Mercer Island’s Dance for Parkinsons’s disease (PD) class instructor Naomi Glass Schwiethale gets her students moving, a feat that can require “superhuman” effort for people with the neurodegenerative disease. Katie Metzger/staff photo

Renowned Dance for PD program comes to Mercer Island

For people with Parkinson’s disease (PD), the effort to initiate movement can be difficult, even “superhuman,” said Islander Marsha Karr.

But she has found some relief from the symptoms, along with a supportive community, at Dance for PD classes around the Eastside.

The globally renowned program recently came to Mercer Island after a collaboration with the Arts Council and Parks and Recreation department. It’s a new program at the community center, in addition to the regularly scheduled Parkinson’s Exercise Class and Parkinson’s Support Group that are offered.

Students in Dance for PD “learn to enhance their aesthetic awareness and grace while addressing such PD-specific concerns as balance, flexibility, gait and depression,” according to the class description. The classes are completely free to all participants and their care partners.

Each class features two teachers and a live musician, said Mercer Island’s lead instructor, Naomi Glass Schwiethale.

“Music can help infuse that natural sense of movement that can be lost or inhibited [in people with Parkinson’s],” Schwiethale said, noting that the scientific research around the health benefits of certain dance movements is “interesting.”

The Dance for PD classes are offered by Seattle Theatre Group (STG) for eight-week sessions in Seattle, Lynnwood, Kirkland and Des Moines, and Mercer Island as of Sept. 13. The next session runs on Wednesdays from Jan. 10 to Feb. 28.

Karr has been attending the classes since they started in Kirkland in 2008.

“The music gets you going,” Karr said. “It’s good for the spirit.”

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. There are some treatments, including medications and deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery, but no cure.

An artist who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004, Karr said that dance helps with memory, coordination and self-expression. Karr had DBS in 2013, and was able to return to painting as well.

The classes begin with participants seated in a circle, representing community, said STG’s Dance for PD Program Manager Shawn Roberts. They then stand, if they are able, then move to dancing across the floor.

Schwiethale teaches her students many different styles of dance, from ballroom and jazz to modern and barn dancing, and routines such as “The Jitterbug,” which was cut from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“They are real dance classes. They aren’t watered down. But they are modified, and designed for people with Parkinson’s,” Roberts said.

The classes are for all abilities, and mobilities, Roberts said. No prior experience is required. Still, the idea of dancing can be initially scary for people with Parkinson’s, Schwiethale said.

“It may be intimidating, but we have so much fun,” she said. “We encourage acceptance, so they can feel free to learn and try new things.”

Schwiethale grew up on the Island and graduated from Mercer Island High School, then moved to Texas to dance in the Houston Ballet. When she moved back, she wanted to contribute to the community by teaching Dance for PD classes, said Arts Council member and fellow Houston Ballet alum Erin Vivion.

The concept for the classes started as a nonprofit collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, and has expanded to more than 100 communities and 13 countries around the world.

“We’re lucky to have it on the Island,” Vivion said.

Vivion said she was interested in the Dance for PD program because the Arts Council wasn’t sponsoring anything dance-related at the time. The Arts Council advises the Parks department on all forms of Island public art, such as choosing the bands that play in the Mostly Music in the Park concerts each summer, or selecting the artists and art groups that will show their work at the Community Center gallery.

To register for the next Dance for PD class, visit Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation website at www.nwpf.org/participate or call 206-748-9481. If you have questions about this class, call Shawn Roberts at 206-518-5232.


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People with Parkinson’s in Mercer Island’s Dance for PD class learn a routine called the “jitterbug.” Katie Metzger/staff photo

The Dance for PD class begins seated, and is designed for people of all abilities and mobilties. Katie Metzger/staff photo

Dance for PD classes are completely free to all participants and their care partners. Katie Metzger/staff photo

Dance for PD students learn a new routine on Oct. 25 at the city’s Community and Event Center. Katie Metzger/staff photo

The next Dance for PD session runs on Wednesdays from Jan. 10 to Feb. 28. Katie Metzger/staff photo

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