Q&A with David Leventhal on Dance for PD

Over on Stanford Medicine's Scope blog, I wrote a piece on Capturing Grace, a documentary about a dance program for people with Parkinson's disease generated by New York's Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). I had a chance to connect with David Leventhal, former MMDG principal dancer and current director of the Dance for PD program, and include our email exchange below.

In an interview excerpt, you mentioned a group of medical students who attended a Dance for PD session and been blown away by it. What was the nature of that exchange? 

During a Mark Morris Dance Group residency in Ann Arbor a few years ago, we partnered with the University of Michigan Medical School to do a panel discussion/dinner for their arts in medicine elective, and to open the doors of the Dance for PD class to those med students who could attend. We've subsequently done projects with the medical school at Brown University, and I'm currently teaching a Narrative Medicine elective to first year medical students at Columbia University, the first of its kind focusing on dance (most of the other seminars are based on creative writing, art viewing, or film analysis). The Columbia program is one of the best known; more here

In that same interview, you mentioned that American society has a real problem with where to fit arts into it. Totally agree and love that statement! As I'm learning about this program, it sounds as though it might be equally beneficial to the professional dancers in coming out of isolation of the studio and theater spaces as it does for the dancers with PD who come into them. What have been some of the benefits to you in teaching this?

In its small way, the program has helped change dancers' perceptions of what they know, what they do with that knowledge, and how they can serve their communities and society at large beyond the performing arena. Many professional dancers become quite cloistered in their scope--the demands of the job leave little room or energy for anything else. And when I used to perform in traditional theaters, I got an anonymous, indirect sense of your impact. It was often exhilarating, as performing can be, but also emphasized a sense of distance and separation. As a performer, you meet only a fraction of the people who experience and enjoy what you do, and you're never sure what kind of impact you're making. The Dance for PD program relies on the skills we dancers have spent our lives training to embody and represents a direct application of the knowledge we already have to provide an arts-based 'lifeline' to people with Parkinson's. In that way, a program like Dance for PD fosters a dynamic in which dancers can have an immediate, transformative impact on an individual's life, and we see it happening right in front of us. It's exhilarating in the most refreshing, satisfying way. So there's a mutually symbiotic relationship in which both populations (dancers and people with PD) expand each others' horizons and sense of possibility. I think that's what makes the whole thing tick.

Image, of David Leventhal and participants of a Parkinson’s dance class, by Eddie Marritz

Image, of David Leventhal and participants of a Parkinson’s dance class, by Eddie Marritz

It seemed like a perfect situation that the Brooklyn Parkinson Group approached MMDG for this partnership. It sounds as though the high-quality dance instruction you're offering through Dance for PD could benefit other other populations with specific needs. Have any other spinoff programs developed? (Dance for ___) that you know of?

I'm actually surprised there aren't more, particularly among populations with different movement disorders--MS, dystonia, ataxia, in addition to people who have experienced stroke or traumatic brain injury. There is a growing body of work that integrates dance into dementia care--a parallel track to our work, in a way, and not a spin off. The only other program I've worked with and helped develop was a Dance for Veterans program at the VA of Greater Los Angeles. The forward-thinking, innovative chief of psychiatry there--Robert Rubin--approached me to ask if I might help him create a program based on the philosophy and model of Dance for PD but for veterans dealing with psychiatric challenges, dual diagnosis and traumatic brain injury. I worked with some incredibly talented LA-based dancers, and the program is still going five years later. Aside from that, there isn't much...yet.

What do you feel live music brings to the Dance for PD experience, or any dance experience? MMDG has been so good in educating the public by always performing with it, yet so many companies and schools don't or can't make it a budget priority. 

Live music is a financial luxury, but an artistic necessity. Dance and choreography involve the nuanced, spontaneous translation of sound (music) into action. These days, most of the world dances to recorded music--in clubs, on stage, and in dance class--but what you lose is the immediacy of having a musical artist responding, coaxing, and creating a conversation about what's happening that moment. Having a musician in the room means there's a whole other layer of relationships that start to develop--musician and teacher, musician and participants. This dynamic is especially important in a Dance for PD class, in which we need to be able to go with the flow, change gears quickly, and slow things down with a glance. Live music resonates in the room in a different way; without sounding hokey, there's a very strong energy that gets created when a musician is in the room creating the music for you, and for people with Parkinson's who rely on strong visual and aural cues to get moving, the value and impact of this energy is undeniable.

Do the Dance for PD instructors modify class sequences and choreography for people with different stages or presentations of PD, or do the dancers know to do what they can, as in an open ballet or modern class?

Both. Dance for PD instructors are trained to think about the sequences they do at several different levels simultaneously, and to translate in the moment for specific individuals as needed. For example, once the class is standing, we always have a teacher remain seated to lead a sitting version of the dance the rest of the group is working on. And the team-teaching model means that we can demonstrate activities at different levels of complexity and speed simultaneously. But throughout the class, we remind the Parkinson's participants to re-choreograph anything that doesn't feel right to their body and to adapt as needed. So both elements contribute, we hope, to maximum satisfaction and participation. Improvisatory exercises sprinkled throughout class also open up avenues for people to contribute at exactly the level they're at. As we always say in class, there's no wrong way to dance in this class.

Are any medical studies being done (or have they already) in conjunction with this program?

Yes--please click here. We also just received a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to begin a randomized, controlled study of the Brooklyn program, and we are in the process of bringing a Principal Investigator on board to work with us.