Olie Westheimer said “They need to dance”
Four words. No more, no less
She knew what she was talking about.
Intuitively. And with a lifetime of experience, dancing since she was a child. Knowing dance in every way dance can be known, the mystery of beauty.
Olie Westheimer encountered patients being cared for by her husband, Ivan Bodis-Wollner, M.D., a neurologist and director of the Parkinson's Disease Center of Excellence in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Many PD’ers hide in isolation, sometimes hiding their condition from the world for seven or eight years. But they opened up to her, and she saw their frustrations that their bodies didn't move like they used to. “I don't have a medical background at all,” she said. “But I knew that dancers use all the tricks in the book to get their bodies to do difficult things. I took a gamble. I said, ‘They need to dance.’”
And those who dance, begin to dance...
He was a lawyer with a major international law firm until he was side-swiped by Parkinson’s. Carroll Neesemann, on a Brooklyn corner, going into a studio where the music is loud, and he is with a former social worker and a former teacher, their lives attacked by an enemy they cannot see, and Neesemann’s L-Dopa pills no longer work much any more, and so his fate is sealed, except that…. There he is, with the teacher and the social worker, all of them afflicted with Parkinson’s, and for the love of God, they are burning up the dance floor, as the speakers boom “What Lola wants, Lola gets.”
Later, someone asks the former litigator just exactly what he thinks he is doing, and they get a witness-stand answer: “Dancing takes the symptoms away. It is wonderful to be in control.”
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in
Parkinson’s conspires to take away your control. Your control over your muscles, your control over your body, your control over your life. Neesemann fought back with dance. “It is wonderful to be in control.” And you only really know what he is talking about if you have experienced it: you order your feet to walk and they do not respond at all, because they are disconnected from you. They are no longer under your control.
Well listen up, Parkinson’s. Lola gets what Lola wants. Yes, we can dance.
…Judy Rosenblatt noticed only the music. A retired social worker who was diagnosed in 2004, she says it brings back childhood memories of folk dancing. At age 64, she glides across the dance floor, moving easily, even lightly.
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long.
Then she pulls off a show-stopper. This sweet retirement age woman, floating like a feather, goes sidestepping across the dance floor to a thumping boom-box chorus of “We Will (We Will) Rock You” by Queen, in the middle of which she somehow transforms it into an ancient Jewish folk dance. Good God in Heaven, how much do the tickets cost, so that I can see that again?
And people thank Judy Rosenblatt, and she speaks softly from a very high place. “It’s a pleasure. It’s easier to move when you hear the music, when you feel the music… when I feel the music, I feel free.”
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove.
When I feel the music, I feel free.
At the Mark Morris dance studio – with its world-class professional dancers, dozens of half-crippled people struggle in … hanging canes on the ballet barres and parking walkers in the lobby.
They are in for it. This is not a group therapy session. This is world-class international dance. Parkinson’s or not, you dance the full dance. You don’t get any credits for having a disease that prevents you from controlling your body. You have to do it all, just like any other student of classical and modern dance. No excuses, as if having a major part of your brain burn up and die was the same thing as telling the teacher the dog ate your homework. Teacher, I can’t dance classical ballet because part of my brain died. Well, they don’t care if you have a note from the doctor saying that you cannot dance or follow the beat. They are totally senseless to that type of scientific reductionism. Do you still have legs? Check. Got hips? Check. You can dance.
It begins with Pachelbel's Canon in D Major – yeah, that one. A sun salutation, arms stretched to the ceiling, palms together, up and over and down to the floor. There is beauty in every movement. Dancers who can’t walk are saluting the sun. This is not the path of least resistance.
Heginbotham demonstrates a series of poses known as the “embracing phrase” in the Mark Morris repertoire. Social workers, lawyers, teachers, all with Parkinson’s, and they are supposed to dance as if they were going to take the European capitals by storm. Well, yeah.
Ms. Westheimer, Mr. Heginbotham and Mr. Leventhal presented their work at the 16th International Congress on Parkinson’s Disease in Berlin in 2005. Their center has attracted interest from neurologists in England and Norway.
Dance me on and on.
And Heginbotham has precise demands about the next dance. Strong and sharp versus light and airy, sustained versus staccato…. Lots of sharp tap steps, clean and clear and distinct, and lift those toes up, lift those toes. And the dancers are activating mirror neurons in the brain, and the muscle memory. Because muscles have memory, and neurons in the brain can act as mirrors, reflecting the light you shine on them. The light of love and dance and music and reward - all take place in same circuits of the brain. The circuits that can replace the ones that are burnt out. The re-wiring that goes around Parkinson’s. Clean and clear and distinct. And lift those toes. The brain re-inforces old pathways, or creates new ones. Rehearse the sun salutation one more time.
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon.
And those who dance, begin to dance. And those who weep, begin.
And some weep for joy, to witness such a thing.
Olie Westheimer, finds nothing all that surprising about it. “You train your muscles and your body, but you really dance with your mind,” she says.
Bernie Pollack is there. A former health science worker, he cannot get around without a walker. "Balance was my big problem," said Bernie Pollack. A person who cares about him is ecstatic that his suffering has been defeated. “Before, Bernie used to fall a couple of times a week, because he couldn’t feel when he was off balance. Now, I can’t remember the last time he fell.”
Pachelbel's Canon in D Major does not allow for falling down. Break-dancing, maybe. Not Pachelbel.
And a researcher said, "The fact that there is a strong relationship between emotion and movement in Parkinson's disease has long been scientifically proven.”
A relationship between emotion and movement. You think? Some artists had notions about that; it is good to see the scientists can also prove it. The dreamer and the man of action. The romantic poem and the hard fact. Parkinson’s patients need both kinds of expertise, to find a cure for the wounded heart and the burnt-out brain.
We dance, but it is neither to remember nor to forget. We dance, right here, right now.
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Maria Parker sat in a wheelchair. She could not walk. Her hands trembled uncontrollably. The frail, 67-year-old woman has Parkinson's disease and did not appear ready to dance.
But she was.
She was ready to dance. If she wanted to, she could say, “I am ready for you, I sure hope you are ready for me.” But she did not need to say anything. Her silence said more.
She got up and slowly raised her hands, and then slowly lowered them. She closed her eyes. And this frail woman, no longer shaking, no longer crippled, appeared to be floating. She appeared to weigh nothing. She appeared to no longer touch the floor. She was graceful, flexible, pointing her toes, arching her back, and floating across the room.
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
And for 75 minutes, - how many of you out there dance for 75 minutes? - Leventhal, Heginbotham and Owens got all the Parkinson’s patients out of their chairs and put them through their paces. And this is hard, very hard: there were demi-pliés at ballet barres, modern dance and tap steps, and marches across the studio floor to the strains of "Seventy-Six Trombones."
For Robert Simpson, 58, of Manhattan, the class is transforming. "Before I knew it, I felt I was being lifted. It was a feeling of being transcended. It was so wonderful," Simpson said.
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Olie was right. They need to dance. Like they need oxygen to breath. It is not a luxury. It is something you need.
“What happens is that people aren’t living with the disease, they are defined by it, and their lives are a round of doctors’ appointments and therapy. Even a support group is part of that world, and I felt like they should be doing something else.”
Ms. Westheimer points out that some Parkinson’s patients intuitively use techniques similar to dancers’ to master or memorize movement. “They put a hand on the wall or another person as a cue to turn, or play familiar music in their heads to get up, or to start walking again if they freeze.”
Dr. Tagliati: “There is a constellation of symptoms that don’t respond to dopamine treatment, and we are still not very good at taking care of them. We don’t know what dance does, exactly, for these, but it’s a complex and fascinating area of research. And the idea of having something that is considered an expression of beauty and youth and coordination to help those with an inability to move — well, it’s romantic.”
Dance me to the end of love, dance me on and on.
Thanks and gratitude to these four journalists. The quotes from interviews in Chapter 2 are almost entirely from them (the adjectives and comments are mostly mine):
Parkinson's sufferers get their groove back through dance
Columbia News Service Nov. 1, 2005
Finding new life through movement
Neurology Now; Jan/Feb 2007
Getting Their Groove Back, With Help From the Magic of Dance
New York Times August 25, 2007
Mark Morris dance class aids Parkinson's sufferers
New York Daily News, Oct. 23, 2007
And also, of course, the Prophet Isaiah. Or was that Leonard Cohen? I often mix them up.