Dance for Parkinson’s: An Insight

I arrived at Markova House half an hour early, keen to get a feel of my surroundings and have a look around English National Ballet’s  studios.  Learning Project Manager Ruby Wolk met me with a smile and a cup of tea whilst apologising for the “chaotic” atmosphere.  There was clearly a lot going on and an air of business in the building.  Ruby then introduced me to the Dance for Parkinson’s team in the studio and they were immediately welcoming and insisted that I join in – “You couldn’t be in the way if you tried!”  Instantly in dancer mode I asked whether it was a bare foot affair to which I was told I should wear whatever I am “most comfortable in” as with all those taking part.  There were a number of chairs arranged in the space in ripples and I wondered how these would be used in relation to the class.

Danielle Jones, Learning and Participation Officer and also one of the teachers for Dance for Parkinson’s, explained that every class has a fairly regular structure to allow for routine and to put participants at ease.  As everybody started to arrive, some proudly donning their ENB tees, people congregated in the space and began enthusiastically discussing the Lest We Forget performance that they had seen on Thursday;  “I kept looking at bits and thinking ‘I know that move!’”

It was a very relaxed atmosphere; a member even requested that the pianist, Nathan,  played ‘The Entertainer’ whilst waiting for the class to get under way, to which everyone bobbed along to in their seats, smiling cheerfully.

The use of repertoire, exclusive to ENB’s Dance for Parkinson’s programme means that members get to learn specific choreography from the current productions, whilst also having the scope to draw inspiration and create movements based on their own ideas.  Danielle explained that this was largely created through group discussion on the themes that are present in each show.  In this instance participants were asked to discuss their own feelings on the subject of war and what experiences they had of it, if any.  Chants and songs were shaped from this and then Jon, one of the musicians, composed a special piece for the class with their input.

The resulting class and atmosphere was really quite moving.

Danielle and Becky led the class in the centre of the circle, and we began sat on our chairs concentrating on the elements of our posture and foot placement to ensure a strong grounding and balance.   Breathing and vocal exercises were also used to release tension and inhibitions.  It was clear that the routine layout pays off, as participants were able to anticipate movements in the warm up and prepare their bodies accordingly.  Some members required extra assistance due to the severity of their Parkinson’s symptoms and /or mobility limitations.  For this, ballet barres, chairs and helpful teachers were an excellent way to ensure the maximum range of movement could be reached.  Partner work was also an excellent way to provide a level of intimacy and create movements based on the power of physical touch.  We were able to create some lovely examples of simplified contact work based around Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan’s duet in the show.  I had to adapt my natural speed of actions and level of control during this section to mirror my partner, which in turn provided some fascinating and measured movements.

After marching across the studio with morale boosting singing based on wartime songs, a final performance was carried out showing everything they have learned and created so far in the term.  It was clear from the affirmative comments I received from members that it has been a great journey for all those involved.

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When asking them the main motivations for attending the classes, unsurprisingly, the same positive answers were provided again and again.

Participants told me how it was a “great way to keep fit and meet lots of lovely people” and “something I can show off to my friends and family, as when they ask me what I’m up to that week I can say I’m attending a ballet class with English National Ballet.  That makes me feel like I’m part of something”.

Taking part in this session only served to cement my initial belief that what is on offer at ENB is a fantastic programme, providing not only the benefits that dance has for people with Parkinson’s, but also a unique insight into the way the Company productions are put together.

By Alison Jackson