut, Marsha Feller, a participant who was there to support her brother, exclaimed, "I feel like I'm in 'West Side Story'!"

For Ostersmith, the new program is equally thrilling.

"To me, the thought of being able to have a facility where we can offer things like this and reach out to the community and make those connections is the best thing," she said.

The Parkinson's Resource Center is a non-profit organization, and asks for a donation of $5 from its participants for each class. Its leaders have applied to the American Parkinson's Disease Association (APDA) for a grant and are hoping to hear back this week. The grant would cover costs such as the pianist, the instructor, the rent on the space, and administrative fees.

Still, the collaborative spirit remains even when it comes to money. Paul provided an anecdote from an earlier class, illustrating the collective spirit. 

During one session, "Suzanne said 'I need $50 to go tune the piano.' One of the dance students said, 'Here's $50, go tune the piano.'" 

Evidently for the participants, the classes are priceless.

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