Brooklyn and the Mark Morris Dance Group -Dance for PD
Dancing for PD at MMDG, Brooklyn
During my stay in New York, I will be joining the Dance for PD programme for 4 sessions, so I decide for this first session to completely join in and dance as a participant, as much as possible. I have never been to Brooklyn before, so arrive very early and take some time to walk around the neighbourhood, and find myself on famous Fulton Street. Gospel music being toted, endless bright & flashing signage, factory shops, new shiny high rises jutting out of old shop buildings…its a rich walk.
Back at the Mark Morris Dance building, I get the usual flutter of apprehension whenever I find myself in a dance school building. Not an environment I am comfortable with. Up on the fourth floor, however, things are more familiar – lots of people with bodies of all shapes, sizes, and angles – plenty of wheelchairs, plenty of differences. This is the first day back after the summer holidays, and there are a lot of people there. Plenty of men, lots of women. I begin introducing myself to my fellow dancers, and hear that people have been coming to these classes for years and years – We love it, It’s the best. Just wait and see, and by the way, if you come earlier, there’s singing as well – thats great too. – We are in a big dance studio with chairs spaced out throughout the room. There’s a good reason for the spaced out chairs…we will need all the space possible…
People are making their way in, I’m sat on one of the chairs , shoes gratefully off, and then it seems, we’ve begun. Dave Leventhal, director of the program, has arrived and is sat in the middle, and begins to lead a very – how can I say – a very structured and traditional warm up. He has a very seductive and charming manner – he croons the directions and his body gracefully and beautifully shows what needs doing. I’m feeling a tad anxious about whether or not I’m going to be able to follow, but soon relax and let my body mimic, and become drawn into watching the dancers around me. Everyone’s following and keeping up – despite cramped and stiff limbs, and arrhythmic postures and movement,they are following along, and keeping in time. Faces are beaming, and we’ve only just started. Despite th size of the group, Dave skilfully invites each of us to introduce ourselves by name and accompanying movement – its lovely to see the wave of different movements and voices sweep around the room. He repeats this again and again, each time picking up speed until the room is awash with names and movement. Exhilirating.
On the MMDG website, you can read:” Dance for PD® offers dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease in Brooklyn, New York and, through our network of partners and associates, in more than 100 other communities in 11 countries around the world. In Dance for PD® classes, participants are empowered to explore movement and music in ways that are refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating and creative.”
Dance for PD and Dave’s teaching in particular is hugely popular and has reached a very wide audience – he trains regularly in England. Parkinson’s is one of the degenerative illnesses that has received proper study in terms of the beneficial effects of rhythmical movement and music.
Back to the class. Really, I have to admit I’m unfamiliar with this kind of dancing – I guess it’s a Broadway/Ballet fusion – the pianist is a virtuouso melody mixer, and his beautiful playing imbues our synchronised movements with drama and meaning – it all feels very flamboyant & fun, albeit fairly challenging at times. Although rhythmical and repeated, the range of movement is wide, and strong, and at times the sequences are quite complex. Honestly, I am surprised that everyone can keep up. Well, once we begin to stand up to do ballet foot work, not everyone is keeping up. Volunteers sit with those who need to remain in wheelchairs, and try variations on the foot work.
After the ballet, we are directed into moving across the studio space repeating themed sequences. There’s a lot of interaction with fellow dancers, friendly smiles and laughs. We end in a circle, holding hands, a round of nodded thanks going once round the circle, and then ending with raised hands and cheers.
I’m intrigued about the people who have come to the class. They clearly mostly all loved it, even if they couldn’t do it all. Some persevered quietly and determinedly, others who are perhaps more in control of their limbs, and more generally at ease, really performed. Carers and partners joined in as well, as did volunteer dancers – it was a very eclectic group. I would love to talk to people, ask how they are feeling, what they get out of it – all sorts. Generally, it feels very New York to me – I can’t but help wondering if you would get English older people expressing themselves so volubly. There’s an element of ready confidence needed to join in in that way.
The class is over for today, and a group of the dancers is all set to begin rehearsing for a performance. I look forward to the next session.
I finish my afternoon in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Museum. Incredible building – elegant and spacious. Wonderfully empty, and beautifully curated. I’m amazed by Judy Chicago’s 70’s feminist homage to all the unsung women throughout history – “The Dinner Party” – much more time needed to digest that piece of work.
The last piece was ‘Soundsuit’ by Nick Cave, made of dogwood twigs and mannequin – I was drawn to the prickly, creature nature of the form, it attracted me – and yes, I suppose I found myself thinking about some of the bodies I had been dancing with earlier that afternoon. Less a comparison, more a reflection on how the inner landscape of a body can be expressed outwardly. Through texture, quality, gesture and posture or song and sound…