Moving Forward

S unlight is streaming across the hardwood floor of an activity room at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Branford Green. Laura Richling drags a few tables out of the way. Her dance class will be arriving soon, so she sets up a small circle of wood chairs with padded seats. Why the chairs? All of the participants have Parkinson’s Disease or a similar movement or balance disorder.

But “Dancing with Parkinson’s,” as the program is named, is about doing, not dwelling. The group in Branford is as sunny as the room they’re meeting in, and it’s hard not to feel joyful when Richling is teaching. As students arrive, she greets them by name with a big smile, and they respond in kind. Everyone settles into a chair, and she tells them the plan for the morning: “It being December, with all due apologies,” there will be some holiday music. Everyone seems game.

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The class, which runs about an hour and 15 minutes long, always begins in the chairs. Later, Richling will invite those who are comfortable to get up and move around. But first, they begin with some yoga-style breathing and arm movements. In leading the classes, Richling draws on her experience as a fitness instructor—she’s taught yoga, spin, cardio and strength training at Healthtrax, mActivity, the Yale gym and the Branford Senior Center—as well as her career as a member of Neighborhood Music School’s music faculty. But she also draws on her own, self-identified “goofiness.” Moves include shimmying and rib twisting and an arm sweep meant to simulate bowling. “Imagine you’re a hood ornament on a Chrysler!” Richling calls out, arching her back in a dramatic pose, and one of the six women in the class improves on the suggestion, calling back, “A Jaguar!” The class bursts into laughter.

Parkinson’s Disease, of course, is no laughing matter. Following a diagnosis, people’s lives become “riddled” with medical appointments, Richling points out. “It’s really nice to have an outing and an activity, especially with someone who you love”—participants can bring a family member, friend or caretaker—“that’s not focused on that.”

Student Eileen O’Donnell agrees. “I think of this sort of like the yin and yang of Parkinson’s,” she says of the class. “On the one hand, it’s embracing it—loving people, loving doing the exercise. At the same time, it’s fighting it off.”

Student Alice Locarno says she loves the dancing, then turns to O’Donnell. “That’s stretching the word a bit, don’t you think?” Locarno asks with a laugh. “It’s an elastic word,” quips O’Donnell.

Students often build friendships in the class, Richling says. One of the tenets is collaboration, so they aren’t just following Richling’s choreography. Instead, they create some of the movements themselves. This week, the group spells “DECEMBER,” taking turns coming up with a noun and a movement for each letter: Doughnut, Locarno suggests, and the class makes a big circular arm motion. (“With a hole in the middle,” Richling suggests, and opens her mouth, eliciting more laughter.) When they’ve finished the entire word, Richling teases, “As I said, it’s a deeply aesthetic experience.”

Not taking things too seriously seems to be one move in the class’s successful routine, though each session is carefully planned. “Sometimes there are particular sequences or exercises, if you will, that address an issue that people with Parkinson’s are dealing with,” Richling says. “Nevertheless, the main MO is that it is a dance class. It’s an artistic experience… The focus is not only, or not primarily, on the physical but on the artistic.” Everything that a dancer needs to think about—scope, velocity, shape, direction, grace of movement—people with Parkinson’s need to think about, too, she says—“all those things that were involuntary and now maybe are not so much.”

Richling has been teaching Dancing with Parkinson’s for a decade. She teamed up with a dance instructor friend who had been approached by Connecticut Parkinson’s Working Group to offer dance classes specific to those with the disease. They both trained with Dance for Parkinson’s, a collaborative effort of a Parkinson’s support group in Brooklyn and the Mark Morris Dance Group, then brought what they’d learned to Connecticut and created Dancing with Parkinson’s.

In 2009, at the request of the CPWG, Neighborhood Music School took over administration of Dancing with Parkinson’s. Since then another NMS faculty member, Rachel Balaban, has earned a new teacher certification from the Brooklyn organization. Richling teaches weekly classes in Branford and Middletown, and Balaban covers New London.

As much as O’Donnell and Locarno and Richling’s other students get from her as they stretch and twist and dance their way through pop and classical holiday music, Richling says she gains in return. It has been “delightful and interesting to come into this community that I was not involved in before.” No question, she’s having at least as much fun as her students are, turning out her toes and slapping her legs to the beat of a Frank Sinatra tune or swinging her arms to the classical organ piece “Noël.”

“Just follow along,” she calls out to the class. “Good luck!”

Dancing with Parkinson’s
Fridays 10-11:15am at Trinity Episcopal Church – 1109 Main St, Branford
(203) 624-5189 | lrichling@nmsnewhaven.org
www.nmsnewhaven.org/…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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