For a few minutes it was 1957 again, and they weren’t senior citizens, but Jets and Sharks.

For a few minutes they were not in a north Lincoln dance studio, but in a high school gym on New York City’s upper west side -- street gangers squaring off toe-to-toe face-to-face in the famous “Dance at the Gym” scene from “West Side Story.”

And for a few minutes, they forgot about Parkinson's disease. Forgot about the tremors. The memory loss. The struggle to move and speak. The uncertainty of tomorrow.

* * *

This past spring, professional dancer Ruth Davidson Hahn and Rhea Gill of Lincoln’s Pure Movement Institute piloted Dance for Parkinson’s -- a dance class for people with the neurodegenerative disorder and their spouses, partners and caregivers.

This fall, Dance for Parkinson’s will become a full-fledged, 11-week, 75-minute class running Sept. 3 through Nov. 12.

Based on the national Dance for PD program, created by Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Parkinson Group, the program is built on the fundamental premise that professionally trained dancers have the movement expertise to help people with Parkinson’s improve their flexibility, mobility and confidence.

Dancers know all about stretching and strengthening muscles, and about balance and rhythm, Davidson Hahn said. Dancers know about the power of dance to concentrate mind, body and emotion on movement, because they use their thoughts, imagination, eyes, ears and touch to control their bodies every day, she said.

Created in 2001, Dance for PD, is now offered in more than 100 communities in 30 states and nine countries.

Davidson Hahn, a former Mark Morris dancer, saw Dance for PD as yet another way to reach out and share the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of dancing. Last year she received a fellowship to train as a Dance for PD instructor.

Although the class is designed for people diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, it is open to anyone with a neurological disorder, such as multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and diabetes, Davidson Hahn said. She welcomes people at any stage of their disorders and will adjust lessons to accommodate any physical limitations. No previous dance experience is necessary.

The cost is $5 per class or $50 for the 11-week session; spouses, partners and caregivers are free.

“It is a lot cheaper than medicine,” quipped Jim Carr.

A former University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor, Carr was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2006, just before he retired.

Parkinson’s damages the brain cells’ ability to create dopamine -- the chemical that sends messages to the brain to control the body’s movements. Dopamine also is associated with pleasure and motivation. Low levels of dopamine often are at the root of depression.

“When you have Parkinson’s it is very easy not to do anything,” said Marjorie Larson, whose husband, Bob, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2007. Everything takes more effort, more desire and more determination -- the very things advancing Parkinson’s steals.

* * *

Each year about 50,000 to 60,000 people in the United States are newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s, joining an estimated 1 million Americans already living with the disorder.

According to the most recent statistics from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, 13,083 Nebraskans are living with Parkinson's disease, and another 4,979 people with symptoms were awaiting confirmation of the diagnosis as of a Nov. 8, 2013, DHHS report.

Shaking or tremors, slowness of movement or freezing midmotion, loss of balance and rigidity of joints are the most common symptoms of Parkinson’s.

However, by the time these symptoms show up, 60 percent to 80 percent of the dopamine-producing cells are damaged, according to the National Parkinson Foundation.

And current research finds that nonmotor symptoms of the disease can appear much earlier -- 20 years earlier -- such as loss of smell, sleep disorders and constipation.

Almost always the disease causes “cognitive changes” -- distractibility, disorganization, forgetfulness, slowed mental processing and “alterations in memory,” according to the Parkinson’s foundation.

* * *

Looking back, Bob Larson figures he began experiencing Parkinson’s symptoms in 1997 -- a full decade before his official diagnosis.

He noticed weakness in his right hand -- his dominant hand. A wonderful baritone singer, he sought medical care when his vocal cords stopped vibrating properly.

The diagnosis came soon after.

“It has taken away many of my activities. I used to race sailboats … now I can’t walk out on the dock without falling off,” Larson said.

He struggles with balance and admits sometimes it’s just easier to sit and stay that way, rather than get up and go.

His mind and wit are sharp, his sense of humor keen. But words frequently get trapped between brain and mouth, frustrating stutters and an occasional “damn Parkinson’s.”

He does not have the body tremors, But his jaw does a “constant yaw-yaw.”

So upon his doctor’s suggestion he chews a lot of gum.

“It makes it socially acceptable,” he joked of his jaw’s involuntary movement.

As the disease progresses, people with Parkinson’s lose their memory, their ability to speak above a whisper, their ability to turn over in bed or get up out of a chair, and their facial muscles lock their faces in a permanent emotionless state.

“It affects different people in different ways. And it gets worse at different rates for different people,” Carr said. “Some slide downhill very rapidly, others are able to hold it at bay.”

For the most part, Carr falls into that latter category.

“I can do most everything I’ve most always done -- although I can’t do it quite as well,” he said. “I’m still driving and singing and going to movies and exercise classes.”

* * *

Exercise is key.

In fact, long before symptoms get debilitating, doctors encourage people to keep moving, to strengthen their (body’s) core, to make big movements, to speak in loud voices, to work on balance and flexibility.

“Exercise is neuroprotective. It can inhibit cell death. It can work at the molecular level, said Gina Mailander, an occupational therapist at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

Amber Herrington, a Madonna physical therapist said intense exercise can delay the progression of the disease.

“And some people actually show improvement with exercise,” Herrington said.

According to the National Parkinson Foundation, intense exercise appears to help the body use dopamine more efficiently -- it has not been found to improve dopamine production.

The terror of Parkinson’s is not knowing where it will hit, when it will hit and how fast it will progress.

“If it is a muscle in your body, Parkinson’s can affect it. And, that’s a lot of muscles,” said Judy Johnson, co-leader of Lincoln’s Parkinson’s Disease Support Group.

Upon receiving a diagnosis, people tend to withdraw, she said. They become lonely, depressed. Some of that is the disease, and some of it is from the emotional blow.

“People just don’t want to admit they’ve got the disease. People tend to keep quiet. For most people it is a gradual disease. … There is no cure for it and nothing can be done about it,” Johnson said.

Physical, occupational and speech therapies are part of the medical protocol for the disease.

* * *

Dance for Parkinson's is not therapy. Nor was it designed to be, said Davidson Hahn.

The class is about the art, technique and the fun of dancing. It is not about Parkinson’s, and it is not called therapy, she said.

In the act of learning to dance and dancing together, people talk to one another and inspire one another to be creative and explore their physical potential, Davidson Hahn said.

Johnson was thrilled when she heard Dance for Parkinson’s was coming to Lincoln. She had been reading about it for years.

Yet, Johnson wasn’t so sure the class was for her.

“I have this dance phobia,” she confessed. “Nothing ever good happened to me at a dance. I enjoy watching it, but doing it myself … I would rather not."

Still she went. And she was pleasantly surprised.

“It was completely different (than what she imagined). It is not ballroom dance or rock ‘n’ roll dancing,” Johnson said. “It is movement. It lets you move to the best of your capacity. It was a completely different experience. And, I felt very good about it.”

Cecilia Rossiter, who was diagnosed in 1999 with another neurological disorder-- multiple sclerosis -- described a euphoria upon leaving the class.

“I walked out feeling so alive. I was so aware of my body and my body was so aware of the world, it was like being so alive,” Rossiter said.

That feeling lasted all day. And simply recalling memories of the class rekindles the emotional and physical high of that day, she said.

Once a professional cellist, Rossiter was forced to give up her playing. Although different from Parkinson’s, MS causes similar symptoms: falling, fatigue, numbness.

For Rossiter it has affected her eyesight, attacking the nerve behind her eyes.

“And yet, I’m doing well at the same time,” she said.

For Rossiter and her friend Priscilla Henkelmann, who also received a multiple sclerosis diagnosis “many many” years ago, Dance for Parkinson’s was an opportunity to be creative. To have fun.

“It was kind of challenging,” Henkelmann said. “It’s neat to be able to challenge your body and your brain in a good way. It felt good physically, and I felt somewhat empowered by the whole experience.”

***

It was that creative passion that led Davidson Hahn to bring Dance for Parkinson’s to Lincoln. A native New Yorker, she spent her entire adult life on the dance floor and stage, until she and her new husband, David Hahn, relocated to his hometown of Lincoln in 2001.

Davidson Hahn took a five-year hiatus from dance to care for her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and her stepson, who has autism.

Her mother, a former opera singer, no longer spoke or and was unable to use her hands to dress or feed herself. But when Davidson Hahn played opera music, her mother’s “soprano throat tones came out, and she clapped and used her hands,” she said.

“Music adds something,” Davidson Hahn said.

Then last summer, while driving down Cornhusker Highway she saw the giant billboard proclaiming that Nebraska had the highest rate of Parkinson’s disease per capita in the world.

“A light went off in my head, and I said I should do Dance for PD here,” Davidson Hahn said.

With backing by the Lincoln Parkinson’s disease support group, she returned to New York and her fellow dance instructor David Leventhal for two weeks of training.

The spring introductory sessions were so well received, that she has applied for grants to make Dance for Parkinson’s a permanent program in Lincoln.

Dance for PD incorporates a variety of forms of dance, including ballet, tap, improvisation, folk, theater and modern dance.

It focuses on balance, movement sequence and coordination -- actions that force the brain to follow, respond and think ahead. Movements that stretch rigid muscles and force nerve-endings to spark.

Dance for Parkinson’s incorporates elements of two other Parkinson’s therapy programs focusing on making big movements and using loud voices. Parkinson’s robs people of both abilities.

“The biggest thing with Parkinson’s is people’s movements get slower and smaller, but they don’t perceive it that way,” Herrington said. “What seems normal to them is actually small. We work on trying to increase the speed and size of movement and internalize what that normal feeling should be.”

A similar thing happens with the voice.

“The force behind the voice decreases and people are stuck whispering. It gets to the point that even if you stand beside them you cannot hear them,” Judy Johnson said.

“They don’t realize how quiet they are getting,” Herrington said.

With Dance for Parkinson’s integrating the best practices of other therapies, it serves as a reinforcement and reminder, Johnson said.

But perhaps even more important is the fun and camaraderie it offers.

You’re not alone. No one is staring at you. And everyone understands.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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